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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Pana's rebirth

Chris Paraskevas

"Panathinaikos isn't just a football club. It is an idea, a history, a tradition. It is more than just a team. Panathinaikos is all of us." You could be mistaken for thinking the above is a verse from Panathinaikos' famous anthem, which - according to legend - was written down on a packet of Keranis Cigarettes by two fans on their way out of a game during the 1950s. This is a club steeped in history, perhaps even haunted by it, with fans of every generation having grown up to believe theirs is a team that should be nothing short of a European giant. Ever since Panathinaikos became the first, and only, Greek club to appear in a European Cup final when they lost to Johan Cruyff's Ajax in 1971, no achievement has ever really matched that of the side famously led by Ferenc Puskas. Notable continental campaigns and domestic triumphs have followed but there has always been an insatiable desire in fans to consistently stand with the giants of European football. It is an almost delusional expectation, born of a rich tradition that no other Greek club can boast. This sense of entitlement to success brings an incredible level of vitriol and finger-pointing whenever a season passes without a trophy. Over the past 15 years, the frustration has built to a crescendo, with Pana winning only four pieces of silverware as they twice captured a league and cup double. During this period, fierce rivals Olympiakos have swept all before them, embarking on the most successful period in their history. The contrast between the two clubs on the pitch is mirrored off it. Where Olympiakos have been reborn in the modern era under strong leadership, heavy investment and intelligent planning, Panathinaikos have conspired to tear themselves apart from the inside. The past few years have seen a number of false dawns at a club where rhetoric about 'glory days' has stirred nostalgia but brought little in the way of practical forward movement. There has been the promise of a symbolic new stadium and salvation in the form of Arab investors; instead, vicious infighting, protest marches and brushes with financial disaster have defined PAO's modern history. The 2009-10 campaign that saw the club wrest the Greek Super League from Olympiakos and lift the Greek Cup should have been a watershed moment. However, the subsequent resignation of president Nikos Pateras - the man responsible for the financial investment that led to the success - left the club in the hands of an individual who was seemingly tired of the burden of leadership: Giannis Vardinogiannis. What followed was a bizarre period of turbulence in which the former rally car driver expressed a desire to hand over his majority share for free, without ever actually doing so. Wednesday, July 18, 2012, could however be the true turning point in the club's recent history. It marks the day that Vardinogiannis finally transferred his 54.7% majority share in the club, ending his family's 33-year involvement in Panathinaikos, a period of history that brought eight league titles and 11 Greek Cups. The new majority shareholders are Panathinaiki Alliance, a fan collective led by Yiannis Alefouzos, owner of the SKAI broadcasting group. Under the new structure of fan ownership, members are allocated shares based on the size of their investment, but each member will have only a single vote when it comes to deciding club issues. Fans from anywhere in the world can sign up to become a member via www.paomprosta.gr, so long as a minimum donation of €20 is made. As of July 2, the group has 3,661 members and has managed to raise over €1.8 million. It is a remarkable rebirth for a club that only a couple of months ago was without leadership following the resignation of chairman Dimitris Gontikas and his board. Gontikas has since been re-elected as chairman as Alefouzos looks to bring stability to Panathinaikos after they were threatened with having their Greek Super League licence revoked; on appeal, they were granted permission to compete in the top-tier and their UEFA Champions League qualifiers. Contrastingly, AEK Athens haven't been so lucky and unless they can satisfy their financial obligations before August 10, they will be relegated to the fourth division of Greek football. Disillusioned Panathinaikos fans who dream of past glories should remember the plight of their Athenian neighbours. For the moment, though, the sort of grandiose spending that saw the likes of Djibril Cisse and Gilberto Silva arrive at the club as they looked to challenge Olympiakos is a thing of the past. Current manager Jesuoldo Ferreira has responded by promoting young Greek talent from within as he works with limited resources. The club's administrators will, meanwhile, have financial stability rather than delusions of grandeur in their mind over the coming months. Given Greece's economic climate and the uncertain futures of clubs like AEK, perhaps a period of forced austerity is a blessing in disguise for PAO as they prepare to begin their Champions League campaign with a qualifier against Motherwell. The likes of Gilberto Silva won't be lining up against the Scottish outfit, but he is still very much involved, having signed up to be a member of the Panathinaiki Alliance. The quote that began this article actually belongs to the former World Cup winner, who also spoke about taking the club back to where it "deserves" to be. Perhaps even that sentiment can be taken to represent the sort of expectation that has landed the club in trouble in the past, but it could also reflect the emotional pull it has on anyone involved. And while the club's future will need to be built on considered and realistic business, they will also depend greatly on the generosity and love of the people who believe so blindly in their rich history and tradition.


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