BY CHARLES DUCKSBURY
Whilst the rest of Europe anxiously awaits the decision on Greece’s financial future, the nation’s football clubs are trying their best to prepare for another league campaign. Unfortunately, it is becoming harder to entice players to head to southern Europe, such is the uncertainty that surrounds both the country and its football, meaning more stars are looking east rather than risk the financial uncertainty in southern Europe.
Last season saw Greek football reach its lowest point. There was a surge in crowd violence, including wild scenes before February’s Panathinaikos-Olympiakos derby as visiting coach Vitor Pereira, formally of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli, was chased from the pitch by angry PAO ultras, whilst one fan was killed before a derby game in Crete. Crowds dropped, and of the five teams that entered European competition, not a single one progressed further than the group stage. With club presidents at war accusing each other of match-fixing and the national team at its lowest point in decades following two defeats to the Faroe Islands, it’s little surprise that the upcoming Super League campaign is being met with little fanfare.
Based just outside of Athens in Piraeus, Olympiakos have won the league title five times in a row. Far from having any sort of competition, Oly won the title by 12 points last term, held a 17-point lead for the 2013-14 season and won the league by 15 points in 2012-13. Yet even though they’re monopolising Greek football, the future of the club is up in the air, as club owner Vangelis Marinakis was arrested at the end of the season on suspicion of match fixing and, as a result, was forced to give up the presidency of the club. The shipping magnate is accused of directing a criminal organisation, aiding blackmail and aiding bribery and fraud. Panathinaikos president Giannis Alafouzos and Dimitris Melissanidis, owner of Oly’s other city rivals AEK Athens, have both levelled the accusation at Marinakis for years without any evidence, though Marinakis now has to report to a police station every 15 days until a trial date is set.
On the field, Olympiakos are also feeling the realities of the nightmare being endured by Greece. In an interview with Spanish daily Marca, Olympiakos chief scout Juanjo Lorenzo explained “I have tried to convince players that the situation is the same as last year. If the situation continues then things will get harder for us because players will ask for more money to move in, or they will choose not to come and play in Greece.” One player who has already rejected the Super League this summer is former West Ham player Nene. The 34-year-old former PSG attacker was due to sign for the champions before having a last-minute change of heart, “There are many things still not clear. I know Greece is under a big crisis, so it’s better to wait and so I decided not to sign for Olympiakos.”
The financial problems experienced by some of Europe’s leagues mean that the Middle East is increasingly becoming an attractive proposition for players. Whereas in the past some saw the move as one last pay cheque (Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta to name two), many players in their prime are also making the move. Edu Vargas was one of the stars of this summer’s Copa America as he helped his Chile side win the competition for the first time on home soil. Napoli sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli confirmed at least one UAE club, thought to be Al-Ahli, was looking at the 25-year-old, telling a Chilean media outlet “We deal with many offers for Vargas. The UAE offer is very good for the club, but we’re also handling an offer from Spain, and also England.”
Last summer Olympiakos attempted to bring Mirko Vucinic to the club from Juventus. The Greeks’ main focus was on promising the Montenegrin game time and the high probability of winning trophies after a stop-start spell at Juventus. Unfortunately for the port club, Al Jazira stepped in and offered the forward around £3.5million per-year to head east. Not only could they offer Vucinic a much higher salary, they could also match Olympiakos’ promise of game time and the chance to win trophies. Whereas a few years ago the Greek side could probably have matched those wages, now it is impossible in a country wearing a financial straight jacket.
Other high-profile players have joined Vucinic in the Arabian Gulf League, showing the financial prosperity of the UAE, especially in comparison to some European leagues. Ryan Babel, aged just 28, left Kasimpasa of Turkey to join champions Al Ain. The former Liverpool star was coveted by teams in England and Germany, but opted to head to the Garden City instead, telling The National “Observers of Asian football have a good knowledge of Al Ain: they are a team full of stars and a history of achievements and championships.”
Babel is joined at the club by Emmanuel Emenike, who arrives on loan with a view to buy from Fenerbahce on a reported £3million annual salary. The Nigerian will replace Asamoah Gyan as the club’s first-choice forward after the Ghanaian scored an incredible 90 goals in 74 league games. Sold to make way for Robin van Persie, Emenike explained his move, saying “This is a big club with big expectations. I want to succeed alongside fantastic players and win trophies because that is what this club is all about.”
Olympiakos did manage to convince Anderlecht’s Luka Milivojevic to join for around £1.5million, and Panathinaikos have done the most high-profile piece of business, signing Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien from Milan on a free transfer. In a sign of the times though, the total spent so far by all 16 teams is just £3.6million, but taking away Olympiakos’ sizeable contribution to that figure, the total is just £1.3million. Compare this to the rumoured £5million fee agreed between Al Jazira and Schalke for Jefferson Farfan, the contrast in financial strength appears stark. Only in 2009 Panathinaikos could afford to spend £5million themselves on Djibril Cisse, yet now they’re relying mostly on loans and free transfers.
With Greek football clubs living a hand-to-mouth existence, perhaps the Middle East is becoming more and more a legitimate option for players who would normally pick a season or two by the Mediterranean. The Greece financial crisis is set to rumble on for months and probably years, meaning players are looking elsewhere. For some players the UAE or Saudi Arabia was a last resort, but now we are seeing a newer, younger generation heading to the desert.
CHARLES DUCKSBURY features in/for FourFourTwo, ESPN, Daily Mirror, CNN, When Saturday Comes and can be followed on Twitter @cducksbury