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Soccer

Financial gloom casts shadow over Greek soccer

With Greece mired in depression, its once-rich soccer clubs are hit by shrinking budgets, slumping salaries and dropping stadium attendances. As everywhere in the debt-hit country, modesty is the only way forward.

On a list of licensed soccer clubs handed in by Greek soccer officials to the European soccer governing body, UEFA, in June 2012, one of the country's most prominent club was missing - AEK Athens. It was no mistake by the Greek authorities to have left out the 11-time Greek national champions, replacing it with provincial club Asteras Tripolis in the vacant spot for the current 2012/13 season.

In summer 2012, AEK Athens were declared bankrupt by club president Andreas Dimitrelos.

"Club debt has reached 35 million euros ($45 million), out of which we owe 23 million euros alone to the state government," he acknowledged.

Since then, AEK haven't been the only Greek club to become insolvent amid the country's worsening debt and economic crisis. They were followed by clubs Aris Saloniki, Panionios Athens, OFI Crete, PAS Giannena, AO Kerkyra, which all fell foul of UEFA's rules for financial fairplay.

Highly indebted, they were banned from European soccer, but granted licenses to continue playing in Greece's main league, the Super League, on condition. One of the commercial strings attached to those clubs for this season was that they were not allowed to sign more than three new players above 24 years of age.

Greece's most prominent soccer club, Panathinaikos Athens, barely escaped financial ruin, ensuring participation in the qualifying round for the big-money UEFA Champions League at the last minute. Nevertheless, Panathinaikos' financial woes refused to go away, forcing the reigning Greek champions into arrears with electricity bills for stadium lighting. They had to ask Super League officials to play during daylight to save costs.

Rapid decline

screenshot webside

transfermarkt.de traces Greek soccer's commercial decline

Further evidence for the rapid deterioration of the clubs' balance sheets are this season's transfer expenses made by the 16 Greek clubs. According to German Internet soccer market watchdog "transfermarkt.de," they've purchased new players worth a total of 5.7 million euros this season so far - a far cry from the 58.7 million euros they spent in the 2008/09 season.

By comparison, British Premier League clubs have invested 775.8 million euros this season, while German Bundesliga clubs have spent 288.4 million euros on new signings.

Gloomier even are the latest budget figures for Greece's three main clubs, Panathinaikos, AEK and Panionios. At the start of the season, the country's leading soccer newspaper "Goal News" reported that they had declined by 30 percent, 65 and even 81 percent respectively.

Still, Greece's second and third division football are the hardest hit. Club revenues there are solely dependent on income from the state-owned sports betting and lottery firm OPAP. However, OPAP completely stopped funding the clubs in wake of soccer violence which had erupted at the end of the 2010/11 season. Half a year later, most of the clubs were unable to finance even operating costs such as insurance premiums for players. A settlement was reached between players association, PSAP, and Super League organizers, only after players went on strike.

Meager salaries, fewer stars

According to the international soccer players association, FIFPro, about two out of three professional soccer players in Greece do not receive their salaries on time - sometimes up to six months after pay day. It's a small wonder then that some of them appear to resort to fixing matches for income, as a betting scandal in the 2010/11 season showed. At the time, clubs Olympaikos Volou and AO Kavala were relegated for being involved in a match-rigging scandal.

The dire state of Greek soccer is forcing more and more top players abroad. In 2013, for example, Vasilis Torosidis left for Italian club AS Roma, while Nikos Sypropoulos joined Chievo Verona, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos signed with FC Bologna, and Loukas Vyntra went to another Italian club, UD Levante.

Djibril Cisse

In better times, top player Djibril Cisse starred at Panathinaikos

The drain of Greek talent has flung players from the country to exotic soccer places like Azerbaijan, Slovenia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates. In addition, higher taxes as a result of Greece's debt problems have driven renowned international stars out of the country. Top players, such as Djibril Cisse, Gilberto Silva, Sidney Govou, Rivaldo and Yaya Toure have all left in recent years.

Attendance at the stadiums, which was never excitingly high in Greece, has also dropped because supporters can no longer afford ticket prices. In 2008, stadium attendance was around 7,500 visitors on average per match, but this figure has dropped to about 4,600 this season.

Seeing chance in the crisis

However, as Greek soccer hits rock bottom, some believe it can rise from the ashes. Virtually cut off from funding top transfers of players, clubs are forced to foster home-grown talent. Portugal-born national coach Fernando Santos recently suggested installing a national championship for under-15 teams to identify gifted players for the clubs.

National efforts are underway to get to grips with the debt problem in Greek soccer. Georgios Sarris, president of the Greek Soccer Association (EPO), is currently negotiating a debt ceiling for the clubs, to be monitored by a body made up of officials from the Super League, EPO and the government.

The plan is said to include penalties for clubs which violate debt rules and which do not pay their players on time. Super League president Giannis Moralis described the plan as an indication that all sides are willing to initiate change. "It will depend on all of us if we are to emerge as winners from the crisis," he said.