Panathinaikos 1971 – Once In A Lifetime

Puskas on one side and Cruyff on the other: the 1971 European Cup final wasn’t short of football royalty, though in reality most of the class on display was Dutch. Their opponents, Panathinaikos, were a hitherto middling Greek side coached by the Hungarian and Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas. On paper it was a total mismatch: the Dutch champions and its much-celebrated totaalvoetbal against an Athens side few in Europe knew very much about.

Which was understandable. Greek football at that time was on a par with nations such as Luxembourg, Turkey and Cyprus. Only one previous Greek championship-winning side had reached the quarter-finals of the continent’s premier competition, and AEK Athens could thank the luck of the open draw which paired them against lightweights Jeunesse Esch of Luxembourg and AB of Denmark in the 1969 edition.

Ajax would go on to lift the trophy for the first time as expected with a comfortable 2-0 win over their underdog opponents, but those underdog opponents even reaching the Final was arguably the story of that season’s competition. That they went as far as they did was down to a little bit of luck, a modest amount of good football and a great big stack of teamwork and commitment.

“We had a generation of great players back then. We had no foreign players, all of them were Greek,” said Mimos Domazos, whose nickname of The General tells you much about the midfielder’s qualities. “From the moment Panathinaikos reached the final the world became aware of Greek football,” he told in 2022. “When we got to Wembley it was like we were the winners. We were a Greek team that nobody had heard of and we were playing in the final.”

Panathinaikos were representing Greece after winning a second successive Alpha Ethniki title, one emphatically won with just two defeats suffered all season. Their European Cup draw spared them a draining Preliminary Round tie, something the champions of France and Italy were not afforded when Cagliari and Saint-Etienne were pitted against each other. 

For the First Round proper, the Luxembourg side Jeunesse Esch would provide the most modest of opponents. Powerful Pana striker Antonis Antoniadis would enjoy an outstanding tournament and he scored in the away leg within five minutes, then added four more in the home leg as his side cruised to a 7-2 aggregate victory. 

The draw would be a lot less kind in the second round with Slovan Bratislava selected as Pana’s opponents. Czechoslovakian teams were among the strongest on the continent at the time – Dukla Prague had reached the semi-finals of this tournament in 1967, while Slovan themselves had lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup two seasons later. With eight members of that winning Slovan side selected for the first leg in Athens, the tie looked a foregone conclusion. Yet it was the Greeks who came out on top, an exuberant performance leading to an emphatic 3-0 win that gave them a healthy advantage to take to the return. Antonis Antoniadis was naturally among the scorers to take his competition tally to six from just three games. 

Slovan attempted some sort of comeback in the return and a first-half goal gave them hope, but their hopes were dashed when, who else, Antoniadis, equalised just before the hour. The Czech champions found one further goal, but never looked likely to score the four they now needed. 

Panathinaikos had reached the quarter-finals and remained in Europe after Christmas for the first time in their history. In the last eight the English champions Everton would be their opponents. The Toffees boasted a number of internationals and had won the Division One title by a formidable 14 points, representing the largest winning margin the English top-flight had seen in a generation.

At least in England Everton were considered nailed-on certainties to advance, though the Czech press had thought the same thing in the previous round and the Greek outsiders would continue to confound expectation. In a tense affair at Goodison Park, Antoniadis shocked the home side with an 81st minute strike – Pana’s first clear-cut effort on goal. It’s considered one of the most famous goals in Greek footballing history and is known affectionately as the ‘five nines goal’ – Antoniadis wore the number 9 shirt, it was his ninth European goal of the campaign, he scored nine minutes from time, at 9pm precisely in a match played on March 9th. David Johnson equalised with virtually the last kick of the game from what was Everton’s seventeenth corner of the game. Honours even, but the away goal that Panathinaikos scored would prove priceless. 

The Everton party were given a raucous welcome upon their arrival in Athens for the return. Locals gatecrashed the hotel in which the team was staying to attempt to cause as much disruption before the game as possible, meanwhile the lack of hospitality extended to the stadium where Everton’s substitutes and coaches were spat on as they sat on the bench. The English side complained about being fouled and abused all over the pitch and bemoaned the poor standard of refereeing and the dreadful standard of the pitch which made coherent football nearly impossible – but, regardless, they should have done enough to score at least once. That they failed to achieve any sort of break through was largely due to the goalkeeping excellence of Panayotis Ikonomopoulos and his well-marshalled defence. Panathinaikos couldn’t score either, but then they didn’t have to and the away goals rule left Everton ruing what might have been in a competition now bereft of most of its traditional big guns. 

Whether the opponents were traditional European giants or clubs from less fashionable nations, Panathinaikos were always going to be underdogs. The semi-final draw pitching them against Red Star Belgrade certainly reinforced that status. The reigning Yugoslavian champions had had a couple of decent runs in this competition in the 1950s and reached the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1963, but this iteration was an especially potent one which was being talked about as eastern Europe’s first potential champions. Whether the midfield creativity of Jovan Aćimović and Slobodan Janković or the goals of Zoran Filipović striker and Stevan Ostojić, Red Star carried a real threat all over the pitch. Their star man was the brilliant winger Dragan Džajić, but he would miss both legs through injury which was a big boost for the Greeks.

