When we look back at the images that defined 2018, there’s plenty to choose from. But there was one, so breathtaking in its audacity, that it rightfully went viral. Back in March, in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, a top of the table Superleague clash was about to end 0-0 between the home side PAOK and AEK, from Athens. Both teams have enjoyed scant success in recent years as the league has been dominated by Olympiakos, owned by the highly controversial shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis (more on him later). Over the previous 21 seasons, Olympiakos had won 19 titles.
But not this year. This year the league was between the once dominant AEK of Athens, yet who hadn’t won the league since 1994, and PAOK, who hadn’t won it since 1985. Whoever won the game would be in pole position. Throw in a heated rivalry between the capital and Greece’s second city, the combustable atmosphere in PAOK’s feared Toumba stadium and a large number of ultras, and the atmosphere was guaranteed to be fiery.
And indeed it was. So much so that when the referee denied PAOK an 89th minute winner, the pitch was invaded by incredulous PAOK staff, and in the middle was the owner Ivan Savvidis. Wearing a gun. Not many people outside of Greece knew who Savvidis was. But here he was, with a gun on his hip, trying to remonstrate with the referee. The game was abandoned and the images went around the world. The result of that match, after much legal toing and froing, was awarded to AEK whilst PAOK had three points deducted. The incident, effectively, cost PAOK the title, which AEK Athens gleefully celebrated.
But that game in March did much more than bring the title to AEK. It brought Ivan Savvidis, a Russian oligarch closely aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and who bought a majority share of PAOK in 2012 – out of the shadows whilst highlighting the dysfunctional state of Greek football; mired by fan violence, knee deep in accusations of corruption and controlled by the machinations of the super rich.
Ivan Savvidis is very much a self-made man. He was born into a poor Pontic Greek family in rural Georgia in 1959, when it was part of the Soviet Union. The Pontic Greeks had historically come from the southern shores of the Black Sea, today in modern, northern Turkey. For centuries the Greek Orthodox christian population had found life difficult under the Ottoman empire, and had endured purges and forced expulsions. The situation became most pronounced from the end of the 18th century until the end of the Greco Turkish War, which Turkey won in, 1922. By the final population exchange agreed in 1923, two million people were uprooted. The Pontic Greeks fled and found themselves in the what would become the Soviet Union, where Savvidis was born. In fact, both PAOK and AEK have refugee histories. Both clubs were formed from recently arrived refugees from Constantinople, now Istanbul, who built football clubs to replace the ones they had lost.
Savvidis left home at 15 and moved to Rostov on Don, where he got a job rolling cigarettes at the state owned tobacco company before joining the army, where he served with distinction. He later graduated from the Rostov State University of Economic in 1988. The details are hazy about what he owned at that time, but after the Soviet Union disintegrated, he returned briefly to Greece before coming back to become the general director when the tobacco factory was privatised. Donskoy Tabak became one of the biggest players in the Russian tobacco market. It was reported by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that Donskoy gifted one billion cigarettes a year to the Russian army. From there, Savvidis diversified, setting up Agrokom in 2004 which provided a home for his myriad assets, including Donskoy Tabak and “the biggest cooked pork meat factory in South Russia” according to one official biography. He also loved football and was president briefly of Russian team FC Rostov and then their smaller city rivals SKA Rostov. At the same time Savvidis entered politics. In 2003 he entered the Duma, Russia’s Parliament as a member of United Russia, the country’s ruling party and long time political home of Putin (although Putin chose to run as an independent in Russia’s flawed 2018 presidential elections). He served until 2012. By then he had turned his attention to Greece, his ancestral homeland, and especially the northern region of Macedonia.
