The Panathinaikos Ditch

GreeceWith an appearance in a European Cup Final, dominance over their domestic championship, the free scoring of coveted striker, Antonis Antoniadis, and the sage promptings from the sidelines by the legendary Ferenc Puskás – Panathinaikos in the early 1970s appeared a modern and progressive club intent on establishing Greek football as a force to be taken seriously.

There was one aspect of the Panathinaikos story that reminded everyone of the resolutely amateur, ramshackle nature of the Greek game though: no serious football team in Europe played on a home pitch of such shockingly poor quality as the one that graced Pana’s Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium.

Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium
Click to enlarge

Four decades ago there was little of the science involved in pitch development and maintenance we see today of course. With a groundsman’s job seemingly limited to replacing divots and gingery forking turf, it was little surprise that northern European pitches invariably became Somme-like mudbaths as soon as wet weather set in. The southern European problem of even getting grass to grow in the first place was a quite different quandary, yet one just as awkward to resolve.

Even tempering pitch quality expectations to match the limitations of the era still did not excuse the quite awful state of the Panathinaikos pitch. Lumpy, rutted and bereft of much grass in even the most verdant areas, its pièce de résistance was the bald strip of earth that ran up the centre of the pitch from penalty box to penalty box. While the more charitable might have described it as a threadbare area of turf, in reality it was something more akin to a ditch that divided the pitch into two horizontal halves. This ditch had been growing larger, season-by-season, and by 1971 it had become more of an independent hazard to be negotiated than an integral part of the playing surface.

Dundee United played a friendly at the ground around that time and their players universally described the pitch as ‘murder;’ the worst they had ever played on without exception. The Greek grounds keeping staff managed a policy little more constructive than trying to disguise their problem by covering it with grass cuttings and loose soil. This meant that the ditch’s full extent was only revealed gradually to surprised visitors as a game progressed and its camouflage became dispersed.

Panathinaikos reached that 1971 European Cup Final in large part because of their exemplary home form and it raises the question whether they achieved this because, or in spite of their dreadful pitch. It certainly didn’t suit the ball skills of the Argentinian winger, Juan Ramón Verón, when he joined Pana in 1972 from Estudiantes de La Plata. He was no fan at all and compared it to the construction site near his childhood home where he had played with his friends as a youngster.


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