The road to '95 - '96 Champions League Semi-finals

by D. Vassilakis

PAO - Hnk Hajduk Split: 0-0

Hnk Hajduk Split- PAO: 1-1

PAO - FC Nantes Atlantique: 3-1
Warzycha (2),

Porto FC - PAO:0-1

Aalborg BK- PAO:2-1

PAO - Porto FC:0-0

PAO - Aalborg BK:2-0
Georgiadis G.S.

FC Nantes Atlantique - PAO:0-0

Legia Warszaw - PAO:0-0

PAO - Legia Warszaw:3-0
Ìehalitsef (O)

AFC Ajax - PAO:0-1

PAO - AFC Ajax:0-3

No one could ever imagine how far Panathinaikos would reach in to the Champion's League campaign 1995-96…

It all started in August 1995 with Panathinaikos playing against Haijduk Split. The prize was qualification in to the group stages of the prestigious Champions League… Due to last year's punishment the first match took place in the entirely empty Olympic Stadium of Athens and the final 0-0 was not a best result for the unlucky green team (hit the goalposts twice).

The return leg took place in Rieka - Italy (due to the Croatian war) and Panathinaikos was obliged to face, apart from Croatian giant Haijduk, an extremely hostile atmosphere… However, a very valuable goal, scored by Panathinaikos midfielder Juan Jose Borelli just a few minutes before the final whistle, (final score 1-1), was enough for the Greeks to qualify and be included in the draw for the group stages.

Panathinaikos opponents at this group stage were, FC Nantes (French champions), FC Porto (champions of Portugal) and Dynamo Kiev (champions of Ukraine). However, the first match against Dynamo at Kiev (1-0 defeat), was cancelled and Dynamo was discarded from the League! The reason was that Ukrainians tried to bribe the match's referee. Dynamo was immediately replaced by Aalborg BK(Denmark) in the group.

Next game was against Nantes at Olympic Stadium of Athens. This match was a one-team performance for the greens, which with the valuable help of 65.000 fans and Warzycha scoring twice to beat the French champions 3-1.

After 2 weeks Panathinaikos went to Oporto to face FC Porto… Panathinaikos coach Juan Ramon Rocha during a pre-match interview commented: "If we win this game, I'll return to Athens on foot…!". Well, Markos scored a superb goal and with Wandzik's outstanding saves Panathinaikos won, but Rocha never kept his promise.

Third match against Aalborg in Denmark, resulted in Panathinaikos first defeat for the league (2-1, Warzycha the scorer). Two weeks later, home game against Porto FC, a 0-0 draw, with few lost chances for both sides… After this game though it was just one more win Panathinaikos needed and they would qualify for the quarter finals.

That win came against Aalborg at the frozen (extremely low temperature) Olympic Stadium of Athens, with the final score 2-0. Alexoudis and Georgiadis G.S. were the scorers.

So, the last away match against Nantes in France was to decide the group winner. A win or a draw meant that Pao would finish top and in the next round it would play a second placed team of another group. Another 0-0 draw on a snowy surface made the Greek fans take their tops off and celebrate half naked with sub zero temperatures. The initial aim for Pao was to qualify however, not only qualification was achieved but also they won the group convincingly. This earned the players a lot of respect from all over Europe. Suddenly all footballing Europe was talking of Panathinaikos achievement.

Next opponent: Legia Warszaw, quarter final stage.
The first match took place in Poland. The whether was the cause for a 24-hour postponement. Finally, another 0-0, with temperatures clinging around zero. Needless to mention that the game had very few chances and both teams where trying to play football on a murky and icy pitch. Second leg was quite different. More than 74.000 green fans went to Olympic Stadium to watch Panathinaikos qualify in to the semi finals, after scoring 3 times. Warzycha opened the score, Juan Jose Borelli scored a magnificent 2nd goal, before Mihalitsef (own goal) contributed to the final 3-0 for Panathinaikos. The Greek team was for the third time in its long history in to the semi finals of the Champions' League.

Next opponent: AFC Ajax, semi final stage.
The Dutch giant (and last year's champion) AFC Ajax. The first game in Netherlands was one of the greatest moments for Greek football. For 90' Ajax was trying to score but Juan Ramon Rocha's players were standing excellently on the field, swallowing all attacks, they did not allow Klievert, Litmanen & co, to go past them, but even when they threaten our goal Wandsik was there to stop them. The defenders were outstanding and the attackers waited for the opportunity to come for the counter attack. This opportunity came on the 86th minute when Donis ran on the ball, Donis, Donis, still Donis, Warzycha and... GOAAAAL!!! (download videoclip)

I will never forget that moment in my life. During the game every minute seemed an hour, we kept looking at the time, some fans were actually praying, most fans had not stopped singing. This game will never be forgotten. That was the last European match Ajax played in their ground before moving to their new Amsterdam Arena. They wanted a win badly but... sorry Ajax.
The champions League TV station arranged an interview with Palefip (UK). The goal Warzycha scored was shown again & again, 134 countries showed this game live. Newspapers and magazines wrote so much about it.

Panathinaikos outstanding performances alerted the Dutch superstars, who realize that if they wanted to have a chance of reaching the final they would have to be at their best. It was the 17th April 1996, 90' before the final, OAKA was full, 76,000 fans waiving green flags were ready to celebrate, the atmosphere was electric. Unfortunately, the disappointment came early for the fans who show Jari Litmanen to score for Ajax only on the 4th minute. The dream was almost over. On the 77' the score became 0-2 and just before the end the final score 0-3. That early goal had such an effect on the Pao players who lost some of their spirit.

The fairy tale ended, but there was still a sweet taste left on everyone's taste. Pao made his fans proud, broke another record, kept fighting up to 77', extra time was 13' away European media repeatedly referred to Panathinaikos and the improvement of the Greek football. Offers started coming in for some players. Donis run in Amsterdam landed him a fat contract at Blackburn Rovers, while Georgiades ended up in Newcastle. Other offers were refused but once more Panathinaikos gained the respect of the European football fan.