The Greek financial crisis – which followed the 2008 global recession – decimated the country’s economy, and Thessaloniki was hit particularly hard fuelling the already palpable resentment in the north of the country towards Athens. But Thessaloniki is also strategically important. The port is Greece’s gateway to the Balkans. So the crisis also presented an opportunity. Savvidis, after aligning himself with left wing government of Alexis Tsipras, went on a spending spree to purchase a whole range of assets at a knock down price. He is part of a consortium that has bought Thessaloniki port, a key strategic asset for NATO (of which Greece is a member). Russia views NATO as a military threat and combating its spread is perhaps its biggest foreign policy goal (more on that later too). Newspapers, a TV channel, tobacco companies, vast tracks of real estate and beach fronts, not to mention hotels and other business have all been purchased by Savvidis. He has come to dominate Thessaloniki’s economy.
But it was the 2012 acquisition of PAOK transformed him into a local hero. Greek football has been mired in corruption scandals, violence and allegations of government interference and favouritism for decades. Much of that came to a head in the Greek match fixing crisis of 2015. Dozens of officials were arrested and charged for their involvement, including Olympiakos owners Evangelos Marinakis. PAOK, and its fearsome Gate 4 ultras, had always seen themselves to be on the receiving end of a vast conspiracy directed from Athens by the likes of Marinakis. Savvidis was seen as the antidote; a wealthy man, an outsider, not dependent on state patronage and clean of the corruption that seemed to blight Greek football. When violence marred a cup semi final match against Olympiakos the following year, and almost led FIFA to suspend the Greek FA, Savvidis withdrew PAOK from the second game. “Greek football is undergoing an acute crisis – the healthy parties are fighting against a well-organized corrupt system,” he later explained in a statement. “Every day we are welcoming more supporters of clean football in our ranks. Today we need to unite our efforts and prove that the need to protect our country’s sporting honour, justice and decency stands above the interests of a single club.”
Marinakis was cleared three years later of forming a match fixing ring, but is still awaiting the outcome of a drug trafficking charge related to a ship that was found to have two tonnes of heroin on it. He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. When Marinakis bought Nottingham Forrest in 2017 he said that “the prosecution against me is a product of a plot and it has nothing to do with the truth.”
But as Savvidis’ battles with the Greek footballing establishment was winning over fans in Thessaloniki, elsewhere questions were being asked about the reasons for his vast investments in the region, especially key NATO assets like the port, which seemed to correlate with the Kremlin’s wider geo-political interests. A few months after the gun incident, a report from the OCCRP, a well respected international anti-corruption organisation, claimed that Savvidis had been funnelling cash in to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM fear-rom], which borders Greece to the north.
The country had recently changed its government and pledged to join NATO and the European Union. But this had been prevented by Greece in the past over the name of the country. Greece believes that there is only one Macedonia, the northern region of its country, and that FYROM is an attempt to acquire history and territory from Greece. It is a hugely emotive issue. But the new Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras agreed on a deal that would see the country renamed as the Republic of North Macedonia. A referendum was planned in FYROM to OK the move. The agreement sparked violent protests in Thessaloniki, often involving PAOK ultras. The Greek government even expelled two Russian diplomats over what they believed was attempts by Russia to stir up opposition to the agreement. Meanwhile, OCCRP claimed that Savvidis was funnelling 300,000 euros in cash to nationalist groups in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, and especially to the feared KOMITI ultras of FK Vardar, a football club owned by a Russian tycoon Sergey Samsonenko who, by chance, also comes from Rostov. The money, it was claimed, was used help agitate protests against the name deal and help thwart Macedonia’s NATO ambitions.
Macedonia’s prime minister later accused “Russian businessmen” of trying to agitate against the referendum. Savvidis, meanwhile, denied he had anything to do with it. “We make it absolutely clear that businessman Ivan Savvidis has nothing to do with the allegations of this totally false and highly slanderous report,” he said in statement.
Still, on the pitch at least, things are looking better. When PAOK played AEK earlier this season, PAOK won. Savvidis wasn’t there. He’s been banned from all football activity for three years, although that doesn’t stop him turning up to the stadium where he waves at the fans and then leaves before kick off. He does, at least, have other good news to console him. Earlier this year he sold Donskoy Tabac, as well as his Greek tobacco holdings, for $1.6 billion to Japan Tobacco.
At which point, Ivan Savvidis officially became Russia’s newest billionaire.