"The expectations were huge when Russian oligarch Ivan Savvidis bought the Greek club PAOK in 2012. The club from Thessaloniki in Southern Greece hadn’t won the league since 1985, and was slowly falling further and further behind the powerhouse Olympiacos, who have won 43 league titles in total, 18 of these coming in the previous 20 seasons.
Savvidis is a Pontic Greek born in the Greek settlement of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1959. After serving in the army, he moved to Rostov-on-Don where he got a job at the Donskoy Tabak factory. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent wave of privatizations in Russia in the early 1990s, he became general director of the Donskoy Tabak company, which started his journey towards becoming one of Russia’s richest men.
Since then he has featured in several successful business ventures including AGROKOM Group, an asset management company that is one of Russia’s biggest private companies, and in 2003, he was elected to the Russian parliament as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, a seat he held until 2012.
In July 2002, he made his first appearance on the football scene when he became president of FC Rostov, who reached the Russian cup final the following year. Rostov went to lose the match 1-0 against Spartak Moscow, which remains the last time the Red-Whites have won a major trophy.
Savvidis left FC Rostov in the summer of 2005, and six months later, he became chairman of the board at city rivals SKA Rostov. Although traditionally being the strongest of the two Rostov-on-Don clubs, SKA had succumbed to the lower divisions of Russian football since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the club managed to win the cup in 1981, while also losing two cup finals and finishing second in the league once.
After two years at the club, SKA Rostov were promoted to the FNL in 2006, but after just two seasons in the FNL, they had to withdraw due to financial problems.
Then, in 2012, he reentered the football scene when he bought the controlling stake in PAOK.
'I want PAOK fans to love me for my leadership skills, not for my money', he said then, hinting that he wouldn’t be the kind of owner who would spend millions in the hunt for success and titles. He did however spend €22.2 million, paying off the club’s debt and allowing it to move forward with a clean slate.
Rather than simply splash out on expensive players, Savvidis has taken a critical look at the existing structures of Greek football, and tried to reform them in an attempt to make both PAOK and the league more sustainable and modern.
'Ivan Savvidis took over PAOK at an extremely difficult time for the club', Elena Budou, sports journalist Paok24.com and radio station Libero, said, adding that, 'During the four years since the takeover, he has spent more than €80 million. As a result, PAOK is the only Greek team that is financially ‘clean’. PAOK doesn’t owe the Greek government a single euro, which the fans are very happy about'.
In late 2015, Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis and several other powerful men from the top of the football establishment were arrested and charged for match-fixing and fraud, which made deputy sports minister Stavros Kontonis state: 'The situation in Greek football and in sport in general has escaped beyond any control and intervention'. This is the environment in which Savvidis is trying to make his changes. In March, he even stated that he was ashamed of being linked with Greek football.
The best example of Savvidis’, and PAOK’s, fight against, what is described as the corruption of Greek football, came in April, when the Black-White’s withdrew from the Greek Cup after riots during a game between Olympiacos and PAOK.
'Our decision not to participate, following the unprecedented lawlessness in Toumba Stadium [PAOK’s stadium] two months ago, kick-started the cleansing procedure in Greek football', Savvidis wrote in a statement on the club’s website, 'I am glad that PAOK played a leading role in this movement'.
So are the people of Thessaloniki and the fans of PAOK. 'PAOK people were, and will always be, very proud of the club and Savvidis taking the leadership in the rebellion to clean up Greek football, and having Savvidis by their side helps them keep their heads high despite the consequences', Bodou said.
However, as admirable as his fight to improve Greek conditions are, the main objective for a football club is to win football games, and so far PAOK haven’t been able to break Olympiacos’ hegemony.
'The only dark spot on Savvidis’ years in the club', Bodou said, 'Is the fact that PAOK hasn’t won any trophies yet. When that happens, Savvidis will be known as one of the most successful personalities in the club'.
Since Savvidis’ entrance, PAOK have secured two second places, but even in their best season, they were still 15 points behind Olympiacos.
In the meantime, the club has gone through several coaches and sports directors, and the club is yet to experience the continuity and stability that often characterize top clubs. 'He is a business man and he wants to be effective. People are both impatient and thirsty for trophies and titles, as there have been 30 years without a championship. The pressure on the head coach of PAOK is big, but it seems that Savvidis has learned a lot through these years', Bodou explained. And if Savvidis doesn’t feel the coaches are doing their job properly, it doesn’t matter if their name is Igor Tudor or Huub Stevens.
Perhaps Savvidis has realized that he needs to invest more money in the squad to win the league. Last summer he signed legendary Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, and in February he sacked sports director Frank Arnesen ‘because they had different ideas of how to run the club’. Arnesen later revealed that he wanted to utilize the many young, Greek talents in the squad, which suggests that Savvidis was looking for more established players.
In an interview with SDNA at the end of last year, he said that he would keep on giving the fans gifts like Berbatov, although he would of course respect the wishes of the sports director and head coach, suggesting PAOK could bring in more big foreign names.
While PAOK are still far behind Olympiacos, who have built their domination on a steady revenue of Champions League millions, Savvidis has built a strong foundation. 'I strongly believe the best is yet to come', Bodou said, 'Despite the fact that Savvidis has made mistakes, he now understands the inside matters of the club and Greek football'.
While Savvidis has spent most of his money and attention on PAOK in the recent years, he hasn’t forgotten about his old hometown, Rostov-on-Don. When FC Rostov were in financial problems last season, he loaned them money twice, and in March AGROKOM Group became the general sponsor of the club. 'When they first approached me in the middle of last year', Savvidis said, 'I said that I was ready to get involved with FC Rostov only if maximum goals are set [for the squad]'.
The ambitious Savvidis is certainly not an ordinary owner, and while it remains impossible to predict anything about the future, his two beloved clubs could meet each other in a European tournament sooner or later", was the article about the Greek-Russian businessman.