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

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.”


Tyson Fury’s promoter says Saudi Arabia could host ‘Battle of the Brits’ Anthony Joshua heavyweight clash

Updated 20 min 10 sec ago

Tyson Fury’s promoter says Saudi Arabia could host ‘Battle of the Brits’ Anthony Joshua heavyweight clash

  • Frank Warren says the fighters will go where the money is
  • Anthony Joshua's promoter says 'huge site offer in place' for fight with Fury in Saudi Arabia

LONDON: World heavyweight champions Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua could fight in Saudi Arabia, Fury’s promoter said Sunday, after his boxer destroyed Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas.

Speculation is rife over who Fury will face next after the “Gypsy King” twice knocked down Wilder to seal an emphatic victory. Most pundits are hoping for a “Battle of the Brits” with Tyson and Joshua currently holding all four heavyweight belts between them.

Joshua fought Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah near Riyadh in December and his team said previously there is an offer to fight the winner of the Fury, Wilder fight in the Kingdom.

 

 

Fury was also inside a ring in Saudi Arabia in October when he took part in WWE’s Crown Jewel event in Riyadh. 

Frank Warren, Fury’s promoter, refused to rule out Saudi Arabia as a venue for the “Battle of the Brits.”

“In a dreamscape it should be in London but they’re professional athletes,” Warren said. “These guys have short careers, they go where the money is.

Anthony Joshua beat Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia in December. (AFP/File photo)

“It’s the boxers who get in the ring and they’ll make the choices.”

Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn said last month that they have a “huge site offer in place” for the fight to take place in Saudi Arabia. 

Describing it as a “big option,” Hearn said: “We have a partnership out there in Saudi Arabia.

“They put the money up for the Andy Ruiz fight. Everything they promised, they delivered.

“They want this fight bad and when they've got that kind of attitude and mentality, it's going to be difficult to beat.”

Several hurdles remain in place for Fury to face Joshua.

Wilder, who held his title for five years, has 30 days to invoke a rematch clause against Fury. 

Joshua is scheduled to fight Kubrat Pulev at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London in June, but Hearn has suggested that match could be canceled to make way for a clash with Fury.

Another obstacle would be how to split the prize money. Warren suggested a 50-50 split would be generous to Joshua after the scale of Fury’s win in Las Vegas.

“In my time I’ve been involved with some big fights and some big fighters,” Warren said. “This is without doubt the best performance by a British fighter - not abroad, but ever.”

Joshua’s fight against Ruiz was the biggest boxing event held in Saudi Arabia and part of a drive to make the Kingdom a venue for the world’s biggest sporting events.

The fight took place on a rainy night at the purpose built 15,000 seat Diriyah Arena.

Joshua beat Ruiz with a unanimous points decision from the judges, reclaiming his world heavyweight belts.