As matchday three of Superleague passed the focus inevitably switched to that of European matters. With Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich arriving this mid-week to get this season’s UEFA Champions League campaign off and running.
As fans of the Greek legend we do appreciate the domestic competitions, and naturally long for, and demand, success at home. It is, however, the European campaigns that generate any real excitement amongst the fans, the media and even the players. What better start to this year’s competition than the visit of one of the world’s genuine premier clubs. Images in the media early last week showed thousands of Thrylos fans clamouring to get their hands on a golden ticket to witness the biggest team from Germany come to take on the biggest team in Greece. A truly mouth watering clash. The excitement that European competition brings to the port, and all the other Greek teams competing in continental competition, is unparalleled.
It is this excitement, however, that often overspills and, for our club especially, raises expectations unnecessarily. The Champions League is now seen as the be-all and end-all of global football. Some regard it as a greater spectacle than even the world cup. While this raises some debate and the world cup should always be the ultimate prize in football, at a club level for sure there is no doubting that the European Champions League is the pinnacle of global club football.
With around €12m pocketed by clubs just for competing (before any gate receipts, TV or performance revenue) in the group stage it is understandable why annual qualification is a necessity. In 2014, after progressing from the group with PSG, the club took a total of €27m in earnings from that season’s competition. This sort of revenue can not be neglected and clearly it is regular Champions League participation that allows us to stand out far and above our domestic rivals.
In terms of on the field success, history and legacy it should maybe be the Europa League where we set our sights and channel all efforts for success. As a fan, I want to see us competing against the best sides in Europe and hope to beat every side we face, but, history shows us that there is a clear hierarchy with in European football and some realistic ambitions should be harboured. Under Michel in the 2013/14 season we were awarded a glamour tie against Manchester United in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Many plaudits and favourable write-ups came our way after an impressive 2-0 first leg win. It was a memorable game that will live long in the memory of the fans, nights we long and strive for as followers of our clubs. The second leg however had an all too familiar outcome, a brave and spirited performance ultimately came to nothing as the Manchester giants won 3-0 on the night and Olympiakos were dumped out of the competition, admittedly with pride in-tact with a credible 3-2 aggregate loss. Ultimately, though, our European campaign was over for another season. The history books will not mention the great result Thrylos experienced in that first leg of the round of 16. The history books will simply show that Real Madrid defeated city rivals, Atletico Madrid, in the final to achieve “La Decima” – Madrid’s tenth European cup title. That is the measure of success – silverware – even in today’s money-laden business driven game. Silverware, titles, top scorer records… these are the dreams of the fans. Fans will look back for decades at who won what, against who and when – not what financial rewards were achieved in any given season.
In comparison to the previous season, last season’s third place finish and progression to the Europa League knockout stage should have been a chance to have a serious run deep into the competition and even challenge for success. Our victors, Dnipro, were seen as a favourable draw. While respect must be paid to a very strong team who have become a very tight unit, a team that is comprised of much of the Ukrainian national side, these sides we should be more than competing with. While we may well struggle more often than not against the likes of PSG, Manchester United and Juventus – we should not be phased by facing the likes of Dnipro and Dinamo Zagreb in European competition. If Olympiakos is to ever be more than simply participants in Europe’s top competitions it needs to not lose focus when playing the “lesser” sides rather than getting pumped up for the flagship games only to take the eye off the ball for the perceived “easier” games to then come unstuck and forever rue missed chances. Last season again, is evidence of this taking the eye off the ball, back-to-back wins over Spanish champions, Atleti, and Juve, the Italian champions, had many people’s hopes and expectations raised. The club was buzzing, the media flooding us with superlatives – only for us to come crashing back to earth with a defeat away at Malmö. Following this defeat the side limped through the rest of the group and luckily finishing in third place to ensure some form of European football would still be on offer as the second half of the season started. Football is full of fine margins, another season could have seen us clinch second spot and see us face another tie like that of Manchester United the previous season. More worryingly, in another season we could have quite easily have crashed out of Europe altogether, finishing fourth and only have league and cup matters at home to contend with.
While our European adventure ended early in the year at the hands of Dnipro, their campaign saw them progress all the way to the final. They had to settle for being runners-up at the expense of Sevilla, who secured back-to-back title wins. Nonetheless, a fine fairy tale season from the side from Ukraine – a nation ranked 8th in UEFA’s association club coefficient. A look at the quarter final line up of last season’s Europa League will show some expected participants from the bigger leagues of Italy, Spain & Germany. It is the presence teams from Russia, Ukraine & Belgium, our coefficient peers, however, that should be a source of optimism. Olympiakos should be competing and progressing through the knockout stages with these sides.
Jose Mourinho rose to prominence in the 2003/04 season when his Porto side followed up the previous season’s UEFA Cup win with a Champions League win. That final, contested between Porto and Monaco, is the only final since the 1996/1997 season that has featured any clubs outside of the big four leagues (England, Spain, Germany & Italy). Nothing is impossible, but winning the Champions League for a side from Greece is as close to impossible as you can get. The proof is in the results, the elite win the Champions League. In that same 19-season period that the Big 4 nations have dominated the Champions League, teams from Turkey, Scotland, Ukraine, France, Portugal and Netherlands have all featured in the Europa League (or UEFA Cup) finals, many of those nations having multiple representatives.
The Europa League is a competition that Olympiakos could win, if taken seriously and the players and boardroom don’t perceive dropping out of the Champions League as failure. Finishing fourth is failure. Finishing third and entering the Europa League knockout stages is a realistic chance of success. A chance that should be cherished and one the players and fans should thrive on. We have shown time and again that we can hold our own against bigger sides such as Manchester United & Juventus and get wins in one off situations. What we need to do is change our mindset, to regularly be beating the sides at our level and the sides perceived to be at a lower level. We need to be confident that we can beat teams like Malmö and Dnipro, progress through the rounds and then have a big game to get pumped up for – a final!
We went into this season’s group stage draw as third seeds. In theory the third best side in the group, which to any serious and honest fan would admit is about right. Bayern Munich and Arsenal are teams littered with talent; European champions, World Cup and Copa America winners, they have TV revenue and a wage budget that a side like Olympiakos could only dream of. So should we lose tonight to Bayern or Arsenal in two weeks time, it will be disappointing on the night but it won’t be failure. Failure would be not collecting six points from Dinamo Zagreb, which should be enough to see is finish in third place and affording us the opportunity to compete in the Europa League after Christmas. A competition which we can win – not just compete. With the right mindset, and a little bit of luck, there is no reason why a club like ours can’t win the Europa League and be the first side from Greece to bring home a European trophy.