Aris Georgiou

Poor man’s Abramovich aims to take PAOK to the top

Jun 16, 2013 2:32 AM GMT

Greek-Russian millionaire Ivan Savvidis’ ambitious plan to lead the Thessaloniki club to the Greek league title gains momentum with Dutch Huub Stevens announced as the team’s new manager.

PAOK (initials stand for Pan-Thessalonican Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans in English), a club founded in 1926 at Greece’s second city from ethnic Greeks who fled Istanbul after the Asia Minor catastrophe, are famous in the country for two things.

The first one is their faithful and partisan following, which makes PAOK the most popular club in Northern Greece and their home stadium Toumba one of the most difficult to visit.

The second is their almost permanent underachieving. In their 87 years of existence, the ‘’black and whites’’ have only won two league titles, the last one of them back in 1985, in addition to four Greek Cups, their last triumph in that competition ten years ago.

PAOK’ s  fans are always quick to blame the ‘’Athenian establishment’’  for their lack of trophies, accusing the big clubs of the capital – Olympiakos and Panathinaikos in particular – for robbing them of more glory using money, power and the aid of the country’s politicians.

Their rivals respond by saying that PAOK have only themselves to blame, locating the cause of failure to the enormous pressure put by the fans on managers and players to deliver the coveted league championship.

The truth could lie somewhere in the middle. But PAOK supporters were always dreaming that someday a man would come with unprecedented money and power to wrestle back the crown from the Athenian giants to Thessaloniki’s finest.

Eight months ago, their dream came a little closer to reality, with Ivan Savvidis becoming the club’s new owner.

The 54 year old, a Greek-Russian businessman and politician of Greek Pontian descent, took Greek football  - and the country’s economy as well – by storm last October, buying the majority of PAOK’ s shares and promising to restore them to the top.

Savvidis was born in 1959 in Tsalka of the former USSR state of Georgia, and went to school at the Rostov Institute of National Economy in Russia. He started working for the State tobacco company in Rostov and rapidly displayed that he had what it takes to be a successful businessman. After the fall of the Soviet Union the company was renamed Donskoy Tabak and was privatized, with Savvidis as the owner.

From then on the only way was up for him, growing Donskoy Tabak into one of the largest tobacco companies in Russia. Later he was involved in the chilled meat, agricultural products, fishing products and theme park markets. Today he employs  17.000 people and is considered by Forbes as one of the 30 richest Russians.

His activity though is not limited to business. He has been heavily involved with Russian politics as well.  After starting his political career in Rostov, in 2007 he was elected as a Deputy in the State Duma (the Russian Federation’s legislature lower house ) with Vladimir Putin’ s and Dmitri Medvedev’s  United Russia ruling party.

Another of his favorite pastimes is football and in the previous decade he was president of two Rostov clubs, FC Rostov and FC SKA Rostov-on-Don.
But Savvidis was always looking back to his Greek roots. And when the opportunity appeared to make a move there, he didn’t hesitate.

The first rumors that Savvidis wanted to buy PAOK appeared in the press in 2006. It was a club that seemed tailor-made for him. They attract a lot of fans  whose parents and grandparents are of Pontian descent, just like Savvidis, so they can identify with him. And the status of the sleeping giant was really challenging for the ambitious Greek-Russian.
His interest in PAOK though did not materialize until October 2012, when he finally took over a club crippled with a heavy load of debts, an underachieving squad and notoriously impatient fans.

Simultaneously, he made an entry in Greek business, leasing Thessaloniki’s historic hotel Macedonia Palace, and buying out the tobacco company SEKAP from the Greek state.

PAOK though, seems like his most ambitious project in Greece and certainly the most popular. From his first day in office, Savvidis promised the fans that he would pay all of the club’s debt and would soon fight Olympiakos for domination in Greek football. Savvidis, like the savvy politician he is, cleverly played on the fans’ hatred for the Piraeus club that goes decades back.  ‘’Even if I brought all of Barcelona’s players at PAOK, we would still be second in the league’’, he said in his first press conference as PAOK owner, adopting the fans’ opinion of Olympiakos’ influence in Greek football.

Savvidis seems to have made the most of the promise of erasing the debts, paying off already a large chunk of it. In addition, he made improvements to the club’s training facilities, modernized the facade of the Toumba stadium, and he has plans to renovate it, or alternatively  move the club to a new ground in the next few years. He even redesigned the cubs crest in another step towards modernization.

Establishing PAOK as a title contender though, proved much more difficult in his first season in charge. After a roller-coaster ride, the team finished second in regular season, 15 points behind champions Olympiakos. They played in the subsequent play-offs for European places and after taking first place in this mini-league, they will compete in the Champions League qualifying phase this summer. In the Cup, they were beaten in the semi finals by surprise package Asteras Tripolis, an outcome that had Savvidis facing the wrath of the partisan element of the crowd for the first time.

Despite these setbacks, he seems to be learning the ropes of Greek football very fast, and next season could be the breakthrough for Savvidis’ PAOK. Reportedly, he pledged to spend up to €  14 million for reinforcing the squad, an amount that all other Greek teams except Olympiakos could only dream of.

Perhaps more importantly, Savvidis showed his ambitions for PAOK by hiring a big name manager. Dutch Huub Stevens, who has made his name at PSV Eidhoven, Hertha Berlin, Hamburger SV and Schalke 04, agreed to be the club’s new coach, in an impressive move for the reality of Greek football.

He has still some problems to solve though. The debts must be erased, the hooligan element of the crowd must be controlled, and Savvidis must find the right people to run the club on a day to day basis, given the fact that the owner still spends the most of the time in Russia and this season’s structure did not run smoothly enough.

Savvidis insists that he is at PAOK for the long term, and there are rumors that he could even be involved in Greek politics, like he did in Russia.
But season 2013-14 could really define his tenure at the club. Will he be remembered by the fans as the poor man’s Roman Abramovich, or as Ivan the Terrible? The jury is still out.