The Oligarchs’ Derby – The New York Times

Olympiacos called it the Match for Peace. On April 9 last year, a little more than a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Greek club staged a friendly with Shakhtar Donetsk. It was a heartfelt, poignant sort of occasion, the first game Shakhtar had played since it had fled a war in its homeland.

Before the game, each of Shakhtar’s players emerged with Ukraine’s flag — cornfield yellow, summer blue — draped over their shoulders. Both teams’ jerseys were adorned with the slogan: “Stop War.” All proceeds from ticket sales for the game, held at Olympiacos’s Karaiskakis stadium in Piraeus, would be used to help support refugees from the fighting. “We use football as a tool for peace,” said Christian Karembeu, the Greek club’s sporting director at the time.

Four days earlier, Alkinoos, a crude oil tanker sailing under the flag of Liberia, arrived in Rotterdam from the Russian port of Primorsk, according to data from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air and analyzed by Investigate Europe and Reporters United, a Greek investigative journalism project.

Quite how much Russian oil the vessel was carrying is not known, only that the ship’s capacity is 109,900 deadweight tons, and that it is operated by Capital Ship Management. So, too, is the Aristidis, an oil and chemical tanker that arrived in Teesport, in northern England, a couple of days later. That ship, too, had come from Primorsk.

Capital Ship Management is owned by a Greek tycoon named Evangelos Marinakis. Though he has since diversified his holdings into media and retail, Marinakis can trace his fortune to shipping. That is where he made his money. It is in soccer, though, that he found fame. Marinakis is the man who turned Olympiacos into Greece’s serial champion.

Marinakis — also, much more recently, the owner of Nottingham Forest, now restored to the Premier League — has not broken any laws, or defied any sanctions, by facilitating the flow of Russian oil around the world. The only transgression here, given Olympiacos’s support for Shakhtar, was that his private and public stances did not match.

He is not alone in that. Giannis Alafouzos, like Marinakis, has a formidable portfolio of interests. He owns the SKAI television network, as well as Katherimini, Greece’s leading newspaper. Both have been fiercely critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Alafouzos has maintained a similar stance in his (relatively few) public statements on the issue.

At the root of his fortune, though, is Kyklades Maritime, a shipping company with a fleet of 22 tankers that has continued to transport Russian oil in the year since the war began. Investigate Europe calculated that Kyklades vessels have “carried out 26 shipments of crude oil or oil from Russia internationally” between the start of the invasion and Jan. 5 this year.

Alafouzos, it should be pointed out, also owns Panathinaikos, traditionally Olympiacos’s fiercest rival and its closest domestic competitor. In recent years, he has struggled to keep up with the juggernaut that Marinakis has built. Olympiacos, its revenues spiraling thanks to its frequent involvement in the Champions League, has claimed all but four Greek league titles this century. Panathinaikos, by contrast, has not been crowned Greek champion since 2010.

This year, though, it seems to have been restored. Under the astute coaching of Ivan Jovanovic, it sits 4 points clear of its nearest rival — AEK Athens — with only three games left in the regular season.

This weekend, though, brings its sternest challenge. Olympiacos currently sits third, 5 points back, but with a far deeper, more illustrious squad. It can call on the likes of James Rodríguez on Saturday when the clubs meet in Piraeus, at the Karaiskakis. Nobody will be describing it as a match for peace.

It is hard to capture the scale of meetings between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. Perhaps the best way is to note that the game is known in Greece as the Derby of the Eternal Enemies, and that is probably underselling it. There is a case to be made that this has long been the most heated rivalry in Europe.

Between them, though, Marinakis and Alafouzos have managed what really ought to have been impossible: They have stoked it further. Greek soccer has for decades been dominated not by its players and managers but by its owners: proud, bombastic, fabulously wealthy strongmen drawn from the country’s oligarch class, drawn to the sports less for the competition or the glory and more for the power it can bestow.

