Panathinaikos: The Rise and Fall of a Greek Football Empire



Their humiliating 4-1 defeat from Lamia for the Greek Cup knockout stage in their last game of 2017, was a fitting tribute to the once mighty, but now weakling, Panathinaikos.

The club which used to embody the “Samson v. Goliath” attitude of Greek football in European competitions in the past five decades, has become a shadow of its former glory, seriously flirting with not just relegation, but total financial annihilation too.

Panathinaikos was born 110 years ago, and soon became the ultimate Athenian football legend. The only Greek club ever to reach a European Champions Cup final in 1971, having twice reached the competition’s semifinals (1985, 1996), is now desperately seeking even the slightest contribution from its fans in order to survive.

Adopting the Irish shamrock as its symbol, the club was blessed with decades of good luck in both domestic and European competitions. The shamrock was adopted as the club’s emblem in 1918, a decade after its official formation.

Panathinaikos Vs. Ajax in the 1971 European Champions Cup final held at Wembley.

In its century-old history the club has won 20 Greek titles and 18 Greek Cups, but its most significant achievements lie in European competitions. With the late, great Ferenc Puskas on their bench, the Greens made it all the way to the European Champions Cup (equivalent to today’s Champions League) final in 1971.

The four consecutive qualification rounds that brought Panathinaikos to the 1971 final has become the stuff of legend for the club’s supporters. On their way to the Wembley Stadium final in London, the Greens eliminated Jeunesse Esch, Slovan Bratislava, Everton and Red Star Belgrade.

Thousands of Panathinaikos fans in Wembley Arena for the 1971 European Champions Cup final.

Against the mighty Dutch side Ajax, having thousands of Greek fans by their side at Wembley, the team tried its best, but was defeated 2-0 by Johan Cruyff’s “Red Devils”. No other club has ever achieved such a high European distinction in the history of Greek football.

Fourteen years later, another great Panathinaikos squad reached the European Champions Cup semifinals, eliminating Feyenoord, Linfield and IFK Göteborg, only to be knocked out by the mighty Liverpool.

In 1996, the Greens had their third international distinction when they reached the Champions League semifinals for the second time, having finished top in their group facing Nantes, Porto, Aalborg BK, and eliminating Legia Warsaw in the quarter-finals.

Legendary Panathinaikos striker Dimitris Saravakos in the 1985 European Champions Cup semifinal against Liverpool

Facing Ajax in the semis, the Greens managed an impressive 0-1 away win in the first leg at Amsterdam, but suffered a 0–3 defeat on the second leg in Athens, thus being denied entry to a Champions League final once more.

Having secured only one Greek championship title in the next 12 years, and under pressure by the club’s fan base, in 2008 main shareholder Giannis Vardinogiannis sold some of the club shares to prominent businessmen and Panathinaikos supporters Andreas Vgenopoulos, Pavlos Giannakopoulos, Adamantios Polemis and Nikos Pateras.

With over €80 million poured into the club, a new era of optimism was born, leading to the 2010 double title (Greek championship & Cup). Alas, it was not meant to be for too long. Infighting among the club shareholders and allegations of gross mismanagement eventually led to the demise of the club’s multiple shareholding era.

As wealthy shareholders started withdrawing from the club management and financing, the team’s budget shrank. With the club eventually headless and the situation about to become untenable, another prominent businessman and media mogul stepped in.

Panathinikos Vs. Liverpool in the 1985 European Champions Cup semifinal

Yiannis Alafouzos, owner of Skai radio and TV network, took over the reins by attempting the first ever fan-based investing model in Greek football. His PAO Alliance 2012 project tried to recruit ordinary fans to buy club shares by contributing modest amounts.

With no fan-investing culture in the country’s football management model, Alafouzos’ plan was doomed to failure. With less than 10,000 members becoming part of his Alliance in two years, Alafouzos assumed almost full control of the club’s finances and investments, by secretly depositing big consecutive chunks of cash into the club.

The problem was that the media mogul had no experience in financially managing a major Greek football club. By 2017, gross mismanagement and stubbornly bad transfer calls left Alafouzos with a huge personal financial deficit.

Legendary Panathinaikos striker Krzysztof Warzycha scores the winning Panathinaikos goal at Amsterdam against Ajax in the first leg of the 1996 Champions League semifinal

The 2017-2018 season kicked-off with many transfers for the club, making observers and fans convinced that despite the publicized financial woos, it would be business as usual. But less than two months into the season, while key club assets like Swedish striker Marcus Berg had already been sold, Alafouzos made an astounding announcement.

Seemingly out of the blue, the club owner announced that he was no longer going to keep financing it, withdrew from all decisions of day-to-day operations and asked for anyone interested to take his shares for free.

With the country’s financial crisis still in full swing, Alafouzos’ decision drew wide condemnation by fans and pundits alike, especially given that it came without any negotiation with a potential investor, or any consideration for the season’s running expenses.

Chaos and disarray ensued as a group of Panathinaikos veterans assumed management control, day-to-day operations and held a few unsuccessful meetings with prominent club supporters to persuade them to finance the season.

The 2017 Panathinaikos line-up

With multiple financial obligations to current and former players going back 15 years, the club is now half a step away from destitution, automatic relegation and a blanket European ban from all competitions – not to mention legal convictions for its accumulated debt towards players, managers and other entities.

Under these dire circumstances, with fans bickering amongst themselves about who’s to blame, veterans bickering about potential (but ultimately non-existing) investors and former players suing the club one after the other, current club coach Marinos Ouzounidis is doing his best to keep the team afloat.

The primary concern is how to avoid multiple lawsuits and manage the club’s financial fumes until January’s transfer season, when all asset players could be sold so that the club can barely keep functioning in order to avoid relegation and a total European ban.

With all these happening simultaneously, both the team’s bad performance in the Greek league (no away win in the first half of the season) and Thursday’s disgraceful 4-1 defeat by league newcomers Lamia for the Greek Cup were practically inevitable.

By year’s end, the most successful Greek football dynasty is drowning in problems caused by a decade-long series of catastrophic choices. As no deus-ex-machina appears on the horizon, the once football empire with the second biggest fan base in Greece and a solid European prestige, is heading straight towards its impending doom.


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