Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Greek Team Calls For Bets on Lucky 13

This article was published by Al Jazeera. 

Ardent Panathinaikos fans cheer the team on in the 2009-2010 season, the last championship won by Panathinaikos (Courtesy Skai TV) 

In the heat of a football match, as smoke flares burn and flags sway bearing the team’s green, three-leaf-clover, Panathinaikos’ hard-core fans sing a ditty that loosely translates like this:

Forever by your side, I throw reason to the winds,
I shall follow wherever you play,  
You’re the rarest of weeds, clover, you’ve stolen my mind,
I shall sing my love for you to the heavens.

The fans who sing this look like a thuggish lot. They dress in black tracksuit hoodies and scarves to go unrecognised by police and surveillance cameras. During matches they lob powerful squibs onto the field that echo and resound around Athens’ vast Olympic stadium. They insult their opponents by chanting slogans against their arch-rival, Olympiakos, as though lesser competitors were simply a marking of time between the matches that really matter.

The contrast between Panathinaikos, which means “the All-Athenian”, and Olympiakos, which despite its name hails from the port of Peiraieus next to Athens, could hardly be greater. Panathinaikos has lost 14 of the past 20 Greek championships to Olympiakos and two to its other rival, AEK. While Olympiakos has held onto its top players during the economic crisis, Panathinaikos has shed more than half a dozen - two of them prized strikers. Another seven key players face a 50 percent salary cut. Olympiakos has built lavish training facilities near its stadium, while Panathinaikos has to rent a campus belonging to the team’s outgoing owner. Most rankling of all for Panathinaikos fans, however, is that Olympiakos took advantage of the 2004 Olympics to build itself a state-of-the-art stadium, while Panathinaikos cannot even afford to rent one.

In March the team will stop spending one and a half million dollars a month to rent Athens’ Olympic stadium. Its season tickets have fallen by two thirds in two years, and the 3,000-odd fans it manages to rustle up for each game these days look paltry on television in a facility built for 70,000. So Panathinaikos is moving back to its hallowed home ground in the city centre.

The Avenue, so called because it sits on a major artery, is a humble facility. Built for 15,000 in the 1920s, it sits across from decrepit refugee housing that went up around the same time to receive Greeks expelled from Asia Minor. Weeds have taken root in its concrete stands. Broken plastic seats and smashed beer bottles testify that Panathinaikos didn’t even bother with upkeep on this stadium after its last game here in August 2010.

Still, the Avenue has something of a mystical force, harkening back to a time when Panathinaikos was burning a trail in Greek football. During the Depression, it sported Greece’s first turf pitch and stadium lighting. Greece’s first home matches against other European teams were hosted here. And the Avenue sits at the heart of Panathinaikos’ power base.

“We need to gather our fans together, and I think they will behave very differently in a historic playing ground, because this is where Panathinaikos came of age,” says veteran player Vangelis Konstantinou, who now acts as team leader.

Fanatics agree. Two years ago, they presciently rented a clubhouse just down the road from the Avenue. “For us fans it can only be a good thing,” says Antonis, a square-jawed man of 28, who helps run the clubhouse. “It’s a much hotter venue than the frigid Olympic stadium, and it’s a return to our natural space, to the heart of Panathinaikos.”

The clubhouse is home to the most ardent of fans – those who sing stanzas combining reverence for their team with profanity for Olympiakos. Many are in their 20s and have come of age during the crisis. They have known only unemployment, so much of their view of the world comes through the team’s tribulations.

That view is disillusioned and defiant, and surprisingly similar to how Greeks see their country on the broader scale. In short, they believe Panathinaikos was betrayed. “The team wasn’t hit by the crisis. It was hit by internal enemies,” says Antonis. “Football in Greece isn’t clean. You steal games to get to the top of the Greek championship, and reach the European championship where the money is.” Half a dozen others sitting around the table agree.

“People are sold on the idea that Olympiakos has to win the Greek championship because it has a bigger fan base, and if they are unhappy they will burn all of Greece,” adds Stamatis.

Panathinaikos fans are critical of the Greek shipping family that has owned the team since 1979. They believe the Vardinoyannis clan underinvested in it. Even worse, the suspect collusion with Olympiakos to fix championships. “I feel that some players are having me on,” says one of the fans around the table. 

After Panathinaikos fans took to the streets in 2008, the Vardinoyannis family declared that it would sell them the team. It transferred its 54 percent stake to a nonprofit body called Panathinaikos Alliance, and launched a campaign last May to sell them to the base.

The move will sever the soccer club from Panathinaikos’ other sports teams, perhaps leaving them even more impoverished than they are today. One recent blog posted by a basketball player said, “we scrounge fivers off each other to get through the day.”

To date, however, the campaign has been a failure. Barely nine thousand people have stepped forward. The three million dollars they brought in are dwarfed by the team’s outstanding debt of $35 million, much of it owed to the Vardinoyannis family for rental of the training grounds. “He’s taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other. Anyone who buys shares now is a fool,” says Yannis. Clubhouse fans are willing to give the Alliance a try, but they would like to see the family assume the debt. “Anything other than Vardinoyannis is good, quite simply,” sys Antonis.

