Olympiakos: Balkan Kings
Since their inception way back when on the 26th of March 1925, Olympiakos have amassed one of the biggest trophy hauls in Greece and world football. Standing currently at 76 trophies, they have won 46 league titles, 27 Greek Cups, and 4 Greek Super Cups. They hold the record of winning a domestic title 5 or more consecutive times on 5 separate occasions in their history, and have claimed more league wins than all of the previous Greek league winners put together at 40.
The Piraeus giants truly have earned their nickname of Thrylos, meaning Legend. But despite their coveted history, one title that Erythrolefki claimed back in 1963 is not talked about perhaps as much as it should be but also at the time was a milestone for Greek football. I am of course referring to the Balkans Cup.
This week I will be talking about a cup victory I knew very little about up until recently: how Thrylos, in an era of little domestic success, went on to compete in and win an international competition that was considered the second most important after the European Cup for Southern Mediterranean clubs. I will also be taking a brief look at the competition itself and how it ultimately helped Greek clubs as a whole become more competitive internationally.
What was the Balkans Cup?
So what exactly was the Balkans Cup (not to be confused with the now defunct “Balkan Cup” which was played between national teams in the region)? The competition which ran from 1961 until 1994 included clubs from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Yugoslavia. It was held for the most part every season or so depending on each competing club’s domestic season so they would not clash and travel to away matches. Its format changed numerous times over the years, but the format when Olympiakos won the cup is what I will primarily focus on.
Eight teams would choose to enter the tournament and would be separated into two groups of four. Teams would play each other twice each and the team with the most points at the end of the group stage would qualify for the final, where they would play in a two-legged final to become champion. Throughout its early years, it gained a huge amount of popularity among fans, but with UEFA organising two new secondary competitions, the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup, with opportunities for teams in the participating countries to compete, the Balkans Cup began to decline towards the end of the century and it was finally defunct in 1994.
The 1961-63 Run
Thrylos began the 1961-63 Balkans Cup in Group A containing previous champions and Romanian side Steagul Rosu Brasov, then Yugoslavian team Sarajevo, and Turkish side Galatasaray. This competition came at the perfect time for Thrylos as the club was going through a dry patch with regards to winning the league title in an era dominated by Panathinaikos. For Olympiakos, it was a chance to establish themselves in international competition and bring a bit of European pedigree in a time when continental tournaments in Europe were still relatively new.
Thrylos’ Balkans Cup journey began in February 1962 against reigning champions Steagul Rosu Brasov where the Greek side prevailed and defeated the Romanians 1-0 in Piraeus thanks to a goal from Elias Ifantis. The next two matches were also played at the Karaiskakis Stadium with a 1-0 victory over Galatasaray and a follow-up 3-2 win over Sarajevo, where after going 3-0, up Olympiakos had to keep their wits about them as the Yugoslavian side scored two goals in the second half, but Thrylos held firm to win.
The following three fixtures for Olympiakos were played away from home and, as has been the case with our team in Europe, the team struggled on the road. A 3-3 draw with Sarajevo followed in the return leg between the two sides and in the penultimate game, Olympiakos visited Romania only to be smashed 6-2 by Steagul Rosu Brasov. The final match of the group saw Erythrolefkoi draw in Turkey to Galatasaray, but ultimately the Turkish side withdrew from the competition, making all games against them for the other teams in the group invalid. Despite this, Olympiakos finished top of the group with 11 points to face Bulgarian side Levski Sofia in the final.
The first leg of the final began in Piraeus as the two sides faced off to see who would be crowned Balkan Cup champions. The match went more or less to plan for Olympiakos as the Greek side came away with a 1-0 victory thanks to a strike from legendary forward Giorgos Sideris to take to the return leg in Sofia. Much like the Balkans Cup campaign as a whole, the away second leg was nearly the undoing of Thrylos as Levski Sofia won at home and levelled the tie at 1-1 on aggregate.
With the tie all square, a third playoff match was organised at a natural ground in Istanbul to decide once and for all who would win their first Balkans Cup out of the two sides. After 45 minutes still, neither team could be separated and as full time drew closer it looked as though this game was going to end all square. With minutes of regular time left, Olympiakos player Stefanakos scored a late winner and the Greeks held on until the end to finally settle the tie as champions of the Balkans. In claiming the Cup, Thrylos became the first Greek club to win an international trophy, helping to kickstart the clubs’ pedigree as a proper European club. A very unique trophy for our club, it is a shame that the Balkans Cup has become a bit of a footnote in our club’s decorated history.