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Greek clubs playing with fire

"Twelve years, 24 coaches."

Rarely has such a clear, concise and powerful observation been made about Greek football's managerial merry-go-round, which routinely chews, spits out and sucks the life from talented young coaches and even battle-hardened veterans of the dug-out.

The quote came from Alberto Malesani, former manager of Panathinaikos, who uttered the line during an infamous rant in which he attacked journalists and fans who had been critical of his work at the club that season. He was sacked before it ended.

Granted, the juicy detail about the post-match press conference was his generous use of the Italian swearword cazzo - apparently employed 21 times - but the style of his delivery shouldn't detract from the essence of his argument: that too often, managers are made scapegoats by fans, journalists and owners (though he was defending his employer at the time).

It isn't an uncommon trait in the global game these days, but the volatility of Greece's coaching environment is incredible.

Since Malesani's departure, Panathinaikos have been through seven managers in four years, sacking Dutchman Henk ten Cate after he laid the foundations for their first league and cup double last year, with Nikos Nioplias taking over and finishing the job that the former Barcelona assistant had started.

Nioplias took the job after doing some outstanding work with Greece's youth teams but was soon overawed and incredibly left by "mutual consent" this November. Not exactly the step forward his promising career needed.

AEK Athens have, meanwhile, been under the care of eight different managers over the past six years, and haven't won the league since 1994, or the Greek Cup since 2002. PAOK - who have ironically been a model of stability under chairman and Euro 2004 winner Theodoros Zagorakis - have appointed three managers this season already. They did the same during the 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2006-07 campaigns.

Undoubtedly the dominant force of Greek football over the past 15 years, Olympiakos should logically present the blueprint for stability and success, but they have changed coach nine times over the past two years, with Ernesto Valverde back this season at the club, having led them to the league and couple double during the 2008-09 season.

Five managers - legendary Brazilian Zico among them - tried and failed to succeed him as bitter rivals Panathinaikos secured a historic double; trigger-happy owner Sokratis Kokkalis paying the price for failing to meet Valverde's financial demands when the time came for a contract renewal (no pun intended).

Outside Greece's biggest clubs, things aren't too much better, with the likes of Panionios, Xanthi and Larissa all having changed hands this season - you wouldn't bet on them going through the rest of the season without doing so again.

The question, then, is how this sacking culture developed.

A ridiculous scale of media coverage, with each of the top clubs having entire sports newspapers dedicated to them and any number of prominent websites and outlets to choose from, means intense scrutiny inevitably follows even the slightest hiccup.

Depending on the pedigree of the club, style is just as important as results, with a number of managers having been shown the door after failing to impose an aesthetically pleasing brand of football quickly enough to appease onlookers.

Often these are the coaches who haven't even had a chance to familiarise themselves with their surroundings, leaving after a matter of months, only to be replaced by a manager who has previous spells at the club.

Dusan Bajevic, for example, has managed AEK on three separate occasions and is one of the most revered players in the club's history. Having led them to unprecedented success during the early 1990s as a manager, he made the mistake of moving to rivals Olympiakos. Never forgiven by a hardcore element of fans, his subsequent returns were tense and his departure on both occasions the result of inexcusable behaviour towards him by those holding what is in truth a ridiculous grudge.

The fans of course, are an element that cannot be ignored in Greece, with hooliganism still a problem.

Just this weekend, fans stormed onto the pitch as Panathinaikos lost at home against minnows Olympiakos Volou and fell further behind in the title race, with new manager Jesualdo Ferreira quickly learning that life in Greece's top-flight probably won't be as stable as his recent four-year spell with Porto.

The much-discussed honeymoon period certainly isn't a privilege afforded to coaches in Greece, where newcomers often need to grind out results at the beginning of their reign to survive.

Given the aforementioned need to play an attractive brand of football, though, you can see why it's such a complex and bizarre situation, where expectations border on fantasy.

A major problem with Greek football is quite simply that the general standard isn't particularly good - understandable given the majority of the country's domestic history has been amateur to semi-professional.

It's unlikely that non-Greek readers of this piece will ever see footage of Greek football during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which is important in establishing context. Back then, the game was primitive and charming, with the Athenian clubs dominating their regional opponents with little resistance offered, unless by northern outfits such as Aris and PAOK.

During those years, Panathinaikos, Olympiakos and AEK built a rich history both domestically and on the continent, largely unrestricted in plucking the country's best talents. Times have changed drastically, with standards improving on and off the pitch. Teams who were once cannon fodder for the big three now offer serious opposition and, as Volou showed, are never to be taken lightly.

Meanwhile, the success of the national team has alerted European suitors to the cut-price talent available in Greece, so the quality of local players available to bigger clubs has diminished substantially, many would argue to the benefit of the sport.

In short, no Greek club - no matter how big - can be expected to win every single Greek Super League game or even close to it, and certainly can't transform itself into a Mediterranean replica of the modern Barcelona or Cruyff's Ajax of the 70s overnight.

This is something that owners, analysts and some fans don't seem to understand, clouded by delusions of grandeur and the supposed right for their club to be considered a powerhouse of European football. Greek expeditions in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League have brought only sporadic moments of excellence in recent years and this is the strongest indicator yet that Olympiakos, AEK and Panathinaikos have done nothing to earn that title.

In total, they have changed coaches 18 times over the past two years - hardly a recipe for the stability or rising standards that have been at the heart of the national team's historic success.

For the record, between 2001 and 2010, Greece were led by just one manager.

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