Berg’s departure from Panathinaikos no Swede deal for the SuperLeague
by Graham Wood
Another one bites the dust. It’s a hard life. Nope, I’m not just randomly quoting Queen song titles. I’m talking about Marcus Berg of course. While the sorry saga involving his move to the UAE is likely to run for some time yet, one thing is certain. The Sweden star will never wear a Panathinaikos shirt again.
And that’s not just something damaging for the Greens, it’s a major blow for Greek football.
Fans of Olympiacos, AEK, PAOK – and any other top flight club for that matter – should not be laughing at their rival’s expense. Why? Quite simply, Greek football needs talents like Berg.
The charismatic Swede has netted 65 goals in just 98 appearances for the Greens, and was one of Europe’s hottest strikers in terms of form last season with 24 goals. Arguably, he was the biggest name in the league, even if Olympiacos boasted the likes of Esteban Cambiasso and Chori Dominguez.
As things stand, you can count on one hand the number of so called ‘big name’ foreign players currently plying their trade in the SuperLeague. Contrast that with just a few years ago and the decline in top talent from abroad coming to play here is alarming.
Let’s face it, the domestic game is in the gutter right now. Ongoing investigations into match-fixing scandals, violence in and outside stadiums whenever there’s even a hint of a big derby match – and sometimes even when there isn’t – have had a damaging effect. Then there’s falling attendances, crumbling stadiums, reduced budgets due to the economic crisis. When you add ongoing austerity and high taxes, it’s easy to see why there are more and more reasons for top foreign players to avoid Greece like the plague.
That’s why Berg, like so many foreign stars before him in recent years, has opted to bail out on Greek football with a club offering riches to tempt him away despite the fact that he had just signed a lucrative new contract in January.
It’s also another classic case of the player power phenomenon, but that is an entirely different discussion which would take all day long so we’ll leave that aside for now.
Really though, if the truth be told, which international footballer wants to play in front of a couple of thousand fans in Livadia? No disrespect to Levadiakos of course. Or play in front of an empty Georgios Karaiskakis, Toumba or Apostolos Nikolaidis for that matter because of a blanket ban on fans. Or risk being attacked by fans on a pitch which is supposed to be secure. I won’t mention beer cans at this point.
I have been covering Greek football since 2001, and for me it feels like the game is at its lowest ebb. I’ve been assured by many of my friends and colleagues in the media that it has been lower in the past. But what can I do, I’m, a young man of 38 so I can only go off my experience.
Not so long ago the SuperLeague could attract some of the world’s top players. No matter if they were in the twilight years of their career or arriving with something to prove, every summer Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos airport would be crammed with fans welcoming the latest high profile signing, from Rivaldo, Darko Kovacevic, Luciano Galletti, and Djibril Cisse, to Eidur Gudjohnsen, Javier Saviola, Dmitar Berbatov, and Michael Essien to name just a few.
But while in Greece there’s plenty of despair about the so called braindrain, with hundreds of highly-skilled young members of the workforce moving abroad to forge themselves a career which they can’t have back home, mainly due to the ongoing financial crisis, in football there’s an equally similar situation with foreign talent.
For braindrain in society, read skilldrain in Greek football. Year on year those high-profile summer transfer arrivals get more and more low key, while better-known foreign stars tend to leave.
Even the top Greek players who represent the national team no longer want to stick around. Yes, there always were players who tried their luck abroad for some of Europe’s bigger clubs, but there was still plenty who preferred to stay. Mainly because they missed the lifestyle, nightlife, climate or even Mama’s moussaka if the truth be told. Now as soon as they have established themselves with one or two good seasons under their belt, Greece’s young talent are shipping out.
And who can blame them? The question is, how can Greek football attract the top talent? It’s a one-way street. Continue the efforts to clean up the game, wiping out the scandals and the violence, get the families back the stadiums. The jury is still out on whether the harsh punishments for crowd trouble are working. Punishing teams with points deductions and stadium bans for ‘not being able to control their fans’ is not really punishment for the fans actually causing the trouble. Let’s be honest, which club can really control a minority of fanatical ultras who want to cause trouble. Only when proper electronic ticketing is commonplace and clubs introduce sterner security measures with better stewarding will any progress be made.
What’s more important is for Greek top flight teams is to invest in grassroots and their academies so that quality young Greek players come through and bring up the quality.
One positive effect the financial crisis has had on Greek football is that it has seen clubs turn to home-grown talent. With budgets slashed due to less advertising money coming in from TV rights deals SuperLeague clubs have almost halved their spending on player contracts compared with 5 years ago.
The Panagiotis Retsos’, the Petros Mantalos’, the Christos Donis’ and the Efthimis Koulouris’s of this world are getting more of a chance earlier on in their careers to prove themselves and become fully fledged senior pros. These are the players that can raise the quality of the top flight, help Greek teams do well in Europe, and bring back the big name foreign players. If that happens, then it would be, as Freddy Mercury himself might say, a kind of magic.