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Top Greek footballers head for the Grexit

Greek fans stand dejected after the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group A match between Greece and Czech Republic in Wroclaw, Poland, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Greece lost the match 1-2.
AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
Even Greek football fans are feeling the chill of austerity.
By Gwynn Guilford
EuropePublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Instead of brain drain, call it muscle drain: what happens when your star athletes flee economic collapse at home in search of opportunity abroad.

That’s exactly what’s going on in Greece right now. Just days ago, Italian club Chievo Verona snapped up Greek left-back Nikos Spyropoulos. Earlier this month, star midfielder Vasilis Torosidis announced his departure to Roma. Meanwhile, two-time Greek Young Footballer of the year Panagiotis Lagos recently defected to a Ukrainian team. All three players have spent their entire careers in Greece.

As austerity cuts and economic slowdown have drained the disposable income of Greek fans, stadium attendance has plummetedSponsorship and television broadcast rights have vanished as well. That’s been devastating for Greek clubs, which weren’t well managed to begin with—they were “highly leveraged, have intense liquidity and profitability problems and face increase danger of financial distress,” as Panagiotis Dimitropoulos, a sports management professor at the University of Peloponnese, presciently wrote in a 2010 report.

In many ways, the teams themselves are undergoing a microcosmic version of Greece’s struggle with austerity. ”For 10 years the top flight teams have been spending beyond their means and I think the reduction of budgets as a start is an obligatory and correct response,” Super League president Giannis Moralis told Reuters last September. ”These kinds of transfers belong in the past and it is time for clubs to operate with a budget relative to their income.”

Now even the Super League’s bigger teams have slashed their spending on player contracts by close to half, reports Reuters. That’s driven the average age of Super League players to a record low. The spending crunch has also caused a drop-off in foreign players (pdf. p. 20) for whom Greece was once an attractive league for stars past their prime.

And, of course, top Greek players, as well. But the exodus isn’t rooted solely in pay. Like the 4,000 Greek doctors migrating in search of improved opportunities, footballers are worried about career development as well. ”In the Greek league the level is very low, while abroad you learn how to play soccer,” said midfielder Sotiris Ninis, who joined the Parma club last autumn. “Greek players should go abroad if they can.”

Will their compatriots in other austerity-whacked countries soon join the exodus as well? Signs may be pointing that way. In Spain, “where there has been more of a tradition of developing local players, the effects of the financial crisis are just as damaging,” reported AFP. A recent study of the 2011-2012 football season found that last year 148 Spaniards decamped for foreign clubs, compared with 114 in 2011. Meanwhile 171 Portuguese players joined teams abroad, 41 more than the previous year.

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