Backed by Russian billionaire Ivan Savvidis, PAOK Thessaloniki celebrates first title in a generation

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PAOK celebrate winning the first league title won by a club outside Athens in 31 years. Success-starved PAOK last won the title in 1985 while Larissa was the last club outside Athens to win the league back in 1988. (AFP)
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PAOK Thessaloniki footballers and team owner Ivan Savvidis travel on a bus through a crowd of their supporters next to The White Tower in Thessaloniki, as they celebrate winning the Greek Super League title. (AFP)
Updated 22 April 2019
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Backed by Russian billionaire Ivan Savvidis, PAOK Thessaloniki celebrates first title in a generation

  • PAOK Thessaloniki became the first team outside Athens to win the Greek league title in more than three decades
  • Savvidis’ dream of building a major club was almost toppled last season in a game against AEK, during which he stormed onto the field to challenge the referee’s decision with a handgun holstered in his belt

THESSALONIKI, Greece: Tens of thousands of fans in Greece’s second-largest city partied through the night and into Monday after PAOK Thessaloniki became the first team outside Athens to win the Greek league title in more than three decades.
In wild scenes of celebration, fans packed along the city’s seafront — hundreds holding red flares — to catch a glimpse of the winning team on a double-decker bus after its 5-0 win over Levadiakos sealed its undefeated run to victory.
At the heart of the party was Ivan Savvidis, a stout Russian billionaire who transformed the club and bet heavily on the northern Greek economy. Supporters chanted his name as he walked between two rows of flame machines during a celebration ceremony.
The 60-year-old businessman, whose family is partly of Greek ancestry, took over PAOK in 2012 and rescued the club from financial ruin, settling debts and building a 63 million euro ($70 million) roster equal in value to that of the country’s largest club, Olympiakos.
Savvidis, who made his fortune in agriculture in southern Russia, tapped into PAOK’s underdog status and broader resentment throughout the city, which believes it has been overlooked by decision-makers in Athens.
“We have laid the foundations for what I hope is the start of some great achievements,” he said late Sunday, speaking through an interpreter. “Let those in Athens think with a clear head: What they did to us made us stronger by the day.”
Over the past decade, Savvidis has invested in northern Greek businesses, some on the brink of failure, as well as television stations and newspapers that are generally supportive of the country’s left-wing government. Despite his popularity in Thessaloniki, he is seldom far from controversy.
Greece’s western allies have noted his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he served as a member of Russia’s parliament before setting up his Greek businesses. And Savvidis’ dream of building a major club was almost toppled last season in a league game against AEK Athens, during which he stormed onto the field to challenge the referee’s decision with a handgun holstered in his belt.
He remains banned from attending PAOK’s games, but fans late Sunday were forgiving, chanting under the White Tower, the city’s main monument, “Ivan, get your gun.”
PAOK last won titles a generation ago, in 1976 and 1985, and Larissa was the last team outside Athens to claim the championship trophy when it did so in 1988. Olympiakos dominated subsequent decades, winning 19 out of 21 titles before AEK’s victory last season. (Another Athens club, Panathinaikos, won the other two.)
The stranglehold fueled bitterness among PAOK’s owners and fans. Controversy surrounding big-game refereeing decisions, as well as match-fixing prosecutions in the top-flight league, prompted league organizers to use foreign referees at all key matches this season.
PAOK was founded in the mid-1920s by Greek refugees who fled to the city after a catastrophic war with Turkey and owes much of its loyal following to that history.
Not only veterans and fans feel that burden.
Vieirinha, PAOK’s Portuguese captain, wasn’t born the last time the team won the league. On Sunday, in tears, he received a standing ovation from 25,000 fans at Toumba Stadium, playing the last five minutes despite an injury.
“A great team like PAOK does not deserve to wait 34 years to win a championship,” Vieirinha said. “What we lived through this past year is a dream for every PAOK fan. I am one of them. I come from them. For me, PAOK means everything.”


Kyrgios withdraws from French Open, citing illness

Updated 24 May 2019
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Kyrgios withdraws from French Open, citing illness

  • Roger Federer plays down chances of his winning the mega title

PARIS: After a tantrum in Italy last week, Nick Kyrgios withdrew from the French Open on Friday.

The ATP said the Australian player cited illness as the reason.

Last week at the Italian Open, the 36th-ranked Kyrgios was defaulted and fined during his second-round match after an outburst of rage. Trailing against Norwegian qualifier Casper Ruud, Kyrgios slammed his racket to the clay and kicked a water bottle. Then he picked up a white chair and flung it onto the court.

Kyrgios was fined and lost ATP points but escaped suspension and was expected to play in Paris.

His withdrawal came only days after Kyrgios posted a video online in which he said the French Open “sucks” when compared to Wimbledon, where he trained recently.

In 2015, Kyrgios insulted Stan Wawrinka with crude remarks during a match in Montreal. He was fined $12,500 and given a suspended 28-day ban. He also attracted criticism for deciding not to play at the Olympics because of a spat with an Australian team official, and for firing back at retired players who have offered advice.

Also on Friday, Roger Federer played down his chances of winning the French Open on his first appearance at Roland Garros since 2015, saying that title-winning form might not be “in his racquet.”

The 20-time Grand Slam champion missed the French Open in 2016 through injury before sitting out the next two clay-court seasons in order to focus on Wimbledon.

But he will make his Roland Garros return on Sunday with a first-round tie against unheralded Italian Lorenzo Sonego.

Federer admitted that he is unsure of his title chances, but did compare his current situation with when he ended a five-year Grand Slam drought at the Australian Open in 2017.

“(I) don’t know (if I can win the tournament). A bit of a question mark for me. Some ways I feel similar to maybe the Australian Open in ‘17,” the 2009 French Open winner said.

“A bit of the unknown. I feel like I’m playing good tennis, but is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I’m not sure if it’s in my racquet.

“But I hope I can get myself in that position deep down in the tournament against the top guys. But first I need to get there and I know that’s a challenge in itself.”

Despite being the third seed, Federer faces a tricky draw, with a possible quarter-final against Greek youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas — who beat him in the Australian Open last 16 — and a potential last-four clash with 11-time champion and old adversary Rafael Nadal.

Meanwhile, Nadal said on Friday that he “doesn’t care” if he is the red-hot favorite to lift a record-extending 12th French Open title, insisting that there are a host of players in contention for the trophy.

The world number two holds an incredible French Open win-loss record of 86-2, and hit top form by winning his ninth Italian Open last week with a final victory over old rival Novak Djokovic.