Olympiacos FC Can Make Greek Football History, 20 Years after EURO 2004

Olympiacos FC is the first Greek side in a European final since 1971. We take a look at the club’s history, and Greek football’s evolution over the years.  

The 2023-24 football season has seen a fair share of miracles and unexpected happenings. Bayer Leverkusen just did a domestic double to end the Bayern monopoly in Germany, Borussia Dortmund reached a Champions League final against all odds. Atalanta won the Europa League and ended their 61-year trophy drought. Olympiacos making the UEFA Conference League final is another one of those feats no one saw coming.

Why is this Significant?

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We have seen plenty of underdog stories in football, and while not a regular occurrence, smaller clubs will occasionally make European finals. But for Greece and their fans, this is history being made.

Olympiacos are the first Greek club to make a European final since arch rivals Panathinaikos made the European Cup final against Ajax in 1971, losing 2-0. Fifty-three years later, and and another Greek side has returned to a final, in its home country nonetheless.

Although the Conference League final will be in rival AEK Athens’ home stadium OPAP, it is still in Greece, and we can certainly expect a raucous atmosphere in support of Olympiacos. The momentum Olympiacos are carrying, plus being home for the final makes this an excellent opportunity for Greek football to join the ranks of their fellow European countries with European success.

The Olympiacos Golden Period

You will find a small number of clubs that could match the domestic dominance Olympiacos had in Greece for a 20-year period. Between the 1996-97 and 2016-17 seasons, Olympiacos won the league 18 times in 20 years. This period was highlighted with the level of players that came to Piraeus, particularly Predrag Dordevic and Stelios Giannakopoulos, the former being the club’s all-time leading goal scorer.

Despite the domestic dominance, the club came up empty in European competition, with its best chance at UEFA Champions League glory coming in the 1998-99 season.

They topped their group by beating Zagreb, Ajax, and Porto, and in the quarters they faced off against one of the favorites in Juventus. Olympiacos got the crucial away goal in Turin in a 2-1 loss, and brought hope back to Greece for the second leg. After taking a 1-0 lead, Olympiacos were set to advance to the semifinals until heartbreak happened — Antonio Conte would score in the 85th minute and the hopes of the Olympiacos faithful broke to pieces.

The Summer of 2004

Summer 2004 was the biggest and most important in Greek football history. The country had just completed one of football’s biggest underdog stories by winning the EUROs, which brought more eyes to the country than ever before. Olympiacos would make sure to take advantage of that publicity, and ended up making the biggest move in club history.

World Cup and Ballon d’Or winner Rivaldo would join Olympiacos that summer in a blockbuster move for Greek football. His debut season saw him score some famous goals including a wonder free kick against Liverpool at Anfield, although it would get overshadowed by Steven Gerrard later that game. In the league, Rivaldo would score the goal that won Olympiacos the domestic title.

The club would also sign national team hero goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis that summer, directly from Panathinaikos, which rubbed extra salt on their rivals’ wounds. His presence was felt immediately as was his leadership, and he’d captain the club to a couple titles at the end of his career.

The Arrival of Evangelos Marinakis

Evangelos Marinakis

2010 saw the arrival of the most important man in Olympiacos and Greek football today, Evangelos Marinakis. Marinakis took over as president of the club and continued where his predecessor left off and kept spending money to continue Olympiacos’ dominance. He brought back Ernesto Valverde to coach the club, and signed great young talents like Kevin Mirallas, Francois Modesto, Joel Campbell, and Alejandro Dominguez.

In 2013-14, Olympiacos would return to the UCL knockout stages once again, after finishing second in a group of PSG, Benfica, and Anderlecht. They would face Manchester United in the next round and recorded one of the biggest wins in club history, by beating United 2-0 in Greece. The return leg saw Robin van Persie eliminating the Greeks with a hat trick at Old Trafford.

Instability in Piraeus

Despite making the Conference League final this season and a chance at European glory, the past two years at Olympiacos has been quite tumultuous. The club has had eight different managers since the 2022-23 season, and it is a miracle current boss Jose Luis Mendilibar has his team in this position.

A lack of planning from the front office is evident, and since brother club Nottingham Forest got promoted to the Premier League, the level of preparation at the Greek club has decreased. The signings are not what they once were, as the club has switched its strategy from signing young players to adding more veterans, and a lack of Greek influence within the squad is apparent. The ethos the club was built upon is not as strong as it once was. The best young Greek players used to play for Olympiacos, and now they play for rivals Panathinaikos and PAOK.

Is the Future Bright?

While the squad is aging, Olympiacos do have a few young prospects that could restore the feeling. One is goalie Konstantinos Tzolakis, who has taken the reins between the sticks. His penalty shootout performance against Fenerbahce was particularly memorable, and will have the fans of the 21-year-old “Thrylo” excited for years to come.

Olympiacos are fighting for history on Wednesday, but their academy has already brought home some silverware this season. The Olympiacos under-19s won the UEFA Youth League, which made it the first time a Greek club won a UEFA competition at any level. The kids of Olympiacos beat the academies of legendary clubs such as Inter Milan and Bayern Munich on their way to a final victory over AC Milan. It was a historic campaign that could spark a new era not just for Olympiacos but for Greek football in general.

Greek Football Culture

olympiacos europa league

This summer marks the 20-year anniversary of Greece winning the EUROs, and the football landscape has certainly changed within the country both on a domestic and national level. Domestically, the gap between Olympiacos and the rest has been closed. PAOK, AEK, and Panathinaikos have all enjoyed some semblance of success in the past few years. They are also the clubs producing the best Greek talents today.

PAOK made the Conference League quarterfinals this season, which had fans dreaming of an all-Greek European final, in Greece. A loss to Club Brugge ended the reverie.

The off-the-field issues in the league have not gone away and neither have the issues with fans. Greek fans are known for being rowdy and dangerous which has resulted in multiple stadia bans across the league over the past few years. The Greek Cup was just played in front of no fans between Panathinaikos and Aris.

Match fixing scandals, referees being attacked on the pitch, and violence have marred the image of football in Greece. The country needs to do better in cleaning its reputation up, because in terms of talent, it could have a generation that competes at international tournaments again. A return to international relevance could lead to eyes returning to Greek domestic football the same way it was in 2004. It is time to fix it up or it could lead to further negative implications for the league.

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