Red Star’s ability shone like a beacon in the first leg in Belgrade. Time and again their clever attacking play opened up a bewildered Panathinaikos defence and by half-time they had eased into a two-goal lead, extending that advantage to 4-1 by the final whistle. Stevan Ostijic scored a hat-trick while Aristides Kamaras scored the goal for the Greeks which kept their slim hopes alive for the second leg. 

Two weeks later it was Red Star who spent the evening under the cosh. In a complete reversal of the first leg, Antoniadis scored after just two minutes and added another after the break as Panathinaikos dominated. Kamaras scored the all-important third on 64 minutes which levelled the aggregate, but gave the Greeks the away goals advantage. For nearly half an hour the home crowd held its collective breathe as their heroes kept the Yugoslavs at bay and secured passage to the final itself. 

The brace from Antoniadis represented his ninth and tenth goals of the tournament and ensured he would finish with that season’s leading scorer accolade. Antoniadis was the first genuine Greek superstar footballer and a potent goalscorer to match. His European goals this season were no fluke and he would pick up the Greek League top scorer award five times between 1970 and 1975. His total of 39 league goals in the 1971/72 season was just one shy of Gerd Müller’s 40 for Bayern Munich, so earning him the European Golden Shoe runner-up honour.

Nevertheless, his career at Pana began inauspiciously. Signed from Aspida Xanthi in 1968 after two seasons as second-tier top scorer, Antoniadis’s unveiling at Panathinaikos turned sour when he was rushed to hospital suffering from appendicitis. He missed pre-season and looked well short of the physical condition a player needed to succeed at the higher reaches of the Greek game. 

Antoniadis undertook a tough training programme to build his pace, acceleration and stamina through athletics and to improve his balance and mobility through ballet classes. When he returned to action he was stronger, leaner, faster, fitter and, perhaps most importantly, more confident. The goals flowed: over his 11-year career with the Athens giants Antoniadis would score 187 goals in 241 league outings , and six in 21 appearances for his country.

“That campaign was like a movie,” said Antoniadis many years later. “I remember (Pana manager) Ferenc Puskás boosting our confidence, making us believe we had nothing to fear from our rivals. The famous ’11 of us, 11 of them’ or ‘they have two feet, so have you’ lines really worked.”

Pana’s opponents in the Wembley showpiece Final would be Ajax. The Dutch champions were appearing in a second Final after defeat to Milan two years earlier, and had progressed seamlessly through the competition accounting for 17 Nëntori Tirana, Basel, Celtic and Atlético Madrid en route. The world already knew of Johan Cruyff, but now they were understanding this was no one-man team and other stars of this great side like Johan Neeskens, Wim Suurbier, Sjaak Swart, Nico Rijnders, Barry Hulshoff, Dick van Dijk, Piet Keizer and the Yugoslav international sweeper and club captain, Velibor Vasovic were all impressing a wider audience too.

The Greeks could not come close to matching this individual quality, which is not to say that they did not have a number of estimable internationals of their own. If Antoniadis was the attacking figurehead and the closest Panathinaikos had to a Cruyff, keeper Panagiotis Ikonomopoulos, sweeper Anthimos Kapsis and midfield pair Mimis Domazos and Kostas Eleftherakis all provided more than able support. 

All the same, the highest-profile member of the Pana party was not any of the players, but rather the rotund figure sitting on their bench directing operations. Ferenc Puskas needs no introduction as a player, but his managerial career is less known. After retiring in 1966, the Hungarian managed teams in Spain, the United States and Canada before taking over from Lakis Petropoulos at Panathinaikos in 1970. He built an easy-on-the eye side based around passing principles and his favoured 4-3-3 formation brought the best out of the established players he had inherited.   

There was also a dark side to Pana’s surprise success. Greece’s right-wing junta used the club’s progress on the international stage as a propaganda tool and its military leader Georgios Papadopoulous ensured the champions were given financial and political support. Big bonuses were paid out meaning there was little incentive for players to leave. There was even a suggestion many years later from the dictator’s widow that financial incentives to lose were dangled in front of the Red Star players prior to that semi-final second leg, though no evidence was ever offered to substantiate these claims and they never gained traction.

The champions of the Netherlands and Greece walking out onto the Wembley turf to compete in the European Cup Final was another indicator of the shift in the continent’s balance of power. After the perpetual domination by Spanish, Italian and Portuguese clubs from the mid-1950s, the European Cup had begun to widen its scope beyond its Latin strongholds. Celtic kicked off that process when they won the tournament in 1967 and English and Dutch sides followed through the door the Scots had opened with wins of their own in 1968 and 1970.

A crowd of over 83,000 people turned up that Wednesday evening, no doubt boosted by the city’s large expat Greek and Cypriot communities. Ajax got off to a storming start and van Dijk headed them in front after just five minutes. Chances aplenty followed and were scorned by both sides  until the 85th minute when Arie Haan’s shot hit Kapsis and looped in. 

So it was Ajax who climbed the 39 steps to the Royal Box to lift the trophy, but while they were the better side and deserving winners, for Pana skipper Mimos Domazos there was an important factor that separated them. “We didn’t have luck on our side. Antoniadis could’ve scored twice when we were 1-0 down. Had he scored we believed we would’ve beaten them.” To the midfielder, all the luck Panathinaikos could muster had been spent in getting to the final in the first place. 


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