Backed by Russian billionaire, Greek city celebrates title

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              PAOK chairman Ivan Savvidis celebrates with fans the Greek Super League championship title in front of the White Tower, in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, early Monday, April 22, 2019. PAOK won the Greek league with a round to spare after beating Levadiakos 5-0, 34 years after the last time the team won the championship. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
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THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Tens of thousands of fans in Greece’s second-largest city partied through the night and into Monday after PAOK Thessaloniki became the first team outside Athens to win the Greek league title in more than three decades.

In wild scenes of celebration, fans packed along the city’s seafront — hundreds holding red flares — to catch a glimpse of the winning team on a double-decker bus after its 5-0 win over Levadiakos sealed its undefeated run to victory.

At the heart of the party was Ivan Savvidis, a stout Russian billionaire who transformed the club and bet heavily on the northern Greek economy. Supporters chanted his name as he walked between two rows of flame machines during a celebration ceremony.

The 60-year-old businessman, whose family is partly of Greek ancestry, took over PAOK in 2012 and rescued the club from financial ruin, settling debts and building a 63 million euro ($70 million) roster equal in value to that of the country’s largest club, Olympiakos.

Savvidis, who made his fortune in agriculture in southern Russia, tapped into PAOK’s underdog status and broader resentment throughout the city, which believes it has been overlooked by decision-makers in Athens.

“We have laid the foundations for what I hope is the start of some great achievements,” he said late Sunday, speaking through an interpreter. “Let those in Athens think with a clear head: What they did to us made us stronger by the day.”

Over the past decade, Savvidis has invested in northern Greek businesses, some on the brink of failure, as well as television stations and newspapers that are generally supportive of the country’s left-wing government. Despite his popularity in Thessaloniki, he is seldom far from controversy.

Greece’s western allies have noted his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he served as a member of Russia’s parliament before setting up his Greek businesses. And Savvidis’ dream of building a major club was almost toppled last season in a league game against AEK Athens, during which he stormed onto the field to challenge the referee’s decision with a handgun holstered in his belt .

He remains banned from attending PAOK’s games, but fans late Sunday were forgiving, chanting under the White Tower, the city’s main monument, “Ivan, get your gun.”

PAOK last won titles a generation ago, in 1976 and 1985, and Larissa was the last team outside Athens to claim the championship trophy when it did so in 1988. Olympiakos dominated subsequent decades, winning 19 out of 21 titles before AEK’s victory last season. (Another Athens club, Panathinaikos, won the other two.)

The stranglehold fueled bitterness among PAOK’s owners and fans. Controversy surrounding big-game refereeing decisions, as well as match-fixing prosecutions in the top-flight league, prompted league organizers to use foreign referees at all key matches this season.

PAOK was founded in the mid-1920s by Greek refugees who fled to the city after a catastrophic war with Turkey and owes much of its loyal following to that history.

Not only veterans and fans feel that burden.

Vieirinha, PAOK’s Portuguese captain, wasn’t born the last time the team won the league. On Sunday, in tears, he received a standing ovation from 25,000 fans at Toumba Stadium, playing the last five minutes despite an injury.

“A great team like PAOK does not deserve to wait 34 years to win a championship,” Vieirinha said. “What we lived through this past year is a dream for every PAOK fan. I am one of them. I come from them. For me, PAOK means everything.”