It was 43 years ago this week that an amateur club led by a former superstar striker played in the biggest game in European club football – the European Champion Clubs' Cup final at the home of football, Wembley.
It sounds like the stuff of legend but it was true, with an exhibition at Athens' City Hall opening this week commemorating the Panathinaikos FC side that reached the 1971 decider and its inspirational coach, Ferenc Puskás. The Greens lost 2-0 at Wembley to the invincible AFC Ajax side of that era, but the surviving members of the team were proud to assemble this week to attend the exhibition and the unveiling of a plaque at the club's home stadium to mark the achievements of that side, which won two Greek titles too.
A forward for the all-conquering Real Madrid CF side of the late 1950s and 1960s, the Budapest-born Puskás - who died in 2006 - had not long retired when he came to Athens in 1970, fresh from his first coaching stints in the short-lived North American Soccer League (NASL) and in Spain. His impact on his charges was immediate and dramatic. "He instilled hope in us," recalled striker Antonis Antoniadis. "We knew he was a great footballer and a world star when he arrived, but we didn't expect anything else."
"We hoped he could build a team out of us because it was certain we could learn from him how to win. He wouldn't say anything to us in the dressing room before the matches, he just expected us to prepare well. Before the European Cup final he just said to us: 'Go out there, play your football and enjoy the game!'"
Greek sides are no strangers to the higher echelons of European competition these days but in 1970 local clubs had little international reputation and, while football was popular in Greece, even the top clubs were amateur. It was thus something of a novelty for Antoniadis that the great Puskás took him seriously.
"I thought he was joking when he first spoke to me and asked me about my lifestyle because he believed I was a seriously talented player," he said. "In the end, despite being an amateur footballer with a job in insurance, I became the European Cup's top scorer that season with ten goals. I would go to work in the morning with my training kit in a little bag and then go straight to training in the afternoon. In the main, our great success in 1971 was down to him because he improved us mentally. He restored belief in our souls."
In that famous campaign, Panathinaikos made their way past AS Jeunesse Esch and ŠK Slovan Bratislava, beat Everton FC on away goals in the quarter-finals and then recovered from losing 4-1 at FK Crvena zvezda to reach the final by the same means, winning 3-0 in Athens. Antoniadis attributes some of those successes to Puskás's cool leadership.
"He would always say the opposition players only have two legs like us and they only have 11 players," the 68-year-old remembered. "He really believed in us and what we could do, and in the end we did what he said we were capable of. He was much loved and will never be forgotten – he is in our souls every day."
The exhibition is now ensuring that – for a few weeks at least – fans can have a bit more of Puskás in their lives. Exhibits include the three European Cup winners' medals Puskás earned during his nine-year spell with Madrid as well as Johan Cruyff's Ajax shirt from the Wembley final. The links between the Greens and Puskás, meanwhile, were cemented in a gala match between the Under-17 teams of Panathinaikos and the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy, attended by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.
"[Puskás's time at Panathinaikos] was the greatest success of his coaching career," he said. "These days everything is very much international, but that was not the case at that time. It was quite strange that a Hungarian star at Madrid could come to Athens and help them to their greatest achievement. It brings a kind of pride to Hungarians to be a part of such a great success story – even just a small part."
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