By Karolos Grohmann
ATHENS (Reuters) – A new-look 14-team Super League with a title playoff format at the end of the season will be carrying the hopes of Greek soccer with the sport’s image tarnished by years of crowd violence, financial problems and continuous allegations of corruption.
With two teams fewer than last season and an extended post regular season competition, league officials are hoping to keep the championship race in 2019/20 tight until the last match and attract spectators back to the stadiums.
“We want a championship that maintains interest until the last matchday, a competition that is attractive for both fans and potential sponsors,” Super League President Minas Lysandrou told Reuters in an interview this week.
In the new format the top six will play for the title while the bottom half will battle to avoid the drop.
In past years top teams have been relegated for debts, closed-door matches became a frequent phenomenon and attendance numbers dwindled amid the ravaging domestic financial crisis.
Club bosses and ultras often attacked officials and referees or stormed the pitch and world soccer body FIFA threatened a ban after PAOK President Ivan Savvidis entered the field with a gun in his belt.
That incident in March, 2018, involving Russian-born billionaire Savvidis led to an immediate suspension of the league by the government and saw the accused banned for three years.
This year’s Greek Cup final was played behind closed doors but fighting still erupted in the stands between the few invited guests and media.
That triggered an urgent need for immediate reforms for Greece – crowned European champions in 2004 – to end its downward spiral.
There were some signs of improvement though with PAOK winning the last league title – the first won by a club outside Athens since 1988 – while the top division recorded the first rise in ticket sales to just over 1.2 million, the highest in eight years.
The ticket sales, in comparison, is still about as many as Bayern Munich alone sell for 17 home matches per season as Greek average attendance per game still stands at 5,500.
“The aim is to increase the interest and suspense of the title race,” said Lysandrou, a vice president at Super League club AEK Athens, who took over as Super League boss in April.
“We expect an increase in competition and the added benefits that come with it. Spectator numbers should increase both in terms of average attendance but also in terms of total numbers (despite 14 teams),” Lysandrou said in the interview.
“Cutting teams to 14 (from 16) would by itself not have been able to boost interest and upgrade the commercial brand. Our research showed it had to be coupled with a playoff competition to get the maximum result.”
Lysandrou hopes the new format will also attract new sponsors on the league’s 60th anniversary as Greek soccer looks to turn the corner and leave its troubled past behind.
“The past is useful as a guide to help us avoid mistakes that were made before,” Lysandrou said.
“It is not an anchor that will hold us back. We want a restart. We have identified the things that have ended or must end and we have signalled this restart.”
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)