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For the love of football

It’s a tumultuous time for the game in Cyprus. THEO PANAYIDES meets the chairman of the island’s most successful club

‘Would you say you have enemies?’ I ask Prodromos Petrides, sitting in his 8th-floor office in central Nicosia. He nods. “As someone who’s in the news, and doesn’t give anyone the right to… Yes, I have enemies,” he winds up abruptly, as if unwilling to go into a long explanation.

Is it something he actually experiences?

“I live with it every day. There are many who’d have liked to see Prodromos Petrides down and out. But I’m still standing, much to their disappointment I’m still standing – and I’ll keep on standing, I have no problem.”

The 8th-floor office belongs to Iris Corporate Services, an independent company specialising in offshore clients, working closely with the big accounting firm run by his wife’s family. That’s not all, however. He also runs a business for the distribution of fresh mushrooms, a sector he’s been closely involved with all his life – running first the family business that belonged to his father, then his own mushroom factory, initially dealing in production as well as distribution till the abolition of EU duties in the mid-00s made it cheaper to import than produce.

That’s not all either, however. Indeed, with all due respect to the mushroom industry, it’s unlikely that Prodromos would be newsworthy if he were just a leading purveyor of edible fungi. His main claim to fame – the reason, so to speak, for this profile – is Apoel Nicosia, the most successful football team in a football-mad country, the team he’s supported all his life and twice led as chairman: once in 2001-06 then again in his current stint, which began about a year ago.

cerlebrting in 2006
cerlebrting in 2006

It’s hard to understate the depth of passion that football provokes in Cyprus. It’s entirely possible to find a group of men (it’s mostly men) heatedly discussing local football at a cocktail party, then come back half an hour later to find them still discussing it – not to mention what actually happens on the pitch (and in the stands), where passion frequently spills over into unsavoury incidents. He himself always ends up talking about Apoel when he goes out socially, admits Prodromos – but there are also trickier questions about the problems associated with football: hooliganism, financial mismanagement and now, following the recent allegations by referee Marios Panayi, match-fixing.

I ask a few of these questions, looking out at Nicosia from his 8th-floor eyrie, and get firm but rather wishful answers. Prodromos has a touch of the zealous certitude of the recovering alcoholic, someone who’s seen what happens when you make mistakes and is convinced – nay, determined – that they won’t be repeated, so long as he stays on the programme. We’re not just talking abstractly, either: “I suffered,” he insists. “In my previous term as chairman, even beyond the money I put into it, the worst thing was becoming disoriented from my own businesses because of Apoel. I didn’t spend the time I should’ve spent on them, and I suffered serious financial consequences. I won’t say family consequences, thank god my family stood by me – though I could’ve spent more time when my kids were younger [he has a son and daughter, 26 and 24 respectively], which they do complain about sometimes.”

It was never for money, he says earnestly and repeatedly; always for the love of football. “I’ve never been at Apoel for personal gain, and I’m speaking to you honestly and sincerely. It cost me a great deal. I even came close to total financial collapse.”

Because of Apoel?

“Because I spent all my time on Apoel and not on my businesses in 2006-07”. He was actually declared bankrupt at one point, he admits shamefacedly – not directly because of the football club (rather a result of being a personal guarantor for debts racked up by his company), but spending 80 per cent of his time on football can’t have helped the situation. That proportion hasn’t changed in his current term: yes, he confirms, “Apoel – without a salary, without a profit, nothing – takes up 80 per cent of my daily routine. And that’s not all: it’s not just eight hours a day, or 10 hours – it’s 24 hours, seven days a week!”. What’s changed, however, is the organisational structure he’s set up to ensure the mushroom business can run without his full involvement. Once bitten, twice shy.

Something similar is underway at Apoel itself, or at least that’s the hope. Prodromos left the club at a pivotal moment: a change in EU rules meant there was no longer a limit on how many EU players a club could field (previously, the limit was three ‘foreigners’), leading to a kind of mid-00s frenzy in which Cypriot clubs filled their ranks with expensive foreign players, hoping to reap the rewards. Almost all local clubs now haemorrhage money; Apoel is in slightly better shape – but purely because of the windfall supplied by the UEFA Champions League which the club (alone among Cypriot teams) has qualified for three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2014. If they had to rely on domestic income, they’d be in deep trouble – which is why Prodromos is now trying to build a “sound administrative structure” that’d allow them to survive even without the Champions League. There’s now a chartered accountant on the Board, and a marketing guy has been brought in (“We have a very strong product, which we have to take advantage of”). There’s going to be a technical director working as a senior manager, like they have in Europe.

profile2-Petrides with some of the team's players
Petrides with some of the team’s players

In short, he’s trying to rebuild the club like he rebuilt his own life over the past few years. “I’ve matured too, as a person and a businessman,” he asserts, laying specific emphasis on having gone bankrupt. “It matured me. I saw things very differently. And at that moment, when I was down, I also looked up and saw what was happening around me, and who was around me. These things help you to grow up.”

