For Piraeus, Olympiacos is more than just a club but part of the fabric of the city. For decades a dominant force in Greek sports, it inspires a loyalty bordering on fanaticism for many of its fans who would change political allegiances sooner than they would their sports team. It is no surprise, therefore, that in local affairs the club has always wielded significant political influence. Mayoral candidates who do not have the blessing of the club’s owner do not get very far. And once in office any mayor would also think twice, and then a third time, before doing anything that might anger the club and its fans.
Yet the club always sought to keep a distance between itself and the world of politics – after all its fans come from across the political spectrum. That is until now. Those days appear to have ended with the decision by the club to put forward its own Vice President Yannis Moralis – also the president of ‘Superleague’, the body which organizes the Greek football championship – as a candidate for mayor of Piraeus.
Evangelos Marinakis, the club’s owner, is also seeking election as a local councilman, although there is little doubt that he is the driving force behind the plan, and if his bid succeeds, Mr Marinakis will probably be the most powerful councilman in Greece.
It should be noted here that Piraeus is not just the port of Athens, but effectively a city in its own right (it is commonly referred to in Greece as the ‘city of Piraeus’). It is the third largest urban municipality in the country after Athens and Thessaloniki, and of course has one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean. While the largely working class area has been hit particularly hard by the crisis due to the collapse of industries such as shipbuilding, economically and strategically for the country the importance of Piraeus is difficult to overstate.
As such the move by a powerful shipowner to effectively take direct control of the local government of Piraeus is raising eyebrows.
According to an interview given by Mr Moralis yesterday on Athens radio Real FM, the chief goal of his candidacy is to reduce unemployment and poverty which are the chief problems in Piraeus. He sought to play down the idea that his ballot would be an ‘Olympiacos ballot’ saying that he was “not going to apologise for working for the club for 20 years with love passion and, I believe dignity.” He added, “with regards to Mr Marinakis’s candidacy I don’t think that anyone needs to justify it because he is one of the most successful shipowners in the country, and what I think local government needs are new models for management and development – something which people who have been successful in the private sector can provide.”
The problem with this is that it does not all ring entirely true. For one Mr Moralis’s candidacy can hardly be divorced so easily from Olympiacos; Mr Moralis has worked for the club for two decades – first under its previous owner, influential businessman Sokratis Kokkalis, and now under the ownership of Mr Marinakis – both men known to demand absolute loyalty. His candidacy is entirely dependent on the support the club and Mr Marinakis. The idea that should Mr Moralis be elected mayor it will be anyone other than Mr Marinakis who is in the driver’s seat is, in short, somewhat hard to believe.
This in turn casts doubt on Mr Moralis’s assertion that his candidacy amounts to a break from the past and party politics. “We will range from the traditional left to the traditional right,” he told Real FM. “We believe that we will be something different. Something new. We will not be coloured by party politics.” Yet as one of the country’s most influential shipowners, his chief supporter is no stranger to either the current establishment, or controversy.
Who is Evangelos Marinakis?
Evangelos Marinakis, born in Piraeus in 1967, is one of the most powerful businessmen in Greece today. On an international level, according to the Lloyds List, he is no. 72 in the Top 100 influential people in world shipping. He is the chairman of Capital Product Partners, a shipping company listed in NASDAQ. Lloyd’s List Top 100 calls him a “football strongman […] seen as a heavy hitter capable of major deals”.
“Mr Marinakis is seen as a heavy hitter among Greek owners and it is nice to report that he has been using his influence and financial strength for good purposes. Already an active supporter of numerous Greek and international charity and humanitarian projects, he recently teamed Olympiacos with Unicef to raise money for, and awareness of, the need to vaccinate children”.
But inside Greece, Mr Marinakis has a more controversial reputation.
In early 2013, Marinakis was selected among a small group of businessmen that escorted Prime Minister Samaras in Qatar, in a trip to attract foreign investment to Greece. A little later, Avgi, a newspaper affiliated to Syriza, the left wing opposition party, published a news report claiming Marinakis was closer than an arm’s length to Samaras. According to the newspaper, the businessman controlled a number of news outlets, including leading weekly paper ‘Parapolitika’, that is doing the “dirty work on behalf of the Maximou Mansion” [the PM’s office, Greek equivalent of 10 Downing Street].
Parapolitika, the newspaper allegedly owned by Mr Marinakis, responded by suing Avgi, denying any links to Mr Marinakis. The lawyer handling the case for Parapolitika was Makis Voridis, currently a leading Greek politician of the governing party and former minister with a far right-wing past. Critics saw there a manifestation of the greek system of 'diaploki': the intertwined interests between powerful businessmen (oligarchs as some call them), the media and the political system.
His father, Miltiadis, built his shipping business but was also a politician, elected to parliament with New Democracy. Besides his relationship to the current MP Antonis Samaras, Marinakis has developed over the years a very close relationship with one of the three political dynasties of the country, the Mitsotakis family, that has produced a prime minister in the nineties (Kostas Mitsotakis), a foreign minister in the 00’s (Ms Dora Bakoyannis) and a minister in the current government (Kyriakos Mitsotakis). Marinakis was the best man at Ms. Bakoyannis’s wedding.
In 2010 Marinakis bought Olympiacos club from Sokratis Kokkalis, yet another of the most powerful yet controversial businessmen of the country in the last 30 years.
In 2011, when Marinakis was president of the Greek Super League he was linked to a major match fixing scandal, known in Greece as Koriopolis. Marinakis was charged with complicity to commit acts of bribery and match manipulation. He denied any wrongdoing.
Three years after the initial prosecution, the case has not yet been brought to court. In May 2013 Marinakis reportedly sued the British tabloid newspaper The Sun over claims he was was facing criminal charges for bribery and match fixing. Marinakis claimed the Sun article, headlined “Arsenal’s rivals in a right old fix”, was defamatory and caused his reputation to be “seriously damaged”. The article alleged Marinakis was facing prosecution for “being part of a criminal gang and participating in the offering of bribes as well as match-fixing”. Olympiacos at the time was set to play against Arsenal of London for the Champions League competition. The Sun reportedly refused to print a retraction of the article.
In a separate case that moved faster, Mr Marinakis was again charged with interfering in the outcome of a match, accused of having stormed the referees’ room in half-time and attempted to exert influence on them during a Greek Cup final in May 2012. Mr Marinakis did not deny that he had visited the referees but claimed that he had done so to wish them luck as he hadn’t had an opportunity before the start of the match. Olympiacos won the game against Asteras Tripolis (a much smaller team) by 3-1. At half-time the score was 1-1. Asteras officials claimed that the referees looked the other way in several occasions in the second half, failing for example to rule a penalty kick against Olympiacos while the two clubs were in tie. Mr Marinakis was acquitted recently of the charges due to inconclusive evidence.
A city or a fiefdom?
Ultimately voters will have the final say at the ballots. But it may well be that the grassroots support provided by the Olympiacos club together with the hope that Piraeus’s ‘own son’ Marinakis will help reverse the fortunes of the city will translate to electoral victory for the tycoon’s right-hand man. Already Mr Moralis and Mr Marinakis are seen as serious contenders.
Should they prevail in May’s elections the question then will be whose interests will really be of primary importance to the new mayor – those of the citizens of Piraeus, or those of a billionaire shipowner?