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Opinion | You don’t have to be mad to buy a football team, but it helps

Let’s start with a quick question: Do you know who Ivan Savvidis is?

If you do, here’s another: Had you heard of him before 11th March?

I’d take bets that more than 50 per cent of you said yes to the first question but the group with prior knowledge is far, far smaller. 

Billionaire Savvidis was already well known in Russia – where he owns the largest cigarette company and has had a career in politics – and Greece where, among another massive tobacco operation and various media enterprises, he owns Thessaloniki-based football club PAOK.

It’s in that capacity that he suddenly found global fame. On 11th March, he carried out a one-man (+ security heavies) pitch invasion at the Toumba stadium after the referee disallowed an 89th-minute PAOK goal against visiting Athenians AEK.  

What makes this incident different from your run-of-the-mill losses of self-control at football games is that Savvidis was, as they say, packing heat. His revolver was clearly visible in its holster and, if that made uncomfortable viewing for millions watching on TV, it must certainly have had a laxative impact on the referee who was figuratively if not literally in his sights.

A Greek journalist friend of mine was fairly nonplussed by the affair: “Carrying a gun? Its normal. It’s just that he forgot to put his jacket on and we could all see it.”

The Greek football authorities were less laid back. They immediately suspended the league and a repentant (‘moment of madness Your Honour’) Mr Savvidis is apparently going to be charged for invading what is technically his own pitch, although not for taking along his piece.

When Savvidis bought PAOK he paid-off its considerable debts, invested in the stadium and clearly cares about the club/his investment. His apparently uncontrollable rage was, he has indicated, born out of passion and a sense of injustice that nothing goes the way of his team when it comes to refereeing calls, a feeling he shares with 99.9 per cent of football fans on the planet. 

The entire incident was given an interesting perspective by events little more than 24 hours earlier at the London Stadium, centrepiece of the 2012 Olympic Games and for the last two seasons home to Premier League West Ham United.

Here too the pitch was invaded – a number of times in fact – with one trespasser planting a flag in the centre circle and others using it as an opportunity to get up close and personal with the players.

The invasions were triggered when the visiting side scored twice (they got another before the end) and West Ham’s already less than average season took another turn for the worse.  Those inside the stadium described a ‘toxic atmosphere’ as the pitch invasion led to scuffles and groups of fans moved on the director’s box to vent their collective spleen on the club’s owners. David Sullivan and David Gold are two wealthy West Ham fans from the club’s East London homelands and had to be ushered out of the stadium to keep them from the mob.

Since buying the club, Gold and Sullivan have invested significantly and overseen the move to the London Stadium from the club’s historic home at Upton Park, where a capacity crowd of around 34,000 could create a fevered atmosphere.  Therein lies much of the problem. 

Given the annual cost of using the stadium is about a quarter of the annual salary of a decent Premier League striker it seemed, on paper, the deal to end all deals. But the fans don’t like the new home, claiming it wasn’t built for football and lacks atmosphere. They blame the owners for not investing further in an average team and have now gone into open revolt.

All of which raises the question, why would you buy a professional sports club? Gold and Sullivan are hated by their own fans, Savvidis suffers from sharing their passion and deeply feels the real or imagined bias of referees against his team, while countless other owners around the world suffer insults and ignominy week-on-week because they’ve decided to invest in a sports team rather than buy another bank. They don’t need the stress, few are making any actual money out of their ownership and every one of them knows that the moment the team goes on a losing streak their emotional and financial commitment will become a matter of public debate.

But despite all this, owning a team seems to remain an attractive proposition. Mukesh Ambani, a petrochemicals tycoon with a net worth of $40bn has splashed his cash on the Mumbai Indians of the Indian Premier League, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer ($38.4bn) has the NBA’s LA Lakers on his asset list while fellow Microsoft man Paul Allen ($21.7bn) owns the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks as well as the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA and Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer. 

None of these people got rich owning a club. Sure there’s money there if you buy and sell at the right time – and America’s closed leagues at least provide the stability required to turn a buck – but, as the experiences of Gold, Sullivan and Savvidis show, relatively modest gains can come at a significant personal price.  

On the whole this doesn’t happen in other sectors, but then there is no other business where the customers are almost religiously devoted to one product to the exclusion of all else and where an arbitrator’s apparently incomprehensible decisions are as likely to go for as against you. 

Sport is often bizarre, usually contentious and wonderfully unpredictable and that’s what gives it its remarkable hold on the imaginations of billions of us.  And maybe that’s why it’s played by slightly different rules.

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