A Greek-Russian businessman of humble origins, PAOK FC owner Ivan Savvidis has put Greek football once again under the spotlight after storming onto the pitch with a holstered gun at his belt.
The Greek government suspended the football league after the incident on March 11 and FIFA has demanded immediate action from Greek authorities, with both PAOK and Savvidis facing stiff penalties.
But in Thessaloniki, Greece’s neglected northern metropolis, Savvidis is feted as the man who has saved many of the top enterprises in the Greek north from ruin.
“This man has poured out his soul, as well as his money,” says Filotas Pellios, head of PAOK’s veterans club.
Savvidis, who started as a tobacco worker in Russia, was a member of the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament, until 2011 and has an estimated fortune of $600 million.
In just six years, he acquired PAOK – one of Greece’s four most popular clubs – state tobacco company SEKAP, leading bottling company Souroti, Thessaloniki’s top hotel and national newspaper Ethnos .
It was reported on Friday that Savvidis had sold his Russian tobacco conglomerate Donskoy Tabak, which includes SEKAP, to Japan Tobacco, and he is part of a Franco-German consortium that recently purchased the port of Thessaloniki, the gateway to the Balkans, and he is in the process of opening a TV station.
Savvidis, whose ancestors were Black Sea Greeks who faced oppression in Turkey, and later in the Soviet Union, was rewarded for his investments with honorary Greek citizenship by the previous conservative administration.
To many in the north, he is the only man who can challenge the power of Athens and end a three-decade football drought for clubs from outside the capital.
“[Athenians] are bothered because someone dares to challenge the status quo,” says Christos Nikolaidis, a local journalist.
“Savvidis is the only investor left in Greece with the strength to hit back at this rotten structure. The war is about him, not PAOK,” adds Christos Dimitriadis, a shop employee.
By splashing out on players, including former Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov and former Porto winger Vieirinha, Savvidis has put PAOK back on the map.
“We cannot tolerate being a marginalised club. We are stronger than them,” Savvidis said in a speech to the PAOK board in 2016.
This year, they are in a neck-and-neck race with AEK Athens for the title.
It was a match between the clubs that prompted Savvidis’s pitch invasion, with a gun clearly on display – he was protesting against a disallowed PAOK goal.
An outpouring of support from PAOK players, local politicians and former associates followed a sports prosecutor’s decision to throw the book at Savvidis, who faces a hefty fine and a suspension of three to five years.
“I don’t care what they say, because they don’t know how we feel about you,” former Real Madrid and PAOK defender Pablo Garcia, now a PAOK youth coach, posted on Instagram.
Supporters behind Savvidis
“All political parties should know that they cannot play with the people of PAOK. If they dare to hurt Ivan Savvidis we will be there like soldiers to give battle,” says Yiorgos Triantafyllidis, 31, who is unemployed.
Earlier this month PAOK had a three-point penalty over another bout of violence at their Toumba stadium overturned.
PAOK is “at war” with Athens, the club’s technical director Lubos Michel, a Slovak former FIFA referee, told a Russian news website.
The Greek football federation are taking precautions. They have moved an international friendly against Switzerland on March 23 from Thessaloniki to Athens, fearing possible violence.
Savvidis, who has a firearms licence, is just one of several football bosses assumed to be armed for their safety.
In the 1980s, the chairman of Athens powerhouse Panathinaikos, Yiorgos Vardinoyannis, was rumoured to carry a handgun to games.
And in 1996, shots were fired in the VIP offices of AEK Athens in a refereeing dispute between club officials and the head of league.
“We lived with bosses drawing guns in past years. Was anything done about them?” said retired PAOK player Kyriakos Alexandridis.