Their view of a team betrayed is curiously similar to many Greeks’ view of the country. Parliament has just indicted a former finance minister for failing to collect tax revenues from the rich, while imposing austerity measures on working families. Some opposition parties want to indict two former prime ministers for submitting to an austerity programme dictated by the International Monetary Fund without proper public consultation. A former board member of the Hellenic Statistical Service is suing its then-chairman for allegedly bloating Greece’s 2009 deficit. Her theory is that this made it easier to destroy Greece’s creditworthiness and pitchfork it into austerity. Greeks aren’t generally inclined to believe in coincidence, innocence or good faith; but the sense that betrayal is behind every failure has now become endemic.

The Panathinaikos Alliance allows shareholders to vote for the team’s management with a minimal investment of 85 euros. It may yet appeal as an attempt to return to transparency and simplicity. Its founding statement says it is “the expression of the simple, direct and honest desire of millions of Panathinaikos fans to taken the fate of the team in their hands… to bring Panathinaikos back where it belongs: at the pinnacle of European football.”

Konstantinou was enrolled at the age of 15 and remained on the team’s roster for 21 years. He looks back with nostalgia on a postwar era when teams and players alike were less mercenary. “In those days you had empty lots in every neighbourhood, kids went out to play football, and there were talented individuals who shone. Teams scouted for these kids and enrolled them in youth leagues... You played for the team that signed you up, and eternally bound you. You only left if the team didn’t want you or if you grew old.”

He looks forward to a time when Panathinaikos will build an academy to cultivate talent and loyalty once again. A team whose lucky number is 13 and whose symbol is the humble three-leaf clover may yet be capable of such surprises. 

See a recent Al Jazeera report on the plight of farmers five years after fires devastated southern Greece. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Transport Workers Refuse Requisition Order

Thousands of public transport passengers were left stranded on the streets of Athens today, after drivers told them to disembark around lunchtime, then drove their vehicles back to their depots. 

The unions’ decision to act in concert is likely to cause gridlock for days.  It came after the Athens prefect issued an order to commandeer Metro workers back to their trains. Movement in Athens has already been difficult with the Metro on strike for eight days, and bus, trolley and tram unions dipping in and out.

Transport workers are unhappy with the streamlining of public sector wages, but the government told unions today that it can’t favour particular groups. 

"The government made it clear during talks that there was no leeway to exempt anyone from the consolidated [state] payroll," Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis told reporters after the wage talks ended. "Despite this, the unionists decided to take the path of blind confrontation... There's nothing we can do but to requisition workers." 

Dimitris Stratoulis, an MP and spokesman for the radical left opposition, Syriza, said "the coalition has dressed in fatigues, and is conscripting the strikers in an unconstitutional coup." He indicated that Syriza will seek to broaden the confrontation by backing the unions and forming a "Great Wall" against which "conscription will be smashed."

Public sector workers were consolidated onto a single payroll and pay scale last year, which equalised weaker unions with those that had more bargaining power. Transport workers in Athens have traditionally had a lot of political clout and have, over the years, won favours in pay and benefits.

Bailout Cash Still Hasn't Altered Greek Mood

A new opinion poll puts Greece's ruling conservatives neck-and-neck with the radical left opposition.

The poll, conducted by Marc for Alpha television station, gives New Democracy 28.2 percent of the popular vote if elections were conducted tomorrow, roughly its election victory margin of 29 percent last June; but Syriza is just a hair away at 27.9 percent.

What ought to trouble the conservatives is that their success in claiming 52 billion euros' worth of bailout loans on paper last December, and the disbursement of 34 billion of that in fact, has not yet had an effect on the electorate's mood. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has bet his political future on the successful execution of an unpopular austerity programme, to leverage financial and political benefits out of his European Union partners.

These numbers are broadly consistent with those in polls conducted over the past several months. The general trends are:
a) a difference between SYriza and New Democracy that is too close to call,
b) a further punishment of the socialists, who fell from 44 percent of the vote to 12 percent in the last election, and
c) almost a doubling of the far right Golden Dawn's showing of seven percent in the last election, suggesting that many Greeks (if not the mainstream) are indifferent to, or ignorant of, the rise in racist attacks in Greece. Golden Dawn comes in third with 12.2 percent, beating both the socialists and leftists who share power with the conservatives. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

En Garde!

The Lagarde List, if only by virtue of its name, should have put politicians on their guard, left winger Manolis Glezos quipped to Greek parliament today. Glezos, like the rest of his party, the radical left opposition Syriza, will vote in favour of sending former finance minister Yiorgos Papakonstantinou to a special court for failing to investigate the list.

The Lagarde list contains the names of thousands of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts. It was handed to Papakonstantinou in 2010 by his French counterpart, Christine Lagarde, to assist authorities in their fight against tax evasion.

