Like many clubs before them, Olympiakos have waved the cheque book in an attempt to buy success. But is there a realisation that home-grown is the way to go? James Gillespie reports.
Last season was a particularly inglorious one for Olympiakos. Finishing runners up in the Greek League to deadly rivals Panathinaikos may seem acceptable to some, but for Greece’s most successful club ‘The Legend’ – second place is humiliation.
To top it off the team were then unceremoniously left out of the Champions league via the Greek playoff system, finishing bottom in a mini-league of clubs second to sixth. The club even missed out on the Europa League, after losing to Maccabi Haifa. A season without European football is pretty much unthinkable for many Olympiakos fans, and the club was lurching in a shambolic state.
The rot set in over the last season, after ex-chairman and ‘East German spy’ (seriously) Sokratis Kokkalis began cutting back on investment in the club. Add that to the perpetual merry-go round of new managers and a massive lack of organisation and problems are inevitable. German manager Lienen was installed by Kokkalis after the sacking of Zico in January of this year, and it was Lienen who oversaw the team disastrously missing out on European competition last season.
Enter Vangelis Marinakis, Greek shipping tycoon. The larger than life Marinakis stepped in during July and set about investing in the team in the way that has come to be expected of club owners in the modern era. He spent a lot of money and oversaw a staggering 14 new signings, whilst offloading 21 players, and completely restructuring the club, bringing back double winning coach Ernesto Valverde to replace Lienen (only the third manager in 12 months).
Fast-forward several months and Olympiakos are one point clear at the top of the Greek Superleague, after a run of four straight wins, albeit against weaker opposition. Although the season is only five games young, the dominance of the Piraeus club could continue. This can only be aided by the problems rivals Panathinaikos are facing with their inexperienced coach Nikos Nioplias threatening to quit after media pressure.
In the words of one commentator I spoke to, Olympiakos are now a “poor man’s Galacticos”. The term fits simply because of the amount of big name signings - players such as Mellberg, Rommedahl, Pantelic as well as a Spanish quadruple of Raul Bravo, Riera, Ibagaza and David Fuster all play in the first team. Indeed the club is rather lacking in Greek talent, buying from abroad in order to access better players.
However, in a league which is dominated by crazy owners, exorbitant transfers, and general confusion, not much young talent has had space to come through the Olympiakos academy since the Uruguayan Nery Castillo, over six years ago.
This situation is changing with the emergence of a Greek nineteen year old, lauded as the ‘Greek Messi’, and not just due to his growth hormones either. Ioannis Fetfatzidis may suffer from the pressure of raised expectations, but his performances for the first team this season have really stood out and he looks promising.
In addition, the club have more good young players coming through the ranks, having won the U-21 league and cup last season. Now some of these players have made it to the first team squad, whilst many are out on loan in the lower leagues.
Marinakis has attempted to revolutionise the club, not only superficially, but setting things straight for the future. After the transfer splurge of the summer, Marinakis is now moving to deal with the state of the Academy and scouting system – essential for any club with aspirations to be at the top level of European football.
The improvement is visible, but this style of teambuilding does not help address the problems of competition within Greek football, and can often create teams lacking in spirit if too many mercenaries are acquired so quickly. If the board are really serious about change and laying down plans for the future, they have to stick with them, and not react impulsively to results, as too often happens in Greece. Most importantly, the investment and development of young players must be maintained, and followed through into the first team. This not only provides some income if they are sold, but creates a more cohesive and stable club.
Now Olympiakos face the first big test of the season at the end of October, with consecutive matches against Aris and Panathinaikos, both of whom are playing in Europe this season. So far the influence of Marinakis has shone through, and the team looks refreshed. However, more Olympiakos success is not necessarily success for Greek football. The quality of the Superleague is improving, but more variety in winners would strengthen the competition from regions other than Athens.
James writes regularly for IBWM and is also site editor for the excellent ArseSpeak