EPO’s Grammeni… Ethniki (part 2 of 3)
AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis talks about the EPO’s lack of interest in the national team, which is the underlying issue which faces the Ethniki Omada in part two of a three-part blog series. Read part one here.
Greece’s national team is governed by the EPO and its president, Evangelos Grammenos. The EPO is responsible for doing everything possible for the benefit of Greek football on a club level, but more importantly, internationally. I think many will agree that the Ethniki is more important than any club team, and should unite all Greeks no matter who we all support.
It is concerning that the current EPO administration does not have the Ethniki as a top priority, let alone on their list of concerns. It is clearly seen by the actions of president Grammenos, who has shown that he is simply incapable and unqualified for this position. Since he took over the presidency from Georgios Girtzikis, another man in no position to head EPO, Grammenos hasn’t made any notable effort to implement a plan for all national teams from youth to senior level.
His apathetic attitude towards the Ethnikes Omades is more worrisome than if Skibbe remained at the helm for another month, or if Tziolis is one of 23 players called up. Rather, the president is concerned with who will win the Super League title, what venue will host the EPO’s Board of Directors Meeting and which foreign referee will officiate the next derby, while the national team struggles to create a scoring chance against teams like Hungary, Finland, and Estonia. Oh, and let's not forget the EPO’s priority of cleaning up Greek football which has been a “huge success” with a record number of point deductions for clubs, violent fan trouble (must I remind us of the 2017 Greek Cup final in Volos), presidents storming pitches with guns, the so-called “paper” championship for AEK in 2018...yes, the EPO has ‘certainly’ cleaned up Greek football!
“Grammenos says, Grammenos goes” decision making process
The lack of a specific plan for the national team system has resulted in a “Grammenos say, Grammenos goes” decision making process, something which has failed miserably on so many levels behind the scenes from renewing Skibbe’s contract, all the way to changing the Ethniki’s hotel.
Last November, Grammenos himself decided to take the easy option with the Ethniki, extending the hapless Skibbe’s contract for a further two years instead of searching for potentially stronger, more suitable candidates. With Greece having missed out on qualification for the FIFA World Cup, the next competitive match took place 10 months later, September 2018 to be exact. The Ethniki needed a boss and the matter was urgent, however with some time ahead before the UEFA Nations League kick-off, more thought process could have gone into this critical decision as to who would lead the Ethniki in the next competition. But, Grammenos did (and does) not have the Ethniki as a priority to “make time” for this decision, so Skibbe was re-signed with the support of the players (who voiced that they wanted him to stay) and with a pay cut. It was an easy decision that took no time, and on top of that, didn’t entail any consequences for the president himself. The players wanted him and if Skibbe failed, which he did, he could push the blame on them. Perfect.
Without asking the coach or players, Grammenos opted to take the national team away from the modern Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus in favour of the large Olympic Stadium which possesses no atmosphere whatsoever. His original plan was for Greece to call the Toumba Stadium home, but after the incident involving PAOK president Ivan Savvidis in a Super League derby against AEK (an episode which shocked the entire footballing world), that option was abandoned and the OAKA was chosen instead. Sadly, it was anything but a “home ground” for Greece’s only competitive match to date since the switch (against Hungary, October 12), where empty stands surrounded the players as if it was a match played behind closed doors.
Since when does Grammenos, or anyone in his position, make such a critical decision without asking the coach or the players? Both stated that they see the Karaiskakis as the Ethniki’s home, so why make the change? But in the processes of “cleaning up” Greek football by the current EPO (supported by PAOK and AEK), Olympiacos (the enemy in this case) could not be associated in any way, shape, or form with the Ethniki. Now, club football is in the decision making process behind the scenes, which is the ultimate cancer to a national team, at least in Greece.
On the other hand, the coach and players are also to blame for letting this happen. Their lack of interest in the decision allowed Grammenos to take this upon himself without any resistance or backlash. To put it in perspective, this would not have happened under Otto Rehhagel or Fernando Santos’ watch. They simply wouldn’t allow a Grammenos figure to make that important decision without their consent. In fact, under Santos, not one person could come close to penetrating “his” national team in any way possible. He was in charge. Always.
And that is not all. The federation took it upon itself, again without asking Skibbe, to remove his right-hand man Kostas Tsanas from the coaching staff. This naturally infuriated the German boss, and shortly afterwards, Tsanas was reinstated. The EPO had no business whatsoever to sack Tsanas.
The decisions taken by EPO vary in degree, some as minor as changing the Ethniki’s accommodation during their training in Greece. All of a sudden, Grammenos decided to switch the hotel, but in protest, the players objected and demanded that they move back to the previous accommodation. This small, yet meaningful, action shows Grammenos’ inaccurate judgment of the Ethniki's needs but also the concerning reaction from the players themselves. The players have the ability and willpower to ask to stay in the original hotel, but overlook the fact that the Ethniki has the cold OAKA stadium as a home? Get your priorities straight, speak up for what actually matters, not for minute issues like a hotel, so it is walking distance access to the nearest “kafeteria.” That is Ethniki Mykonou thinking and shows lack of leadership and care for the country itself.