He used to get angry, for instance. “I had a bad temper. Had. Up until five or six years ago, I had a very bad temper”. One gets the impression of a pushy, combative alpha male, a man with a strong sense of self-worth; when I ask what he regards as his greatest achievement he replies that he’s most proud of having remained independent, “never asking for anyone’s favour”. His eyes are narrow, his face slightly lupine. He’s entrepreneurial, “open to any kind of business”. He co-owned Burger King in Cyprus for a while, then sold it on; his most obvious trait is a kind of restless vigour. “I don’t like to sit around, not even on a Sunday or a Saturday. I like to be in action all the time”. Even his hobbies are active, high-octane: he loves cars, and raced three times in the Cyprus Rally – and of course there’s football, both as player and supporter.

He might’ve made a minor career as a footballer, had he been born 20 years later (he was born in 1962). He played for his village team, Iraklis Gerolakkou, then graduated to Apoel’s reserves as a teenager – but of course there was no money in football at the time, and he wanted to go into business anyway (he doesn’t seem to have studied much, beyond an 18-month training course in Holland). Apoel was always a passion, from when he was a child – and of course, being the person he is, he always wanted to get involved, joining the Board in the early 90s. “I liked being in the place where decisions were made,” he explains. “Because I had my own views and opinions on how Apoel should be run.”

Those views are presumably now being put into effect – but what about all the problems we mentioned earlier? That’s where Prodromos Petrides becomes emollient, conciliatory – and, it must be said, not entirely convincing, though he tries hard to charm. “Yes, we have problems in Cypriot football,” he admits openly. “Unfortunately, if we go back a few years, it used to be quite politicised as well”. Those days, he says, are now behind us – which seems a bit over-optimistic, and will certainly come as news to the many Apoel fans toting Greek flags to matches (to be fair, he’s talking more of party politics, with Apoel and Omonia being explicitly affiliated with DISY and AKEL respectively). And what about the hooligans? Surely that’s still a problem?

“Of course. And we try, in co-operation with our supporters, to prevent the abuses that we see in the stadium sometimes. It’s not an easy task, because it doesn’t depend only on us”. To a large extent, he points out reasonably, it’s a social problem: if hooligans were banned from football, they’d probably wreak havoc somewhere else. The law needs to be changed, too; Apoel are in favour of the ‘fan card’ mooted by the present government, the objections over data protection raised by other clubs being – he says – politically motivated (so much for football no longer being politicised). Drugs are a problem as well, insofar as hooligans often go to matches stoned out of their minds: “When we approach sometimes, trying to calm down kids who are out of line, you realise that they’re somewhere else. You try to talk to them, and they’re not there. You can’t communicate with that person at that moment”. They’ll even yell abuse at club officials, let alone cops and rival supporters.

How do the hooligans’ excesses make him feel personally?

“I feel insulted, because they’re part of my team. I don’t deny that. But I can’t control them.”

Don’t the clubs know who these people are, though?

He chuckles wryly, as though at an oft-told joke. “You’ll say to me, ‘Is it possible that you don’t know?’ – and I tell you that I don’t know.” Prodromos sits up in his chair for emphasis: “I tell you I don’t know! The people that I do know, when I ask them who’s behind [the trouble], they never give names.”

Maybe so – though it’s also true that he’d hesitate to say so, if he had specific names. There’s a similar response when we get to the subject of match-fixing, a charge he finds rather dubious (Apoel itself hasn’t been named in any of referee Panayi’s allegations). “It’s never come to my attention,” he shrugs simply. “Even though I hear things too.”

Really? It feels like such rumours have been floating around forever.

“We hear it,” he repeats. “I hear it too, OK. But let them prove it.”

In short, and unsurprisingly, Prodromos Petrides is something of a cheerleader for Cyprus football. The practice of paying foreign players exorbitant wages so local teams can punch above their weight isn’t an expensive form of vanity, he claims, but merely a pan-European trend that has also raised standards among Cypriot players (the counter-argument – that locals now find it hard even to get first-team football – gets short shrift). He believes all our problems can be sorted out, and may even be overstated. Is he suggesting that football tends to be scapegoated, turned into a target for people with a hidden agenda? He nods with his customary vigour: “Exactly. Exactly.”

Like that recovering alcoholic, Prodromos’ eyes are firmly on the prize. 2006 was a bad year, he recalls; he put on a brave face, but inside he was going through “a lot of hurt … 2006 shook me, got me down – but then I started to get back on my feet”. His beloved Apoel has also had its share of ups and downs recently, not least financially: “The difficulties come when you’re successful,” he says with meaning – because that’s when the “intrigues” start, everyone trying to grab a share of the pie. There are things he prefers not to talk about, hints of squabbling and in-fighting; still, he rose above it. “In 2006 I said ‘I’m leaving now, when I’m on top, so I can return whenever I choose’,” he recalls. “And I didn’t leave tarnished or beleaguered – as most chairmen do, unfortunately”. He’s still standing, let’s put it that way.

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