Alan Hubbard

Greece's economy may be as much in ruins as the Acropolis, but one of its wealthiest citizens still has more than enough euros in his back pocket to buy a football club in England.

Evangelos Marinakis, President of top Greek side Olympiacos, is the latest recruit to join the foreign legion of owners of British clubs, acquiring Nottingham Forest for a modest £50 million ($64.9 million/€58 million).

The 49-year-old shipping tycoon has long been eyeing the opportunity to break into English football.

Five years ago, via a contact I had made during the Athens Olympics, he invited to me to watch his team defeat Arsenal in the Champions League. At a lunch beforehand, we chatted and he openly ‘tapped’ my relatively limited knowledge of Premier League clubs that might be open to a take-over. At the time he seemed particularly keen on Crystal Palace and West Ham United.

He told me he was relishing a fresh challenge after turning around the fortunes of Olympiacos, the club he has supported since boyhood, who were €90 million (£77.6 million/$100.7 million) in debt when he took over.

The problem, he admitted, was that UEFA rules prohibit dual ownership of Champions' League clubs, so he might have to relinquish control of Olympiacos, who have now won 19 of the past 21 Greek league titles. 

Big, bearded and flamboyant – the former sports minister George Lianis describes him to me as "the Zorba of Greek football" – Marinakis said he had turned down offers to buy Glasgow Rangers and a share of Milan.

Son of a former New Democracy MP, he is a graduate of London's City University, has a house in Hampstead, is very much an Anglophile and ardent Liverpool supporter, providing Olympiacos as the opposition for Steven Gerrard's testimonial game, and personally donating £100,000 ($129,700/€115,900).

At the time he was being advised by his friend Ivan Gazidis, the Arsenal chief executive, a South African of Greek origin, and while he yearned to join Roman Abramovich and Co in the Premier League, it was clear he would not rule out a Championship team with which Olympiacos could forge a working relationship.

So it has transpired.

Evangelos Marinakis has become the new owner of Nottingham Forest ©Getty Images
Evangelos Marinakis has become the new owner of Nottingham Forest ©Getty Images

Marinakis previously tried to buy Forest last summer and even went as far as identifying Frenchman Philippe Montanier, who Forest subsequently hired and then sacked after seven months as their manager.

The takeover stalled at the time because Marinakis was facing criminal charges in Greece and was banned, as part of his bail conditions, from football administration in his home country.

However, Marinakis has always denied any wrongdoing and, having not been convicted of any offence, has passed the Football League owners’ and directors’ test.

However, he reportedly remains under investigation by UEFA in relation to accusations of match-fixing in his native country, bribery, organised crime and attempting to improperly influence referees, judges, police and politicians.

He has emphatically denied all allegations, saying they were made by his "jealous" opponents.

His holding company, NF Football Investments, this week has completed the purchase 100 per cent of the shares in the two-time European Cup champions.

The deal will see Marinakis take an 80 per cent stake, with his compatriot business partner Sokratis Kominakis, who made his fortune in telecommunications, holding the remaining 20 per cent.

So it is now all Greek to Forest - hopefully in the most positive way.

Marinakis has vowed to return Nottingham Forest to the Premier League after a spell of 19 years spent in the second and third tiers of English soccer. They also narrowly avoided being relegated to English football's third tier in the season just gone. The club won back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980 under their iconic former manager Brian Clough.

“We have a long-term plan and within this long-term plan we want to bring Nottingham to where it belongs,” he says. 

“And of course Nottingham belongs in the Premier League. And Nottingham belongs to the elite of the Premier League. Furthermore, the supporters of Nottingham have been tired all these years, they didn’t have such good times. But they remained loyal and for us that’s very important."

At least his ownership of an English club might also see a more philanthropic approach to sponsorship. Rather than the dubious moneylenders and betting firms, his Olympiacos feature the UNICEF logo, with the club aiming to raising millions from charity events for UNICEF's child immunisation programme. During his presidency, Olympiacos has financed the daily meals of a thousand needy people weekly, through a benevolent fund.

Nottingham Forest fans celebrate after avoiding relegation on the last day of this season ©Getty Images
Nottingham Forest fans celebrate after avoiding relegation on the last day of this season ©Getty Images

The Forest deal ends the unpopular Kuwaiti businessman Fawaz Al Hasawi’s financial stake in the club, meaning he will no longer be the hiring and firing managers – and there have been plenty of them.

Since buying Forest in 2012, Al Hasawi has worked with no fewer than nine men in five years, sacking seven of them. The present incumbent is Mark Warburton.

But will Marinakis show more patience? He has certainly been guilty of what would appear to be harsh firings in his near seven year presidency of Olympiacos.

In August, Victor Sanchez, who was once linked with the Forest job, was sacked after 47 days and just two games when they failed to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.

Just last month, former Portugal coach Paulo Bento was fired despite them being seven points clear at the top of the Greek Super League and well on track for their 44th league title.

However, Marinakis' overall track record is better than that of previous owners when it comes to the number of managers he has worked with.

In total, Olympiacos have had eight managers in the last seven years. On top of Bento and Sanchez, Leonardo Jardim was fired in 2013 when 10 points clear in the league.

Michel was also axed in January 2015 with POAK one point ahead of them in the table.

On the other hand, Ernesto Valverde, Vitor Pereira and Hull boss Marco Silva all resigned, although Pereira reportedly fell out with Marinakis.

Valverde lasted from August 2010, when Marinakis bought the club, until May 2012. In that time Olympiacos signed Forest flops Rafik Djebbour and Djame Abdoun.

"Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" is an adage that dates back to Virgil's Aeneid in 19 BC, an allusion to the fable of the Trojan Horse.

But football’s Zorba is no myth – nor a man of mystery.

Down in the Forest, something has certainly stirred. But whether it results in a Greek odyssey or tragedy remains to be seen.