Evangelos Marinakis was named in the media last week as one of the targets of surveillance. File photo

Athens (AFP) - Evangelos Marinakis, the shipping tycoon, football boss and media mogul, is not just one of the most powerful and controversial figures in Greece, he is waging open warfare against Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

The battle between two of the most powerful men in the country is rooted in stunning allegations of widespread state surveillance, which have rocked the conservative government since the summer.

Marinakis, the 55-year-old owner of English Premier League club Nottingham Forest and Greece’s most successful football club Olympiacos, was named in the media last week as one of the targets of the surveillance.

A weekly newspaper put Marinakis on a list of 33 people, including cabinet ministers, some of their wives and ex-prime minister Antonis Samaras, targeted illegally by spyware known as Predator and technology employed by state intelligence.

Mitsotakis and the government swiftly denied the report in the Documento newspaper and have denied for months any involvement in illegal wiretaps.

But an incensed Marinakis has mobilised his media empire – he purchased the country’s top media group DOL in 2017 and leading channel Mega in 2019 – to hit back hard.

Two days after the Documento report, the Ta Nea daily owned by Marinakis reported that there were allegedly more than 100 people under surveillance.

“Only those involved in non-institutional surveillance and the underworld resort to such means,” said Marinakis in a statement.

- Close family ties -

“The prime minister must find the courage, move heaven and earth, to clarify this sordid case and bring the culprits to justice,” he added, slamming the scandal as a “corruption of democracy.”

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the government have denied involvement in illegal wiretaps

The prime minister hours earlier had fanned the flames in a televised interview in which he appeared to take direct aim at Marinakis.

“Some people are confusing their roles,” he told Antenna TV.

“Just because they own a team or control certain media or possibly both, they think they can blackmail, dictate the government’s course of action,” he said.

The public spat is even more unprecedented given close and longstanding family ties between the two men.

Decades ago, Marinakis’s father was a lawmaker for the ruling conservative New Democracy party and a friend of Mitsotakis’s father Constantinos, himself a former prime minister.

Marinakis was best man at the 1998 wedding of Mitsotakis’s sister Dora, who is herself a former foreign minister of Greece and former mayor of Athens.

During a decade of economic slump in Greece, the tycoon estimated to be worth $600 million, took advantage of the crisis to expand his sphere of influence.

Ranked 47th most influential person on the shipping industry’s Lloyd’s List in 2021, Marinakis has been a city councillor in Piraeus since 2014, exerting influence on the management of one of the Mediterranean’s main ports.

His company Capital Maritime and affiliated firms operate a total fleet of 98 ships.

- ‘Patronage and cronyism’ -

He further padded his image as a public benefactor by funding intensive care units during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Marinakis owns English Premier League club Nottingham Forest and Greece's most successful football club Olympiacos

He also a signed a partnership between Unicef and Olympiacos, which he has owned since 2010.

Olympiacos ownership gives Marinakis not just prestige, but the unwavering support of legions of Greek football fans.

Giannis Zaimakis, from the department of sociology at the University of Crete, summed it up as a “relationship of patronage and cronyism in the image of Greek society”.

Elected in June by fellow club owners to head the top-flight Super League, Marinakis is currently locked in a bitter dispute with the Greek football federation.

He recently threatened to pull his team from the championship race over refereeing issues.

He has also had several brushes with the justice system.

Acquitted of match-fixing in 2018 after a lengthy probe, he remains under investigation for alleged involvement in the “Noor 1” affair, a cargo ship held in 2014 while carrying 2.1 tons of heroin.

Marinakis has denied any involvement.