Missing out on the Grand Stage
AGONAsport’s Olympiacos contributor, Theo Bouras, talks about the disappointment that surrounds Olympiacos’ failure to qualify for next year’s UEFA Champions League.
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The mood is increasingly heavy in Piraeus. Blame is being tossed around from the coaching staff, to the technical team, to the players and to team owner Evangelos Marinakis. A nightmarish campaign is finally coming to a close and the board will begin preparation for the 2018-19 season in the coming weeks.
This season couldn’t have possibly gone worse. The Erythrolefki won only one derby, a measly 1-0 win against PAOK at Karaiskakis Stadium, and were awarded a 0-3 victory on paper after the episodes in Toumba. The team was once again eliminated by League Champions AEK in the Greek Cup, and their title hopes were squandered after some poor results in January and February. They did not fare any better in Europe, as a group with Barcelona, Juventus and Sporting Lisbon had them gather just one point – the lowest total in their history. Although Marinakis and company were looking to break a Greek League record of winning 8 straight championships, what will hurt the most after this disappointing season, will be the fact that the Reds will not be in the Champions League next season.
It’s no secret that the Champions League has generated an impressive revenue for the team in the past twenty-plus years. Socrates Kokkalis’ and Marinakis’ biggest detractors will argue that because of all this money from UEFA, Olympiacos has been able to put together more competitive teams, hire a better scouting department to find and eventually sell gems, and have their facilities be state-of-the-art. Although the 20, sometimes 30 million euros each season do help, Olympiacos has qualified for the competition every season because they have simply been the better team which has been put together by their better-than-the-rest ownership group. The money has aided the team in being financially stable and not lose the plot like some others (see our Green friends), but let’s not forget that the first season that Marinakis came in, he put in his own money, and the team would only compete in the tourney one full year later.
Olympiacos has never been close to a Champions League title; the furthest they ever advanced to was the Quarter-Finals in 1998-99. Realistically, nobody expects the team from Piraeus to compete for the crown, but there is a certain prestige about playing in the Champions League. Since the 1997-98 season, Olympiacos has competed in 18 Champions League campaigns. In that span, they have beaten some European powerhouses like Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United, Arsenal, Benfica, Porto, Valencia, Lyon, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille, just to mention a few. The prestige that this tournament carries for the teams that compete in it can’t be explained. Karaiskakis Stadium is always blazing and there’s a certain aura and mystique about those Champions League evenings.
Nights like that infamous cold March in 1999 where goalkeeper Dimitris Eleftheropoulos lost track of a whipped cross that Antonio Conte eventually would stuff in the back of the Olympiacos net which denied the team their first ever final four appearance. Nights like the 3-0 triumph against Werder Bremen where Takis Lemonis’ men looked like a European juggernaut. Nights like the 3-1 victory against Arsenal in December of 2011 that ended in heartbreak after Olympiacos was denied progression to the group stages because of a goal-differential with Dortmund. And nights like the 2-0 victory against Manchester United that put one of Europe’s biggest teams on the ropes. Those nights were always magic.
The fear that the team would not qualify for the 2018-19 Champions League campaign has now become a reality. The powers have changed in Greek football; PAOK and AEK, whether they admit to it or not, were on the right side of some very favorable calls this season, and when you couple that in with the fact that Greek League coefficient points are declining due to poor performances, Olympiacos fans are left frightened with one question: how will it take for the biggest Greek team to ever get back to the Grand Stage of European football?