It was derby day in Greece on Sunday. The derby of the Eternal Enemies.
Panathinaikos and Olimpiacos. Red against green. The Athens aristocrats against the proletarians of Piraeus, or at least that’s how it once was.
These days, when the mass of the Greek population is up against it, those old distinctions no longer mean much.
Last Thursday thousands of pensioners marched in Athens and burned the official letters informing them about the latest round of cuts.
They have been assured the cuts are now at end, but many do not believe it.
On Friday came a government reshuffle aimed at convincing EU authorities and creditors that Greece will implement the next round of economic and legal reforms.
No-one is happy.
Opinion polls suggest 90% of the country is dissatisfied with the government. They also suggest 80% are unhappy with the opposition.
You might think football would provide some relief — or at least a diversion — but that too reflects the general crisis in Greek society, a crisis of confidence and institutions as much as debt and finance.
Two separate criminal investigations are continuing into match-fixing and corruption. Among those implicated in potential crimes are former top league officials, six referees, and the directors and owners of the major clubs.
Government attempts to intervene over corruption and football-related violence have been headed off by warnings from Uefa and Fifa that this would lead to suspension from international competition.
But last month Fifa itself intervened, imposing a ‘Normalisation Committee’ on the Hellenic Football Federation. The aim is to end the stand-off between the HFF and the government, with a clean-up and a new football administration in place by May next year.
This Fifa-backed committee met for the first time last week, and within 48 hours was faced by another crisis when all three members of the new referees’ commission resigned.
One of them, senior referee Ioannis Tsachilidis, had received an unexpected home visit from a couple of strangers who declined to identify themselves but suggested, in somewhat rude terms, that he should make himself scarce, but “you won’t escape — wherever you go we will find you”.
Referees in Greece have tended not to ignore home visits after then-Fifa referee Petros Konstantineas had his bakery business blown up in 2012. Undaunted, Mr Konstantineas has since become an MP for the governing party, Syriza, and has been campaigning for a total clearout and democratic reform of the game, starting with “the exclusion of every Greek football club from European tournaments”.
Whether this current crisis results in something of that sort may depend on events over the next few weeks.
In response to the intimidation of the three officials, the Normalisation Committee declared on Saturday: “We warn that if there are attempts in future from any side, the operation of all national football tournaments will be suspended for as long as necessary, even if this entails subsequent disqualification of our teams from international competitions.”
Given this background, Sunday’s derby passed off relatively peacefully, with a partisan Olimpiacos crowd roaring their team to an easy 3-0 victory with a barrage of huge red flares and smoke bombs.
Away fans are essentially banned in Greece and Panathinaikos ultras have been especially targeted by the authorities since the November 2015 derby was abandoned because of rioting.
As far as the league is concerned Olimpiacos are clearly on their way to their seventh consecutive title, as they already are seven points ahead. It will delight their fans and continue to rile their rivals, convinced that the Piraeus club and its owner Evangelos Marinakis have been the main beneficiaries of corrupt practices.
Both Marinakis and Panathinaikos boss Giannis Alafouzos are under investigation for financial ‘irregularities’. Both deny any wrong-doing. Marinakis seemingly has his eye on a foray into English football, with a proposed takeover of Nottingham Forest.
In the circumstances this may be one Greek gift the Football League could do without.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved