It was supposed to be a mythical summer, it turned out a Greek tragedy. Both on the international and domestic stage, Greek football has suffered an unceremonious fall from grace. After a disastrous Euro 2008 campaign by the senior national team, last week saw the elimination of three Greek sides from their respective European competitions, with the group stages yet to start. The advances made over the last few years have been significant ones but the harsh realities of modern football have begun to hit the Hellenic nation harder than ever before…For the first time in its history perhaps, Greek football is now faced with an element of the football world with which it is alien: that of expectation. Whilst the national team by no means disgraced itself in the defence of its European crown, it faced a barrage of criticism from international media, the likes of which – however unbalanced – it must quickly become accustomed to.
It is in such a context that the disastrous form of its domestic clubs in Europe is such an embarrassment. For all of the improvements made on the international stage, that for a brief moment appeared as though they might have a spill-over effect locally, the unceremonious failures of Olympiakos, AEK and Aris have brought upon the nation’s football a heavy reality check. Clearly, there is work to be done.
The arrival of some top-class managers on the domestic scene in recent years has certainly helped raise the standard of football in the league but it is a sport often plagued by a stark lack of administrative direction and financial strength.
Such factors have been reflected in the shock exit of defending champion Olympiakos and traditional Athenian powerhouse AEK to Cypriot sides, seeing them eliminated from the Champions League and UEFA Cup respectively. Along with the exit of Aris at the hands of Croatian outfit NK Slaven Korpivnica, their combined failures may yet have a devastating impact on the immediate future of Greek football. An already weak co-efficient ranking in Europe has gradually suffocated Greece of lucrative entry spots into European competitions, particularly the Champions League.
The existence of Europe’s premier competitions has been the saving grace of a fledgling domestic system. It has proven the only stage where Greece’s clubs can better themselves as their flaws are exposed on a fortnightly basis by some of the best clubs in the world. In the case of the Mediterranean nation, whatever hasn’t killed it thus far in Europe has only made it stronger.
However, unless Panathinaikos progress past the group stages of this year’s Champions League and possibly battle its way through to the quarter-finals, the steady reduction of Greek representation on the continental arena will continue.
The lack of success this summer is in stark contrast to the renaissance experienced by the likes of Olympiakos, Aris, Larissa and Panionios in their respective tournaments last season, where the future of Greek football at least, domestically, seemed a little brighter.
The sudden decline of Greece’s best and brightest over the past few weeks are not necessarily representative of any sudden crisis which has developed over the past few months. Instead, the dual-shock elimination of Olympiakos and AEK – whilst reflecting the improvements made in Cypriot football over the past year – are the product of endemic problems associated with Greece’s clubs that have existed for many-a-year, and have now finally climaxed in rather embarrassing fashion.
The first and most obvious is the lack of financial strength of the supposedly strongest clubs. Whilst Olympiakos are undoubtedly the most sound in terms of structure from a business perspective, even their annual spending sprees – which have allowed them to monopolize the domestic landscape to a ridiculous extent – are miniscule in the context of most other European entrants (including those outside of Spain, England and Italy).
Obviously, there are two solutions to such a problem. The first is that all Greek clubs strive to achieve a financial and administrative foundation on which the Thrylos have built their success over the past decade. It is a success that should have been replicated by the likes of PAOK and AEK but both have fallen victim to financial catastrophes in recent years, often resulting from poor management of the club on a number of levels.
Such a transformation on the Greek football landscape would simply have to be widespread but would realistically take years to accomplish. It would involve certain sacrifices being made – particularly on the part of sections of the fan-base – but it would ensure that, as a whole, Greece would be able to start building competitive domestic sides on their own terms, rather than borrowed ones.
The second option? To convince the likes of Nikos Pateras and other prominent businessmen within the country to provide genuine financial backing to clubs. Demis Nikolaidis, on the other hand, had admirable qualities that were perhaps more suited to a technical director than a president. The problem, of course, with such a revival, is that it is based on the often fickle nature of the individual – and I am in no way referring to Pateras here.
If such investment became widespread, the risk of a Thaksin Shinawatra-style exit would become a realistic possibility and the effects of such a scenario would be devastating, rather than liberating, for Greek clubs, who in some respects could be considered a poison chalice for the more business-savvy.
It would be naïve and self-pitying though, if we were to attribute the complete absence of success for Greece on the domestic European stage to a lack of financial power. Much of Greece’s problem lies in the psyche of the clubs themselves, from the top of the administrative chain right down to the reserve goalkeepers. Where Rehhagel has introduced stability and a winning mentality to Greece on an international stage, the domestic sphere is an antithesis of his core ideals and philosophies that have transformed the Ethniki.
Where there is stability on the pitch at a national level, with the squad being gradually and thoughtfully transformed around a core of trusted players, domestically squads are torn apart and restructured with alarming regularity. It is no coincidence that such chaotic movements coincide with the well-documented coaching circus that exists across all clubs, but which is thrust into the limelight at an Athenian level. Ask Ernesto Valverde and Socratis Kokkalis about their last-minute construction of a Champions League squad – squads that have taken a decade to build in the English Premier League.
Granted, the world of the six-month coaching reign is quickly becoming common practice in some of the best leagues in Europe, but it is a flaw which they can afford and which Greece simply cannot. Such a modern phenomenon also tends to exist on a vastly exaggerated scale within the country’s bounds, where this pre-season Skoda Xanthi hired and fired a manager within the same summer.
If Greek clubs are to succeed, they simply must build for themselves playing philosophies and administrative structures over a number of years, rather than in the space of a pre-season. As other nations invest in the long-term future of their football and business entities, Greece suffers from a shortsightedness and schizophrenic character that is damaging its reputation abroad and its football at home.
The only positive from this whole tragedy? That it might finally serve as the wake-up call for Greek clubs who must realise that even wins against Cypriot sides cannot be bought in the space of a summer.