In our last People On The Pitch we took at look at some FA Cup semi-finals, involving the contrast between the venues involved and the consequences. We now switch to the other side of Europe and – for the first time on the site – to one of the most classic supporter culture nations in the world (as well as classic culture of any kind for that matter).
The late 70s/early 80s was a time when English hooligans abroad were increasingly making their presence felt in many of continental Europe’s great cities, both at club and international level. The English national team’s travels to Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland and Denmark to name a few, as well as international tournaments during the period, saw trouble both inside and out of the stadium. But in the middle of all this, there was one country where a reduced and meek English traveling support would cower in the face of an intimidating and rabid home crowd: Greece.
That particular game in 1982 we will come back to later (and may well use the exact same intro). But going back before then to the 70s, Greece had yet to really make any sort of an impact on international football. The expansion of the European Championships from 4 to 8 teams for the 1980 edition gave the Mediterraneans their first real chance at a finals appearance of any sort, as they were drawn in a winnable qualification group with Finland, Hungary and a waning USSR.
Things did not start promisingly and indeed all hope may have already seemed lost after the first two games, as a 3-0 loss away to Finland in May 1978 – themselves on Europe’s lower tier of footballing nations – was followed by a 2-0 defeat away to the Soviets in September. But Greece’s first and second home games of the group in October saw a resounding turn around as the Finns were smashed 8-1 in Athens, with a 4-1 victory over Hungary in Thessaloniki a few weeks later. While the passion and colour of Greek supporters at domestic level proceeds itself, this fanaticism of course also translated to the national team of this proud people.
Greek supporters celebrate the reemerging hope of European qualification in Thessaloniki, Greece vs Hungary, Euro 80 qualifier, October 1978.
By the following year, the old Greek flag of a white cross on a blue background had been retired for good, as the country transitioned from the age of monarchies and dictatorships to democracy. The football team too continued its hopeful march of progression as an important point was taken from a 0-0 draw away to Hungary in May 79. This result provided a great chance for qualification going into the last group game in September, with their Soviet opponents – who hadn’t qualified for anything since their Euro 72 runner-up performance – only managing a loss and two draws since the sides had last met in Moscow.
Flags of Greece: 1822–1969/1975–78 Flags of Greece: 1970-1975/1978-present
Even a win for the hosts would not guarantee qualification – as Finland’s surprisingly good form (apart form the 8-1) meant that they could still clinch top spot in the unlikely event they earned four points or more from their two remaining games-in-hand, both away in October – but the last time the USSR had come to Greek soil for a 1977 World Cup qualifier, the home side had won 1-0.
With that in mind, more than 25,000 hopeful Hellenics fill the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium (more commonly known as the Leoforos Alexandras Stadium) to capacity in downtown Athens on a sunny Wednesday, September 12th, creating an awe-inspiring scene:
The ground was home to Panathinaikos, who were participants along with Bayern Munich in a 1967 Cup Winners Cup game when the official highest attendance of nearly 30,000 was recorded. Even more than that would have been in attendance here if facilities had allowed, for what was the biggest match in Greek international football to date.
Appropriately quintessential ubran Greek architecture leers over each side of the ground, within which a caged orgy of flags, confetti, ticker-tape, smoke and general compressed mayhem surrounds the dry pitch as the teams emerge:
Some vivid late 70s hoardings run along-side the pitch and a nicely-hung Greek flag:
Behind this side stand is another huge, interesting building with two giant legs at the front, as a blurred mass concentrates hard on the game below:
At the other end, the proximity of what appears at a glance to be an ancient aqueduct (but is probably a much more modern structure) shows how entwined the stadium really is in the dense city-scape:
After only 8 minutes, Takis Nikoloudis barges into the Soviet box and scores to send the mostly-white shirted Greek fans in the terraces into deliriums:
As the celebrations begin, the first “person on the pitch” can be seen: a figure in black (oddly enough) who is just about visible sprinting past the right-side of the goalposts, before more jubilation on other sides of the ground is shown:
Both versions of the Greek national flag can be seen flying side by side amid the sea of squashed supporters:
That is how things stay as the scoreline of 1977 is repeated and the Soviets are once again defeated in Greece, which would ultimately doom them to the embarrassment of bottom of the group (a low-point which may have galvanised their future recovery and qualification for World Cup 82). For the home fans it means that the opposite is likely true, as people stream from the main grandstand in celebration at what appears to be qualification secured:
As groups of Youths run victory parades around the pitch, a row of police can be seen standing along the perimeter of the more “raucous” end terrace in the stadium to make sure that this particular element does not encroach:
The celebrations continues in the stand nevertheless as more confetti clouds (there must have been many tons of the stuff in the ground that day) fill the air. Riot police stand to the bottom left, content to tolerate the innocent expression of joy taking place on the grass:
And so the scene ends, and despite what our opening gambit alluded to earlier, no trouble – only passion. The following month the Greeks could finally rest easy and officially celebrate qualification, as Hungary defeated Finland 3-1. Although they ended up finishing bottom of their group at the tournament, a generation of young Greeks would have been inspired by the impressive achievement of reaching the finals to at all, planting the seeds to continue the nations over-achieving continental tradition with the unexpected European Championship victory 24 years later.
Panathinaikos only remained in the Leoforos for another five years when they would move the 70,000 capacity Olympic Stadium in 1984, along with AEK Athens and Olympiakos for a time, which would also be the new main host of national team games. But happily, for various reasons the old, small ground was resurrected for several periods in the future.