Grammeni Ethniki on all fronts
I think one story which has puzzled fans is the situation surrounding talented shot stopper Odisseas Vlachodimos. The young 24-year old goalkeeper, who moved to Benfica over the summer from Panathinaikos, has enjoyed an incredible start to the season with the Portuguese giants and has already drawn interest from Europe’s biggest clubs. He is an eligible Greek international, despite being born in Germany and having played for all of Germany’s youth national teams. This, of course, also makes him available for the senior German side.
Vlachodimos has regularly stated that he would like to play for Greece and it would be his honour to wear the Galanolefki. The issue of getting his first cap with Greece, which would lock him with the Ethniki Omada for the rest of his international career, was not Skibbe’s responsibility. It’s the EPO’s/ The federation must work with UEFA/FIFA to finish the paperwork to solidify Vlachodimos’ place in the Greek team. But, yet again, we see no urgency or desire from this federation to handle any of the Ethniki’s matters. Halaraaaa as they say up north.
It is a slap in the face to the player and Greek football as a whole to let a player of his calibre, who is continuously on the rise, to be left without an international cap and at any point in time, can be picked up by the Germans. It would be a different story if the player was unsure of who to play for, but he has made his stance clear - he wants to play for Greece. And if the issue was Skibbe, which I do not think it was, it is the EPO’s responsibility to demand his call-up to the team to seal his place with Greece, regardless of what Skibbe wants. By no means do I think anyone other than the coach should make decisions within a team, but this is a special case. Skibbe is now gone, but Vlachodimos will be playing for another 10 years. His call-up should have been a demand by the EPO to Skibbe. It is as simple as that.
The Vlachodimos situation is just one of many examples where the EPO has failed the Ethniki. Have you seen how the federation tried to schedule exhibition matches in preparation for the Nations League? There was really only the wasted friendly against Saudi Arabia in May where only players from the SuperLeague were called up. It was a completely pointless affair.
And it is hard to believe this EPO has any intentions of putting the Ethniki first, despite the failed Nations League campaign. It has taken two weeks since Greece’s loss to Finland to finally give Skibbe the boot. The EPO’s Board of Directors meeting which took place on October 25th did not even have the Ethniki’s coaching situation on the original agenda released on October 23rd. What a sad reality. Thankfully, action was taken and the matter was discussed during that meeting with Angelos Anastasiadis being appointed as Skibbe’s replacement (more on that in part three).
And if that does not show where the EPO’s priorities lie, maybe this does. Due to the lack of major tournament appearances, the federation is low on money and the budget for the new national team coach is extremely slim, roughly 200,000-250,000 Euro per year. The head of the Central Referring Committee (K.E.D.), Melo Pereira, who decides which foreign referee will take charge of each Super League derby this season, is earning more money per year (240,000 Euro after taxes) than the new national team coach budget. And it is not only Pereira, it is Tritsonis, Koukoulakis, and many others that receive mind blowing, high paying salaries in the federation while the money set aside for the national team coach constitutes pennies.
But let us ignore Grammenos and the EPO’s lack of interest in the Ethniki, and blame Tziolis and Skibbe for everything...
The players are also to blame
In a situation where the governing body, in this case the EPO, shows a lack of interest in the team, the last place to point fingers is towards the players. That being said, they also share the blame. Just look at the hotel farce for an ideal example.
The thought that players do not want success with the national team is false. In the end, it is their careers that suffer and their value on the market (i.e. their salaries) goes down when they are absent from major tournaments. The key is to find someone who can get through to them. This comes from outside factors like the coaching staff, leaders within the locker rooms, the technical director, the governing body...part one of my blog covers some of these topics.
But before these players can play to their best, they need to become a team again. Former international, Kostas Katsouranis, said it best in a recent interview: “When the players realize that the national team is more important than their clubs and individuals, then will they qualify for a major competition.” Although Katsouranis is not directly involved with the national team anymore, he has a good idea about what is going on with the Ethniki and his comments are no coincidence. It is also not a coincidence that during the players’ walkthrough in Tampere, before the match away to Finland, players from different clubs didn’t mix. When the players dine, the PAOKakia are together, AEKakia together, Olympiakakia together, the players abroad in another group e.t.c….
There is the sense that club football, the so-called ‘poison’, has infiltrated the national team as it did many years before the Rehhagel/Santos era. It was Takis Fyssas who did an incredible job as the Ethniki’s technical director during Rehhagel/Santos’ time to keep club football away from the national team. For some odd reason, Fyssas was removed from his post a few years ago and that void was never filled (now held by Zisis Vryzas). Few realize how important Fyssas was during the national team’s successful years. He deserves just as much credit as Santos does.
Once these players can set their clubs and personal interests aside, then they can be criticized for their on-the-field efforts. The talent is there, the question is can they mesh it together and display their undoubted potential on the pitch.
But it starts from the top. When the Ethniki becomes an interest in the federation, maybe then will the players will get a whiff of support and show their true abilities.