Despite suspension, Greece struggling to tame soccer bosses

PAOK owner, businessman Ivan Savvidis, second from left, approaches AEK Athens' Manager Operation Department Vassilis Dimitriadis, center, as his bodyguard and PAOK's players Fernando Varela, second from right, and Djalma Campos, right, try to stop him during a Greek League soccer match between PAOK and AEK Athens in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Sunday, March 11, 2018. A disputed goal at the end of the Greek league match led to a pitch invasion by Savvidis, who appeared to be carrying a gun. Savvidis came on the field twice. It's unclear this photos shows his first time or second. (InTime Sports via AP)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) Some say the legendary exploits of Alexander the Great are needed to cure Greek soccer of its violence and disorder. Others are hoping for a Herculean effort to fix the problem.

Short of that, however, Greek soccer remains mired in chaos.

The latest trouble occurred over the weekend, when the owner of PAOK Thessaloniki ran onto the field with a holstered gun on his belt to confront the referee and complain about a disallowed goal.

Ivan Savvidis, the Russian-Greek businessman who owns PAOK, didn’t use the gun on Sunday, but his actions led to yet another league suspension and prompted Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to evoke a famous legend about the conquests of Alexander the Great.

”At some point, we have to decide to cut the Gordian Knot, take collective action, and ignore the political consequences,” Tsipras said, referring to a simple solution for an intractable problem.

In the meantime, the government decided to indefinitely stop league matches following Sunday’s turmoil. In the potential title decider between PAOK and AEK Athens, a late goal was disallowed, leading to the uproar involving Savvidis and his foray onto the field in anger.

Savvidis apologized Tuesday for his ”emotional” reaction, while a Thessaloniki prosecutor ordered a judicial investigation into the incident. The probe will also examine why police allegedly ignored instructions from a prosecutor on duty at the match to arrest Savvidis on the spot.

FIFA strongly condemned the violence and sent a delegation to Athens for talks as the country faced the threat of suspension from international competition.

The league suspension is the latest attempt by a government to rein in Greek soccer’s powerful bosses, who have far-reaching interests in infrastructure, shipping, gambling, and the news media, and who operate against a backdrop of habitual fan violence and allegations of corruption riddled through the sport.

This week’s suspension was ordered 10 days after a court convicted 58 club officials, managers, players and others for up to 10 years in prison for a match-fixing scandal – including former officials from the league and the Greek soccer association.

Most of the sentences were suspended.

Tsipras’ 3-year-old left-wing government has twice before weighed in with violence-related suspensions, briefly stopping the league and cup competitions. And each high-profile outbreak of violence has rekindled plans for tougher surveillance, smart ticketing, and imposing tougher limits on traveling fans, as well as seeking assistance from abroad to monitor referees and match organization.

But fans and club bosses have continued to make the action look weak. Last month, supporters from a pair of rival Athens clubs chose a volleyball match for their most recent confrontation. Clashes spilled onto a street in a central neighborhood, and youths hurled gasoline bombs and flares.

Tension this season has been fuelled by the soccer league’s unpredictable outcome following a weak start by Olympiakos, which has lost the championship only twice in the past 21 years. The challenge is being led by AEK Athens, which has returned to the top league from bankruptcy, and northern club PAOK, which hasn’t won since 1985 but whose fans are famously loyal and hot-headed.

Dimitrios Malisiovas, a veteran sports commentator for public radio, said there is a general feeling of disappointment and sadness that the effort to clean up Greek soccer doesn’t appear to be working.

”Since professional soccer started in 1979, the problem has always been there. Violence and corruption,” Malisiovas said. ”It’s a bit like the Greek national debt: Too hard to pay down. Or like Hercules in ancient mythology trying to cut the head off the monster, only to see another appear. But that’s what we need to fix this problem, another Hercules. Someone who is fearless and determined.”

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