The relationship between businessman Ivan Savvidis and the Greek government is shaking after the PAOK owner stormed his team’s pitch at Toumba Stadium on Sunday sporting a handgun.
Sunday’s incident in Thessaloniki made headlines in the domestic media and circulated all over the world, tarring the image of Greek football once again.
At the same time, a political storm began after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ordered the suspension of all Super League and cup games — a footballing ‘Grexit’.
There is a consensus in public opinion, based on social media posts and comments made by opposition politicians, that suspending football in essence protects Savvidis and PAOK from serious punishment.
The Russian businessman — who is of Pontian descent, has served in the Russian parliament and has been granted honorary Greek citizenship — has been involved in several large-scale enterprises in Greece within a short period of time.
One of these was to buy Thessaloniki’s most popular football club — PAOK — and repay its debts from previous managements while investing to make the team a championship contender.
During the SYRIZA-ANEL administration, the controversial businessman developed a relationship with junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos, head of ANEL.
At the same time he has publicly praised Alexis Tsipras, saying that he reminds him of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tsipras, in return, said that he wanted to see PAOK win the Greek championship and thanked Savvidis for his investments in Greece’s economy. Kammenos also praised the Russian businessman for his economic contributions.
Savvidis took his presumed influence in Greek politics a step further when in an interview he slammed main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The businessman said that the New Democracy president did not have what it takes and that he would never be the prime minister of Greece.
The preferential treatment that Savvidis had from the Greek state regarding his investments and overall activities has been criticized by the press. He has visited Maximos Mansion five times, raising questions about his true relationship with Alexis Tsipras.
The first investment the Russian entrepreneur made was to buy the luxurious Macedonia Palace hotel, an enterprise that truly helped the local economy in crisis-stricken Greece.
Minister of Defense Kammenos was a prominent supporter of the businessman in a noisy debate in parliament about the deletion of a €38 million ($46.8 million) fine for tobacco smuggling which had been imposed on the SEKAP factory bought by Savvidis.
In September 2016, Savvidis caused a public outcry when he confessed that in a failed television-license auction he had played the role of the “hare” to raise the bids.
There was no reaction on the part of the Greek government, something that raised serious suspicions about Savvidis’ role in the auction.
Later Savvidis said that he was truly interested in investing in a television channel and other media. Indeed, he bought Epsilon TV and Ethnos newspaper. The previously neutral newspaper started adopting a pro-government slant in its reporting of the news.
The latest investment Savvidis made was the concession of the Port of Thessaloniki. During the ceremony for the signing of the agreement, the prime minister was present, saying jokingly that “after the port, now what is left is for PAOK to win the championship”. But there was more preferential treatment towards Savvidis — reportedly, the port is exempt from municipal taxes. This was a government decree that almost passed unnoticed.
Savvidis has declared that PAOK is his passion. He has pledged that he will do everything in his power for the Thessaloniki team to become champions. At the same time he promised that he will put an end to corruption in Greek football and managed, with his influence, to get his preferred administration of the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) elected.
However, even though he acted as if he wants to put an end to Greek football’s ills, Savvidis acted as the absolute ruler of the game by denying and condemning every decision by courts which dared to punish PAOK for the acts of its hooligans. When an object hit Olympiacos’ coach in the face during a PAOK-Olympiacos game, Savvidis appealed the court decision that punished his football club.
The appeals court, in a scandalous decision taken at 1 a.m. on Sunday, removed part of the punishment and gave the team back the three points deducted as punishment for the violent episode before the match with Olympiacos.
But, like a man who believes that he has the backing of the authorities, Savvidis stormed the field of play during the game with AEK when he did not like the referee’s decision to cancel a goal his team scored.
Reportedly, he told the referee “You’re dead”, while television footage showed manager Lubos Michel telling the referee “You’re finished” three times. Worse of all, a handgun Savvidis had in his holster could plainly be seen.
Threatening a referee and carrying a gun onto the field of play are offenses that bring grave punishment, according to FIFA and UEFA rules.
The government rushed to protect Savvidis by suspending the first division and cup football. Deputy Sports Minister Giorgos Vassiliadis said that the government took the decision in order to stop corruption in football, as if spreading the blame to all 16 teams of Greece’s Super League would protect the sport.
The tactic of smearing all so the one who is really to blame is absolved has been used before by the SYRIZA-ANEL government. Previous Deputy Sports Minister Stavros Kontonis suspended Super League games in 2015 after PAOK fans — again — stormed the pitch over a refereeing decision and clashed with police, leaving several injured.
Sunday’s events turned many Greeks against Savvidis and his acts, questioning his relationship with Alexis Tsipras and his cabinet. Even SYRIZA lawmakers took a stance against Savvidis and, consequently, against the preferential treatment the Russian businessman is getting.