Olympiakos and their all-powerful president are celebrating yet another championship
Lou Economopoulos in Athens
Socrates Kokkalis, the 71-year-old billionaire, is the driving force behind a powerful dynasty at Olympiakos, the Piraeus club who won their 37th league title this season.
His wheeling and dealing over the last 16 years has led to the most popular team in Greece to win 12 of the last 13 domestic championships, five Cups and two Greek Super Cups.
During his reign Olympiakos have also returned to their original stadium, Karaiskakis, where a totally rebuilt ground was opened in 2004 at a cost of £50million.
“Olympiakos have the best team, the most loyal supporters, the most modern facilities and the best administrative staff,” says telecoms tycoon Kokkalis, who took over the heavily indebted club in 1993 when its previous presidents, George Koskotas and Argyris Saliarelis, were jailed for financial misdemeanours.
Kokkalis – who himself cleared his name seven years ago from accusations of espionage, fraud and money laundering – managed to get Olympiakos back on their feet with the help of state legislation which erased most of the club’s debts. He then dug deep into his pockets and brought top-notch players such as Christian Karembeu and Rivaldo, as well as leading coaches Dusan Bajevic and Oleg Protasov, to spark a dynasty which appears to have no end – even if few coaches have been given time to settle.
Kokkalis holds the Greek record for the most coaching changes, which includes three in one season and 11 coaches in just four years. Ernesto Valvarde is the latest to leave the club, despite the Spaniard delivering a domestic league and Cup double this season.
“I have given everything for this team the last 16 years,” Kokkalis told the board of directors recently. “I have taken out of my own pocket 150m euros. Is there anybody more Olympiakos than me?”
Kokkalis also opened up the club to outside investment in 2003 when he allowed supporters to buy membership of the club. Today some 80,000 supporters are registered members and a recent poll indicated that 30 per cent of the Greek population claim to be Olympiakos fans.
Founded in 1925, Olympiakos may have won more leagues (37) and Cups (24) than any other Greek club, but when it comes to European achievements the ball stops rolling. Their best run was reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 1999, where they lost to Juventus.
The lack of European success has always been on the mind of Kokkalis and over the past couple of years his investment in players and coaches has been geared to achieving that goal, albeit with limited success. Valverde paid the price for failing to qualify for the Champions League group stages, followed by an early exit from the UEFA Cup.
Valverde was given a standing ovation at Olympiakos’ domestic title celebrations at Karaiskakis stadium in early May, when 20,000 fans said goodbye to captain Predrag Djordjevic, who was retiring after 13 years with the club, and fellow Serbian Darko Kovacevic, who retired earlier this season due to health problems.
Kokkalis had offered Valverde a £900,000 contract for next season, plus £660,000 in bonuses if the team went well, but the Spaniard reportedly wanted a salary of £1.35m, which was rejected.
“We’d like to thank Mr Valverde for his significant achievement in Olympiakos winning the double this season, but now we must move on,” said club spokesman Yiannis Moralis. “We made an offer which we considered serious but it was not accepted. Since it was not accepted, the board of directors decided not to renew his contract.”
One person who parted on much better terms was Djordevic, who told fans: “After 20 years I have decided to put an end to my career. The 13 years I have spent at the big family of Olympiakos are particularly important as I have had some unique moments and won many titles.”
Indeed, the 36-year-old winger can look back on a career in which he celebrated 12 league titles and five Cups. But the club has not always been so dominant.
The legendary team of the 1950s won six straight domestic titles from 1954 to 1959, but Olympiakos then went through a relative drought in the 1960s and early 1970s, with only two championships and six cups.
When shipping tycoon Nikos Goulandris took over as president in 1972 things turned around once again, with three straight league crowns from 1973 to 1975.
Another dark era followed, from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, when the club came into the hands of Koskotas and Saliarelis, and Olympiakos’ worst period of all was in the 1987-88 season when they finished eighth after flirting with relegation.
But then came Kokkalis and his dynasty, and the rest is history.