Greek football, both domestic and the national team, is in a state of disarray
Almost 12 months ago, Olympiakos defeated Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League round of 16 first leg, setting up the possibility of them making the quarterfinals for only the second time in their history, while also on course to win a fourth consecutive Super League title. Fast forward three weeks and they lost 3-0 to David Moyes' side, exiting the competition.
Despite going on to win the league in 2013-14, this season has been complicated. More than that, 2014-15 has been a difficult year for Greek football on the whole.
Olympiakos crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages while off the pitch, numerous violent incidents, financial issues and accusations of match-fixing have all damaged the reputation of Greek football.
Envied around Greece for having the spending power others can only dream of during the nations economic strife, Olympiakos failed to qualify for the knockout rounds of this season's Champions League and have sacked their popular coach Michel Gonzalez, all while having to fend off a serious title threat from PAOK.
Based in Piraeus, a port town four miles south-west of Athens, Olympiakos have won the last four titles by landslide margins. Last season it was by 17 points, in 2012-13 it was by 15, in 2011-12 the gap was seven and the 2010-11 campaign was won by 13; since the turn of the century, the perennial champions have only been denied the crown twice. So while it wasn't too surprising to fans when the Erythrolefkoi (The Red-Whites) axed their manager despite him winning his final five games in charge, a little context is needed.
For a club that is used to dominating the Super League, sitting in first place isn't enough in and of itself. Performances towards the end of Michel's reign were poor, most notably in the 2-1 reverse to PAOK and 2-2 draw with PAS Giannina in consecutive home games in December.
There were strong rumours that the Spaniard had fallen out with Christian Karembeu, who acts as an advisor to club president Evangelos Marinakis, though the local press claim it was poor performances that proved his downfall: the final straw was a lacklustre 2-1 win over Platanias in early January.
The club have already dropped points in five games this campaign, just one less than all of last season. Yet the decision was met with derision from supporters. Michel himself was equally upset, issuing an open letter to fans in which he declared he "couldn't hold back the tears" and that "my legs shake when I think of your [the fans'] songs." Dramatic perhaps, though it's unlikely he would have expected the axe, despite failure to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League and falling behind PAOK in the table.
President Marinakis wasted little time looking for a successor; Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira was brought in a day later from Saudi Arabian side Al-Ahli, having won two consecutive titles during a spell with Porto between 2011 and 2013. Pereira, who once admitted he was "socially introverted" as all he could think about was football, has started with seven straight wins and a draw as he aims to win the Piraeus side's 41st title.
PAOK now sit eight points behind Olympiakos, missing a chance to claw back the deficit in a fiery 0-0 draw between the two sides three weekends ago, with Panathinaikos now their great rivals biggest threat, sitting three points behind the champions after winning the Athens derby 2-1 last weekend, a match marred by violence before kick-off at Leoforos when Pana's Gate 13 ultras entered the pitch to attack Pereira after he walked over to the goal in front of the ultras.
This relative instability at Olympiakos has been welcomed by anyone not wearing red-and-white. Seeing any side dominate a league as easily as the champions have done over recent years has driven fans away; the average attendance in the division has dropped in each of the past seven seasons, down to a per-game low of 3,501 this term.
The Piraeus giants' form has provided the opportunity for the first title race in years with PAOK battling for top spot, a position they held until a 3-0 thrashing at Europa League hopefuls Asteras Tripoli in early January gifted Pereira's men the chance they needed to return to the summit.
PAOK are based in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, 310 miles away from Athens, and not since Larissa won the 1987-88 version has a non-Athens side won the Super League. However, not even the possibility of only a third title in their history has passed without problems for the black-and-whites; 61-year-old coach Angelos Anastasiadis was linked with the Greece job due to his side's impressive form this term and his record as national team coach of Cyprus between 2004 and 2011, which included a 5-2 win over Ireland and draws with Germany (1-1) and Portugal (4-4).
The refreshing excitement of a title race has only served to paper over some alarming cracks in the Greek game; this season has been as violent and controversial as any in recent years. Top-flight club OFI Crete, who started the season with former Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso as coach before he quit in late 2014, have been docked a total of ten points due to unpaid wages for former players Aleksander Pesic, Jorge Lopez and Jordi Lopez Pelpeto, a deduction that saw them fall into the relegation zone.