With even the government backing it, the indictment of Papakonstantinou is all but certain. But Syriza has also asked for the indictment of Papakonstantinou's successor, Evangelos Venizelos, who is now leader of the socialist party, a vital component of the governing coalition. Right wing opposition parties have been even more demanding. Golden Dawn and Independent Greeks are proposing that former prime ministers Yiorgos Papandreou and Loukas Papadimos also be indicted for lacking zeal in nabbing tax evaders. "They are being protected by parliament," said Independent Greeks MP Chrysoula-Maria Yiatagana today. "We are all complicit in tax evasion."

Under the constitution, ministers who are suspected of mismanaging their duties are not tried in criminal courts, but in special tribunals run by fellow-parliamentarians, a provision many Greeks, including politicians, have said should be scrapped.

"Let the parties commit to revising article 86 of the constitution as quickly as possible, and allow the justice system to do its job," wrote constitutional lawyer Nikos Alivizatos in a major Sunday newspaper.

The ruling coalition of socialists, conservatives and moderate leftists is ageing prematurely. When it assumed power last June with 179 seats, it held a powerful majority of almost three-fifths of the 300-seat legislature. A controversial austerity bill on November 7 followed by a tax law last week, which cut spending and increase taxes by some 15 billion euros this year, have shorn it of 16 of its seats. This means that the loyalty of all three coalition members is now vital to the government's survival.

The government cannot prevent a vote over whether to indict Papandreou, Venizelos and Papadimos. In order to ensure that its 163 MPs do not defect, it is believed to be planning to order its parliamentarians to depart from the debating chamber immediately after the vote to indict Papakonstantinou.

The hunt for political liabilities does not end here. Seeking to appease a voting public seething with resentment against politicians, Syriza has also sought to indict Papandreou for committing Greece to the country's unpopular austerity programme partly overseen by the International Monetary Fund, in return for bailout loans. The current Lagarde debate in parliament has reminded many Greeks of 1989, when Andreas Papandreou, father of Yiorgos, was nearly convicted in a special tribunal for embezzlement. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

An Aside

I was in the dejected neighbourhood of Perama last month, producing a long-format report for PBS NewsHour on the high unemployment rate (about 50 percent) stemming from the collapse of the shipbuilding and ship repair industries that once underpinned the economy there. Some smaller, private shipyards continue to offer employment to about half of the number of men they employed before the crisis. But the mammoth shipyard owned by the Peiraieus Port Authority (OLP) - the so called zone - is the worst-affected. There unemployment stands at about 90 percent. We met several metalworkers who had served, or were about to serve, stints in places as far away as Russia and the Congo. These work contracts usually only last a couple of weeks or so, but even a few days of work a year can provide food on the table.

At the cafe that stands in the largely desolate shipyard, unemployed workers gather to grumble and, as on the occasion when PBS was there, openly fight about who is to blame for the crisis. One worker accused another of being the author of his own demise for drinking his salary in the good years, when he was earning as much as 2,000 euros a week. Another blamed the union for pushing day rates and benefits up too high (for metalworkers they still stand at close to 200 euros a day after benefits, although the private shipyards that are still in business have made private agreements that lower those rates considerably).

At the entrance to the zone stands a monument that at first looks like a tribute to socialist realism put up by a union, or perhaps the communist party, whose traditional stomping ground Perama has been over the years. But it is none of the above. This is a private tribute, erected in honour of Vasilis Irakleous, a young man killed on his first day at work in the zone, on 16 July 2007.

The following, Laconic message is set in stone beneath the statue:

"Vasili, On your long journey, my thought and my love will be with you always. Your father, Fylaktis."

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Terrorist Acts Heighten Political Tension

A war of words is mounting between the Greek government and opposition over a series of terrorist acts that have targeted politicians and journalists over the past week.

Radical left opposition party Syriza yesterday issued a belated statement condemning the symbolic shooting of nine rounds from a Kalashnikov rifle into the offices of conservative New Democracy in the small hours. But it added that the attack "exudes an fragrance of parastate terrorism." It also accused New Democracy of trying to cash in on the publicity. Later in parliament, socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Syriza of "a violence-friendly anxiety, a flirtation with variations of violence". The socialist party is the conservative-led coalition's main ally, with 24 MPs.

No one was injured the the attack on New Democracy, which police say took place at 3am on Monday. Police found nine Kalashnikov shells on the median between Syngrou avenue and a parallel access road, three doors down from New Democracy's offices. They say they also found one Kalashnikov slug in the party office of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, New Democracy's leader.

The latest round of intimidation began in the small hours of Friday, with unknown assailants placing rudimentary explosive devices using camping gas canisters outside the front doors of about half a dozen journalists. Those attacks culminated on Sunday with an explosive device outside the door of the government spokesman's brother.

The year has begun with an already tense parliament, after the government tabled a controversial tax bill that is to raise 2.3 billion euro more in direct taxation on companies and individuals than was raised last year. At the same time, the government is cutting more than nine billion euros' worth of public spending this year.