AEK, for example, is owned by Dimitris Melissanidis, another oil and shipping tycoon. PAOK, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, is a plaything of Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek tobacco tycoon. Their clubs bring them a profile, provide them with a constituency, and offer a base from which to promote themselves and the interests of their empires.

As owners of the country’s two most prominent and popular clubs, though, Marinakis and Alafouzos occupy the grandest stage. The friction between them has, at times, appeared to go beyond the professional and the commercial and into the deeply, virulently personal.

Alafouzos has previously sued Marinakis, among others, in relation to a match-fixing scandal — and attendant wave of violence — in which Marinakis was accused of involvement. He was later acquitted of all charges, and strenuously denies the accusations, painting them as a plot to discredit his success.

In return, Alafouzos’s news media outlets have more than once been accused of breaking Greece’s privacy laws in relation to Marinakis. In 2015, a meeting of the country’s Super League teams had to be suspended after a “violent” altercation between the two men, which ended with one of Alafouzos’s bodyguards nursing a split lip.

Quite how much any of this has to do with soccer is anyone’s guess. Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and Greek soccer as a whole are, in all likelihood, caught in the crossfire of something far bigger than a mere sport. They are, instead, pieces in a game in which there is no time for morals, where any route to success is considered fair game, where a billionaire rivalry is played out not just on the field but in courts and ports, across the shipping lanes and the airwaves. There, the real prize is not a trophy but pure, uncontested power.

For a while, Pablo Longoria had a nickname. As the best nicknames do, it caught on because it worked. Longoria was young, but he looked even younger. And his route into professional soccer’s executive ranks from Asturias, in northern Spain, had been unorthodox. He had honed his scouting acumen as a teenager by hours spent on various computer games. So they called him what he was: Niño De La Play — The PlayStation Kid.

At one point, soccer would have held that outsider status against him. Now, though, there is no longer a tightly defined, strictly controlled entry policy to the game’s backstage areas. Regardless of playing experience, any earnest striver, compulsive observer or slick charlatan can barge in the door. All it takes is enough persistence, self-belief and chutzpah.

Longoria’s story suggests he has all of those in abundance. By his own account, he set up a website to analyze players when he was 12, which is both unusual and the most 12-year-old thing imaginable. At 16, he wrote to clubs across Europe offering his services. Newcastle United, one of three to respond, showed him the proper form for completing scouting reports.

He did not stop there. He got a job as an analyst for Recreativo de Huelva, a venerable, cash-strapped team in Spain’s deep south. He worked for Newcastle, apparently, though it is not clear for how long and for what purpose. He built enough of a network to become a scout for the Italian side Atalanta.

By the time Longoria was 34, his résumé was positively glittering. He had been the head of recruitment at Sassuolo. He had been chief scout at Juventus and sporting director of Valencia before taking the latter role at Marseille. A little more than two years later, he earned a promotion: In 2021, he was appointed president of what is — historically — France’s biggest club.

Beyond his experience, Longoria did not have any actual qualifications for any of those jobs. A few bad decisions and he might have been dismissed as a self-generated myth, his lack of a playing career held up as conclusive evidence for his failure. The entrance to soccer may be open to anyone, after all, but so is the exit.

That Longoria has only risen, then, is testament to the fact that he appears to be good at his work. Very good. At Marseille, he has recruited a mix of reliable Ligue 1 stalwarts, aging castoffs and promising youngsters, and placed them at the service of Igor Tudor, a manager whose appointment was so underwhelming that he was jeered by his own fans simply for taking the job.

But it has worked, and worked spectacularly. Marseille sits second in Ligue 1, behind the stuttering traveling circus of Paris St.-Germain. P.S.G. travels to the Stade Velodrome this weekend for France’s great gala derby. Should Marseille win — as it did against P.S.G. in the French Cup a few weeks ago — it would close the gap to only 2 points. Nobody uses Longoria’s nickname any more. Where he came from no longer seems so relevant. Where he is going is much more interesting.

