People On The Pitch #8: Greece vs USSR, European Championships 1980 Qualifier, 12/09/1979

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).

Background:

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

The Match:

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.

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People On The Pitch #3: RC Narbonne vs Stade Bagnérais, French Rugby Union Championship Final, 27/05/1979

After some rather quaint and joyous pitch invasions in People On The Pitch #2, we are going in an even more innocent and novel direction here as for the first time on this site we are bending the rules to feature a sport which is not association football. Sorry for this, but it does a good job of highlighting the state of supporter culture in general in France heading towards the 1980’s, which was undoubtedly spearheaded by the football scene.

Some great footage exists of the ’79 French rugby union final, and it’s proceeding festivities. Founded in 1907, eventual champions RC Narbonne had only won the trophy once before, in 1936, but had recently been knocking on the heavy oak door of success again as defeated finalists in 1974. Their opponents, Stade Bagnérais, will probably cease to be mentioned from this point on, so my apologies to any of their supporters who may be reading but I’m already pushing it by including rugby at all so be grateful you even received a mention.

Narbonne is in the Occitanie region of France and a large contingent of their orange and black clad supporters (reminiscent of my old primary school’s sports colours) had traveled up the length of the country to Paris from their Mediterranean base. The Champs-Élysées was a natural gathering point and with the Arc de Triomphe standing prophetically in the background, some supporters are in bloody fine spirits:

Amidst much flag waving and general boisterousness one of the novel objects brought to support the team is a creepy baby doll, and one man has apparently gone to the effort of constructing and transporting a painting easel in the club colours:

Upon closer inspection, it appears as if the device has wheels and is possibly a bike or wheelbarrow, although the up-right “RCN” suggests that held in it’s intended position for use:

Some pyro in the form of a flare is released, it’s flames presumably emulating the supporters intense burning desire for victory here. As we saw way back in the bonus section of Pyro On The Pitch #2, French football was already familiar with pyro by this era and it had clearly even been adopted by supporters of clubs in other codes.

Well, I said Stade Bagnérais weren’t going to get another mention but this heroic chap has melted my heart, proudly risking his life by waving his team’s white and black isolated in the middle of a Narbonne ocean:

The next important thing to know is that some people from a running club were out running that day. Classic Paris:

Their sweet Adidas singlets with stripes running down the sides are actually well worth a closer look. And that dude just seems like a cool guy, I genuinely hope he’s doing well these days wherever he is:

Next up, in what is clearly a display of flagrant public corruption, some police officers casually receive a bribe in the form of alcoholic beverages for God only knows why:

Back to the supporters, a corteo forms and it’s off to Parc des Princes:

Now to inside the stadium, and among what appears to be mostly Narbonne supporters, we can see from a Stade Bagnérais flag here or there meaning some of them have indeed survived the Narbonne firm. With Bagnères-de-Bigorre’s population of only around 8,000 compared to over 50,000 in Nabonne, it is natural that they are vastly outnumbered. Hopefully our friend from earlier is among them:

Unfortunately for him, his team do not manage a single point on their big day in the city. Meanwhile, the Nabonne faithful savored the occasion as their side knocked 10 in on the way to victory.

And yes, the final whistle, they’ve done it! The gods of victory have smiled on the Narbonnese this day and in a moment of spontaneous group ecstasy, many of their fans cannot help but to storm the playing field. Complete with flags and banners, it makes for an impressive visual:

The heroes of the day are swamped and suffocated beneath a loving swarm of orange and black:

To top off the afternoon, the “trophy” (which is mostly a wooden board, but a handsome, presumably sacred wood) is presented and paraded around with every fan trying to get at least one scintillating touch:

And soon after, large mobs begin to quietly and politely leave the field:

And there we have it, people on the pitch at a rugby match. The end? Yes, it is most likely we will never feature rugby again. And we definitely will never feature Stade Bagnérais again, although they/he have undoubtedly earned a place in the Pyro On The Pitch Hall of Heroes if ever such an institution should exist.

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