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Greece and the financial politics of football

Owning a football club has increasingly become a means of securing political influence in many European countries. The recent Koriopolis scandal in Greece is just one example of this.

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Football is no longer a simple 90-minute affair. Between tickets, merchandise, broadcasting rights, sponsorships and betting, the beautiful game has become one of the most profitable industries in the world. Off the field, multimillion-dollar transfers and sponsorship deals are becoming more and more commonplace each season.

Real Madrid paid close to $140 million for Gareth Bale last season, a relatively small amount considering that Real Madrid is the world’s most valuable franchise with a total value of $3.4 billon. The rising profitability of football has created an entirely different ballgame off the pitch that now stands to jeopardize the quality of the world’s favourite sport.

There was a time when football clubs based their revenues solely on selling match tickets, but with the development of cable and satellite technologies, football has become a truly global sport. As European leagues started reaching every corner of the world, new fans also became potential customers eager to buy everything football-related. Eventually, broadcasting rights became more profitable than selling tickets for key matches. In 2014, the Premier League made 1.5 billion pounds from selling the television rights to its games, as each team received a 26 million pound royalty for international broadcasting.

 The last Champion’s League final captivated over 380 million viewers worldwide. For many companies this type of exposure is unprecedented and multinationals fight till the end to sign sponsorship deals with Europe’s most successful football clubs. Sports manufacturers and kit sponsors alike are eager to have their logo on the front of a football jersey.

Despite Manchester United’s terrible past seasons, the Red Devils still sold an average of 1.4 million jerseys a year, which means over a million human-billboards for AON, the team’s official sponsor. Just like jerseys, leagues and stadiums are also selling their naming rights. Arsenal plays on the Emirates Stadium, named after the airline, and Atlético de Madrid won La Liga BBVA, named after a leading Spanish bank. 

For some international investors, jerseys and naming rights are not enough, as we have begun to see an increasing trend of club takeovers by wealthy foreign investors, starting with highflying Roman Abramovich when he bought Chelsea in 2003. Fast forward ten years later and nine top clubs in the Premier league are now under foreign ownership. From Russian oligarchs to Sheiks, billionaires are buying football clubs as if they were a midlife crisis token.

For a continent where being open to foreigners is almost as out-dated as buying a Blackberry, this buying spree sent nationalistic tensions soaring. Injecting large amounts of money into their new toys, foreign investors have given their clubs the possibility of virtually buying any player they like. According to FIFA, in 2013, five teams spent $828 million dollars in transfers. Amongst them, AS Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester City are all owned by foreign investors.

When Qatar Sports Investments bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, the French were outraged, perceiving this as an outright attack on French values. A rather mediocre club with a long history of racial tensions and hooliganism, PSG’s fans were not enthralled either by the prospect of having a foreign owner. But the Qataris hashed out a plan to make PSG a top-tier European team and in only two years they were winning the French League and selling hundreds of thousands of jerseys sporting their new acquisitions, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazil’s captain Thiago Silva.

Overnight, Paris was transformed into a football capital and today PSG has a real shot at winning the Champions League for the first time in its history. Fears of Qatar’s hidden agenda in buying the Parisian team are fading fast thanks to the club’s outstanding performance. As it turns out, it was mostly a strategic decision to diversify the country’s investment portfolio – while having a bit of fun along the way.

The PSG success story shows that it’s not the nationality of investors that should matter, but their intentions. While for some club owners investing in football can be a way to diversify their portfolio, for others football is the yellow brick road to power. Football’s popularity and success at bringing people together gives club owners an incomparable platform that facilitates their networking with powerful individuals.

It only takes a match ticket for a club owner to suddenly find himself in the power circle, surrounded by mayors, police officers, investors, and high-level politicians. That’s how an emerging football mafia builds relationships that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Only when backstage affairs stop being about the game and become a mere political tool, should football fans be right to clamour. Greece offers one of the most compelling narratives of what can happen when politics become synonymous with football.

The Greek paradox 

Evangelos Marinakis is the president and owner of Olympiakos, and star protagonist of Greek football’s biggest corruption scandal. Known as Koriopolis, the case around Marinakis and approximately 80 other suspects focuses on charges of bribery and match fixing. Despite, or perhaps because of, the severity of the case, the club owner’s name was conspicuously absent from the press and the scandal was soon buried.

The Olympiakos tycoon used Greece’s most emblematic team as a political and economic platform for his personal gain. The Koriopolis scandal cannot be reduced to a simple match-fixing problem, which is an increasingly common occurrence in international football. The Koriopolis scandal is a snapshot of how a football owner can use a club as a tool to benefit from a country’s fragile rule of law. During the Koriopolis scandal, Marinakis was both the owner of Olympiakos and the Hellenic Football Federation’s vice-president at the same time. In any other league this would create a conflict of interests, but in Greece, apparently not so much.

Olympiakos and the profitability of the football industry made Marinakis one of the most powerful men in Greece. Marinakis recently ran as an independent and gained a seat as local councilman in the port city of Piraeus, while his former club spokesman won the position of mayor. The ease with which both secured public office will definitely give new wings to the club owner’s political ambitions.

Football has the unmatched power to bridge social gaps and fuse together the motliest group of fans behind a common goalpost. Marinakis’ fortune could have turned Olympiakos into a top-notch team able to compete with the giants of Europe, giving its fans great players to watch. Even if the days when Greece uproariously celebrated wining the Euro 2004 are long gone, Greeks ought to remember that winning trophies means more than just charismatic individuals armed with woolly sweet talk and bags of cash.

About the author

Marcu Niculescu is a Romanian-born PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Maastricht. He has developed a strong research interest in social movements, with a particular focus on digital activism.


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