Fellow Super League club Niki Volos, who only returned to the top flight this summer after a 48-year absence, had to withdraw from the league altogether due to financial problems, with the Super League announcing the club were "withholding money from the team," meaning all sides due to face the eastern side are awarded a 3-0 walkover. Niki will now fold and re-enter the Greek football structure in the third division, a path trodden by former top-flight side Aris and giants AEK Athens.
AEK, who are Greece's third most decorated side, are currently romping on the road to promotion back to the Super League after two seasons battling village sides, benefitting from a rule within Greek football that means any professional side in Greece can choose to drop into the amateur leagues, and in doing so almost all stakeholders lose their equity, but take a proportionate part of the club's debt with them.
The only stakeholders left were the AEK Amateur club, meaning 90 percent of AEK's debts were written off instantly, leaving the "new" club almost debt-free. Former president Dimitris Melissanidis took over the club and stated, "This is a day we celebrate a new and difficult start from scratch. It is a new era with AEK starting in the third division.
It's been a mixed blessing: plans for a new stadium are underway in the Nea Filadelfia area of the city in which AEK were founded in 1924 and played their home games between 1930 and 2003. Yet opponents of the plan were attacked and five councillors hospitalised when around 50 AEK fans stormed a town meeting and after vandalising the room, demanded the stadium construction be discussed. When they were told it would be on the docket following week, they attacked some of those present instead.
The attacks in Athens are not surprising in a country where violence before, during and after games is rife. Despite General Secretary of Sport Yiannis Andrianos claiming to clamp down on hooliganism, incidents occur most weeks at all levels of the game.
In January a referee was subjected to punches and kicks from players after awarding a penalty against their side in a Sunday league game and though the teams manager apologised for the violence, he claimed that after adding on eight minutes at the end of the game, he was told "five minutes for time-wasting and three minutes for me."
In September, Andrianos postponed football at all levels after the death of a Ethnikos supporter following clashes with rival fans after a Crete derby game, whilst in November Christoforos Zografos, who was working as vice-president of Greece's referee selection committee, was attacked in Athens by two men wooden clubs, an assault that left the former referee with serious head injuries.
Controversy then raged at a league EGM soon after the attack, with Olympiakos president Marinakis placing the blame for the attack on AEK owner Dimitris Melissanidis, stating he had tried to choose which referee took charge of a key AEK game, and when that didn't happen, ordered the assault.
Melissanidis responded by stating that since Zografos called no other club president to visit him after the attack except Marinakis, it is the Olympiakos owner who should be under suspicion. As of this column, there have been no prosecutions for the attack and to make things even more interesting, Olympiakos were drawn with AEK in the quarterfinal of the Greek Cup. The first leg was thankfully controversy free, ending 1-1 on Feb. 11 with the return leg in Athens set for Mar. 4.
As well as the problems as club level, the national side is also in disarray after losing three of their four Euro 2016 qualifiers so far, including an embarrassing 1-0 home defeat to Faroe Islands in November, a result that cost Claudio Ranieri his job after just four months.
Greece have constantly overachieved in recent years, famously winning Euro 2004 and qualifying for five out of six tournaments. Despite their impressive World Cup in which they qualified for the knockout stages for the first time, an ageing squad with no real prospects coming through have caused concern for supporters. Younger players who were expected to take over from players like the recently retired Giorgos Karagounis -- Sotiris Ninis, once a 2.5 million pound signing for Parma, was one notable -- haven't progressed as expected, leaving the national coach bereft of options.
The Greek FA (EPO) announced last week that Uruguayan Sergio Markarian would be the new national team coach, meaning the job has not held by a Greek since 2001. Markarian is not new to Greek football; the 70-year-old has coached Panathinaikos, Ionikos and Iraklis between 1998 and 2004. For a nation that was one penalty kick away from a World Cup quarterfinal last summer, failing qualify for Euro 2016 would be a major embarrassment.
While the topic of the new national coach naturally dominates conversations around the country, Greek football has much bigger and sinister issues. The domination of Olympiakos has driven fans away, with violence around the stadiums no doubt a contributor to the falling crowds.
With Greece recently electing a new government, it's understandable that football won't be an immediate priority; though it's unlikely we'll see a repeat of a time when Greek clubs could make the European Cup final (like Panathinaikos did in 1971), eradicating the problems that have dominated the nations football in recent times would be a good start.
Charles Ducksbury is an English based world football writer, contributing to FourFourTwo, CNN and ESPN FC. Twitter: @cducksbury.