Union Berlin was supposed to have fallen away by now. Ragtag stories tend, after all, to have a relatively brief shelf life. Unlikely teams rise to the top of the table in the early weeks of the season, as the superpowers are still limbering up. They are flooded with praise for their spirit and their tenacity and their derring-do, and then they slip away with good grace and happy memories of their time in the spotlight.

Union, it would appear, has not been handed that particular copy of the script. The Bundesliga is roughly two thirds of the way through its season, and Union — the ultimate underdog, really — is still there, tied on points with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, its opponent this weekend, at the top of the table.

The likelihood remains, of course, that in the white heat of the final stretch, Bayern (or possibly Dortmund) will have the players, the legs and the resources to leave the others behind, but the longer it goes on, the more of a boon it is for the league as a whole.

The Bundesliga has always insisted that Bayern’s dominance is a good thing, not a bad one, no matter how counterintuitive that sounds and how wrong it very clearly is. But the mere possibility of Union’s staying the course has energized the competition.

There is no such thing as romance in any major league now, not really. Competition, in the truest sense, is an illusion. There is a hegemony, an unmoving hierarchy, in every corner of Europe. But maintaining that illusion is in itself quite important. It does not matter, in the long run, if Union can stave off gravity. What matters is that, for quite some time, it has looked as if it might.

As ever, this newsletter seeks to strike a balance between the pragmatic and the philosophical. Joe Light’s question belongs very much to the first category. “I’ve become fan of Wrexham since watching ‘Welcome To Wrexham,’” he wrote, clearly unaware of my close personal friendship with Ryan Reynolds, to whom I recommended a museum in York.

“I’m intrigued by the long throw-ins by Ben Tozer, which have the effect of a corner and often lead to scoring chances. Why don’t more clubs utilize this strategy?”

The answer to this question, Joe, is common decency. Well, a perception of common decency. Long throws were a familiar approach in the heyday of what I think we can all agree was the true beautiful game — burly Englishmen booting balls as far as possible on mud-stained fields, their turf not so much mowed as plowed — in the 1980s and 1990s.

After that, the idea became a little bit stigmatized. It has had something of a renaissance recently, though, thanks to the data-inflected, marginal gains philosophy of teams like Brentford, the Danish side Midtjylland and the Real Madrid subsidiary Liverpool. Ben Tozer may be a harbinger of the future.

Richard Lesser’s question is similarly pragmatic. “Why are Champions League knockout games scheduled at the same time?” he asks. “It makes no sense from a television fan’s perspective. Even if you record one game and watch the other, you still have to cloister yourself from hearing the other result.”

There will, I suspect, be practical reasons for this — kicking off one game earlier or later would impact match-going fans, after all — but I would agree it seems a little outdated. It should not be beyond human imagination for the games to be staggered by an hour or so, at least.

Ken Bariahtaris, on the other hand, is contemplating weightier matters: “The beauty of soccer at this level is the narrow margins. Goals, fundamentally, are hard to come by. Skill, technique, money to build a side all matter, but tactics, effort, a magical moment or two can overcome disadvantages. Over a season, the aggregate talent rises. But we all love the possibility of a single game or tie making the difference.” Scarcity, in other words, is soccer’s secret ingredient.

And a point from Walid Neaz that already has been added, even before you read this, to my list of prospective subjects. “We’re witnessing some of the best ever players for their respective nations in terms of appearances and goals: Neymar breaking Pelé’s record, Messi and Ronaldo setting all time-greatest marks, the likes of Luis Suárez for Uruguay, Robert Lewandowski for Poland, Romelu Lukaku for Belgium, Olivier Giroud for France. Is this truly the generation where we’re seeing players reach the highest heights, or is it helped by playing more games and competitions than ever before?”

My kneejerk, hot-take reaction is that the latter is certainly a substantial factor. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored a lot of goals for Portugal. Nobody is denying that. Nobody is devaluing his achievement. But it does seem like most of them came against Luxembourg, doesn’t it?

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