Greek football crisis adds to national blues
An economy in pieces, a government caught in the headlights and there are rioters in the streets: it must be difficult for Greeks to believe in anything right now. Oh well, at least there's the football.
What's that you say? A match-fixing scandal, the sport's hierarchy in the dock, the start of the season in doubt...erm, anybody for wrestling?
Monday's slightly sensational revelation that Carlos Tevez has been "inadvertently dragged into" the Greek football crisis is just the latest chapter in a familiar tale of poor governance, sharp practice and brutish criminality. There is, of course, no suggestion of any wrongdoing on Tevez's part but the situation in Greece is dramatically different.
Bochum, Finland, phoney friendlies in Turkey, South Korea - football's match-fixing scandals are coming thick and fast and it is not just football, even sumo-wrestling is crooked now.
Just as performance-enhanced drugs once threatened to entirely destroy professional sport's credibility (and that battle isn't over), the fixers and fraudsters are at the gates now and the defences look very stretched.
But before we survey the entire theatre of operations, I should explain what is happening in Greece a little better, because it is both a particularly shocking case and indicative of how vulnerable sport can be if it ignores the warning signs.
Olympiakos Piraeus president Vangelis Marinakis has been named as a suspect in the match-fixing scandal. Photo: Reuters
Greek football's problems were first flagged up two years ago when Uefa sent the Hellenic Football Federation a file detailing 22 second-tier matches, played January-May 2009, which showed evidence of match-fixing.
This evidence came from the European governing body's "Betting Fraud Detection System" (BFDS), a service that uses computer analysis to find suspicious gambling patterns. A second file contained evidence of eyebrow-raising results in Greece's cup competition too.
Uefa watched and waited for a response from the Greek authorities. And then waited some more.
Six months and two further bundles of evidence later, the number of games to fail the BFDS test had grown to 39 and now included top-flight football and many of the country's biggest teams. And still Uefa waited for some flicker of concern in Greece.
Earlier this year, the drachma dropped. Uefa's reports were cropping up in the Greek media and veiled threats of European exile for the country's clubs poked the political class into action. If football could not or would not tackle the issue, perhaps the criminal justice system should.
So, in February, a state prosecutor met four senior officials from Uefa at Athens airport to hear what they had been trying to tell Greek football officials, without much obvious sign of success, for 18 months.
The meeting lasted four hours and during that time the Uefa delegation outlined just how corrupt the country's leagues had become and how worried the Swiss-based organisation was about where Greek football was heading.
This story was broken by the Greek journalist Ferry Batzoglou and he told me this was a game-changing moment. Football had failed to police itself, leaving the way open for politicians and prosecutors to take charge.
The results of that shift were seen last week when Vangelis Marinakis, the president of Olympiakos and Greece's equivalent of the Premier League, was named as a suspect in the match-fixing scandal. His name was the pick of 84 other officials and players already charged, including two other Super League club presidents.
And the list of suspect games has grown to 54, with last season's decider between Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, the two most famous teams in Greece, being one of the new additions.
When Deputy Culture Minister Giorgos Nikitiadis said this was "the darkest day in the history of Greek football" it was probably the first pronouncement by a politician anybody in the country had entirely agreed with for months.
The Greeks know a thing or two about tragedies so they should be capable of arresting the slow death of professional football (providing they get on with it).
They also have a fine tradition of irony, so the fact the only Super League team not to be mentioned in these dismal dispatches are Iraklis Thessaloniki will not be lost on many.
Iraklis have been relegated from Greece's top flight for various alleged misdemeanours and are now heading to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to reverse this decision.
They have been here before. Iraklis, one of the oldest clubs in the country, took the Greek FA to CAS last year to overturn a fine and are digging in for a long tussle over their demotion.
Greece and Olympiakos defender Avraam Papadopoulos has been named as a suspect
The club's lawyers have written to Uefa to demand an investigation into their case, which they claim has got personal for Sofoklis Pilavios, the Greek FA's president.
Whether that is true or not remains to be seen but Pilavios' position has just got weaker. On Monday, the Greek media got hold of a taped conversation between the Greek FA chief and Achilleas Beos, the president of Super League team Olympiakos Volou. Pilavios and Beos, one of the most high-profile names implicated in the anti-corruption sting, appear to be discussing the allocation of referees for top-flight games.
Dr Gregory Ioannidis, the British-based lawyer representing Iraklis, told me this is indicative of how the sport is run in Greece.
"This is threatening to embarrass not only Greece but also European football," he said. "The evidence suggests there is an organised syndicate profiting from illegal betting.
"This could end up being more serious than the Italian scandal (of 2006 that saw Juventus stripped of a Serie A title and relegated to Serie B) because this involves the threat of violence.
"If the authorities do not act, I fear Uefa will ban Greek clubs and the national team from European competition. In terms of sporting sanctions, the framework is clear."
Pilavios has recently called a two-week halt to all football business in Greece in order to deal with the crisis. That pause could become more permanent, though, as the investigation spreads and Iraklis tie the football authorities up in appeals. A punctual start to next season is looking unlikely.
If chaos (another fine Greek word) is the order of the day in Athens, politicians in Brussels are attempting to find some order. The Council of Europe's committee on culture, science and education met over the weekend, calling for "urgent action" to protect sport from illegal gamblers.
Ireland's Cecilia Keaveney, a former senator, put her name to a petition to set up "an international agency to properly preserve the integrity of sport".
"Match-fixing is a clear and present danger," she said. "The need to create an anti-corruption agency is not a debating point, it is inevitable."
Keaveney, and others, are arguing the same conditions that prompted sport and governments to come together to set up the World Anti-Doping Agency a decade ago now exist for corruption. The piecemeal approach just isn't working and the bad guys are winning.
So Greece could provide the tipping point for the unravelling of one multi-national institution and the creation of another.