Cyprus Mail

Why dictators invest in football

1971 European Cup final between Ajax and Panathinaikos (Den Haag, ANEFO)

By George Koumoullis

Demetris Christofias comes from a long line of leaders aware of the election rewards of a victorious football team

IN A DEMOCRATIC country with the rule of law, state institutions enjoy universal respect. In Cyprus, the most important institutions are the Presidency of the Republic, the Presidency of the House of Representatives and the Office of the Attorney-General. The integrity and honesty of the people in charge of these institutions must never be in doubt.

Paying for football glory Demetris Christofias
Paying for football glory Demetris Christofias

Unfortunately, the actions of the former President of the Republic Demetris Christofias, as related in court over the last 10 days, has dealt a big blow to one of these institutions.

According to the testimony of Miltiades Neophytou, the boss of the contracting firm, the former president used his influence to change the zoning designation of an area known as Halepianes, in which the Akel-controlled football club Omonia owned land, from ‘agricultural’ to ‘special uses’ so that the land could be sold at a much higher price and the club would be able to settle its debts.

The ‘leader of the people’, as Christofias liked to call himself, placed the interest of the football club he supported above the national interest. In other words, Christofias’ action blatantly lacked integrity and as such wounded the institution of the presidency. Even more insulting for the institution – if Neophytou’s allegations are correct – was that as president, Christofias intervened to arrange that the Bank of Cyprus increased the overdraft limit of Neophytou’s company, the extra money being used to cover Omonia’s needs.

Italy's Benito Mussolini
Italy’s Benito Mussolini

As regards the House it would be superfluous to describe the depths it has sunk to. We all know it embarrasses and negates itself by showing complete disregard for the laws it voted for.

The previous attorney-general also dealt a big blow to the institution he served, when in 2013 using his position, he issued a nolle prosequi for a case in which his son was charged for committing several serious traffic violations.

Christofias was correct in identifying the link between football and politics. When Omonia triumphs, the euphoria this creates among a large section of the people is converted into more votes for Akel. Christofias must surely have studied the cases of several dictators when he decided to use footballing success as a means of increasing his popularity. A dictatorship calculatingly turns people’s attention to football so that it can seamlessly carry on ruling and be relatively popular.

There are plenty of examples that prove this point. General Franco helped Real Madrid buy the world’s best players in the 1950s and when the European Cup (the precursor of the European Champions League) was introduced in 1955, Real won the competition for six years in a row. Even today, many Real Madrid supporters defend Franco because of his big contribution to their team’s glory years.

Another dictator, Portugal’s Dr Salazar by generously funding Benfica managed to end Real’s European Cup dominance, the Portuguese side winning the title in 1961 and 1962. Earlier, in 1934, Benito Mussolini wanted at all costs to show off the greatness of his totalitarian regime and Italy’s might, by winning the World Cup that was held in Italy in that year. He achieved his aim by spending huge amounts of money on making the best South American players Italian citizens and bribing the Swedish referee of the World Cup final between Italy and Czechoslovakia.

Spain's General Franco
Spain’s General Franco

The Junta of the Greek colonels also invested generously in football. In Cyprus it financed many ‘nationalist’ football clubs so they would obsequiously praise the dictatorship and its leader Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos. Such was its power in the late sixties and early seventies, it spread its influence (through its money) over left-wing clubs as well. As a result, Costas Aslanidis, the Junta’s general secretary of sport was declared an honorary member of Omonia, while his photograph was put up in the club building.

The Junta’s most astonishing football feat, however, was bribing Red Star Belgrade in the semi-final of the 1971 European Cup. In the first leg of the tie in Belgrade, Red Star – one of the best teams in Europe at the time – defeated the Greek champions Panathinaikos 4-1. For the Greek side to go through to the final, it had to win the home leg by 3-0, something all but impossible given the superiority of the Yugoslav side. Panathinaikos won 3-0 and advanced to the final. A confidential Junta document revealed that the Yugoslav players had been bribed with three million drachmas or 35,000 pounds. In today’s prices, this would amount to one million euros.

The semi-final triumph was followed by a big celebratory parade, at a time when all public gatherings such as demonstrations and parades were banned. The police did not break up the crowd but instead greeted it with big smiles.

In the final at Wembley, Panathinaikos faced Dutch champions Ajax, a side that could not be bribed, so Aslanides thought of another strategy. He made a vow to the Virgin Mary of Tinos and took her icon with him to the final. Sadly for Panathinaikos, the Virgin Mary did not heed the junta’s prayers.


George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist

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