The Greek football league was suspended after the president of the PAOK club, Ivan Savvidis, invaded the pitch in Sunday's match against AEK Athens with a holstered gun on his belt
Athens (AFP) - The president of Greek club PAOK on Tuesday apologised after storming onto the pitch with a holstered gun tucked in his belt, an incident that prompted the indefinite suspension of the championship.
“I am very sorry over what happened. I clearly had no right to enter the field of play in this fashion,” Greek-Russian businessman Ivan Savvidis said in a statement.
Savvidis, who has extensive holdings in Greece and is rumoured to be close to the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, was on the run for 24 hours after an arrest warrant was issued following Sunday’s incident.
His antics have put pressure on Tsipras, who is accused by rivals of allowing Savvidis to continue a rapid rise in the Greek business world in return for political support and help with privatisations.
FIFA is demanding swift results in the attempt to restore order, the latest in years of initiatives to stamp out violence and murky dealings in Greece’s most popular sport.
Savvidis himself said on Tuesday that Greek football is “completely sick.”
“Despite attacks at all levels, I will continue to fight for fair football and honourable refereeing in all matches, so that games are won on the pitch and not in courtrooms,” he said.
He denied claims that he had bickered with the referee and an official from PAOK’s opponents, AEK Athens, and claimed his foray onto the pitch at his club’s Toumba stadium was solely aimed at preventing violence from breaking out.
“My only aim was to protect tens of thousands of PAOK fans from provocation, clashes, human victims,” he said, even though, owing to a ban on away fans, only home supporters were present.
The diminutive, bearded Savvidis was pictured jaw to jaw with AEK’s head of football operations, while PAOK’s technical director Lubos Michel – a Slovak former FIFA referee – is believed to have threatened match referee Yiorgos Kominis.
- Praise for Tsipras -
Savvidis, a 58-year-old tobacco industrialist and a former lawmaker with the party of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has applauded Tsipras for “protecting investors”.
“Hold onto Tsipras. He is a precondition for future success,” Savvidis said in May.
“When I saw his speech (in parliament) I felt exactly like when I heard Vladimir Putin in 2000. I want a president like that,” he said.
Flanked by bodyguards, Savvidis stormed onto the field in the 90th minute after a goal that would have given PAOK victory in the top-of-the-table clash was disallowed for offside.
Police have said Savvidis is not sought over the gun, for which he has a license, but for the pitch invasion, which is a misdemeanour offence not punishable in prison.
PAOK and AEK are in a neck-and-neck race for the Super League title, which would be the first for either team for more than two decades.
Tsipras has staked his political capital on resolving the crisis, insisting he would disregard any “political cost” to restore order to the league.
“We must all decide to ignore the political cost… It’s a question of will. Personally, I am determined to go ahead,” Tsipras said.
- Powerful figure -
His deputy minister for sport, Yiorgos Vassiliadis, had said after an emergency meeting with Tsipras that the league would “not start again without a new framework agreed by all.”
Vassiliadis said the government was in close contact with European football body UEFA, which he said had been “shocked” by the incident.
He did not rule out the prospect of Greek clubs sitting out next season’s European competitions, but insisted the national team would not be affected.
FIFA said it “now expects appropriate measures to be taken, and rapidly.”
It warned a failure to take action “to eradicate” violence could lead to the suspension of the Greek association from the sport’s governing body.
Dubbed “Ivan the Terrible” by adoring PAOK fans, Savvidis has put the club from the northern port of Thessaloniki back in contention after decades of the championship being dominated by clubs from Athens.
Adding to the complications for the government, companies owned by Savvidis are the main sponsors of the Greek league.
Savvidis bought PAOK in 2012, followed by ailing state tobacco manufacturer SEKAP and Thessaloniki’s top hotel Makedonia Palace in 2013, under the conservative administration that preceded Tsipras.
Last year, he bought one of Greece’s top newspapers, Ethnos, and was part of a Franco-German consortium that won a bid for the privatisation of the Thessaloniki port authority.
But the deal was postponed after a Russian bank backing Savvidis was placed under temporary administration.
In a rare step, the US embassy in Athens later expressed concern over the issue, suggesting a lack of transparency over the funding behind the deal.