Although regarded more for their yogurt than their football, the small coastal nation of Greece has always been home to a solid European league.
The Greek First Tier of Football was originally known as the Alpha Ethniki (meaning “First Division” in Greek) and was founded in 1927. It was renamed to the Greek Super League in 2006. The “Big 3” clubs in Greece consist of Olympiakos FC, Panathinaikos FC, and AEK Athens FC. These clubs have dominated Greek football, winning 74 of the possible 80 league titles between the three of them. Olympiakos has won the most titles, a record 43 times, while Panathinaikos has captured 20 and AEK 11.
The Thessalonian clubs consisting of Aris Thessaloniki FC and PAOK FC have managed to break the monopoly of the “big 3” on the league, as Aris has amassed 3 titles, while PAOK has 2. It should be noted that PAOK has also managed second place finishes in recent years in the 2009-2010 and 2012-2013 seasons. Larissa FC is the only club outside of Athens and Thessaloniki to have ever won a title, winning the 1988 campaign as a clear underdog.
A relatively small league, the Greek top-flight boasts 16 teams and plays a 30 game season. The top 5 teams earn European football for the following season. 1st place earns automatic entry to the CL group stage. As of 2010, a playoff system is used post-season to determine which competition the next 4 teams will compete in. 2nd place results in the 3rd Qualifying Round for Champions League, while the next 3 teams earn bids to the Europa League. This new playoff twist allows for some exciting matches post-season, with smaller clubs gunning for Europe’s elite football club tournaments.
The Greek domestic cup, known as the Greek Football Cup, is an annual competition that allows for smaller teams to compete against the bigger clubs. Olympiakos has captured this cup a record 27 times, while Panathinaikos has won it 18 times, and AEK 14 times. PAOK FC has managed to win 4 cups, as well as finishing runners up in 2014.
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Contrary to popular belief, Greek clubs have enjoyed success in Europe. Panathinaikos reached the pinnacle of European football in 1971 when they reached the final of the European Cup (now known as the Champions League final), falling to Cruyff’s Ajax in Wembley by a margin of 2-0.
In more recent years, Olympiakos has reached the Champions League Round of 16 twice, losing to Chelsea in 2007-2008 as well as Manchester United in 2013-2014. In the last 5 years, notable wins in the Champions League for Olympiakos include beating Arsenal on 3 separate occasions (including this year), as well as beating the likes of Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, and Juventus.
Other notable big wins by Greek clubs include Panathinaikos defeating Inter Milan in the 2008-2009 CL group stage. PAOK also defeated Roma twice in 2010. The third biggest club in Greece, AEK FC, defeated AC Milan in the 2007-2008 CL group stage (Milan went on to win the Champions League that year). PAOK FC beat Borussia Dortmund this past season by a score of 1-0 in the EL group stage. PAOK also beat Tottenham 2-1 in 2012. In 2010, Aris FC managed to beat Atletico Madrid both home and away in the 2010-2011 EL group stage.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Greek league has found itself floating around the top 15 European leagues according to the UEFA coefficient. They currently sit as the 14th best league in the continent, out of a possible 54 leagues. Not bad for a small country of 11 million.
The Greek league has played host to some big name foreign players over the years. Among footballers are a Ballon d’Or winner, World Cup winners, Champions League winners, and various European top flight winners. They have mostly played for Olympiakos FC, but other clubs have also welcomed legendary players.
A young Yaya Touré played a key role in Olympiakos’ 2005-06 league title and cup double. Following a solid Greek campaign, he transferred to Monaco, ultimately joining Barcelona and winning the legendary 2008-09 sextuple. The legendary Brazilian Rivaldo, a former World Cup winner and Ballon d’Or winner, featured for Olympiakos and AEK Athens from 2004-2008, amassing 3 league titles as well as 2 cups. Kevin Mirallas, current Everton and Belgium midfielder, enjoyed success with Olympiakos from 2010-2012, earning the Greek Super League top scorer in 2012.
The second biggest club in Greece, Panathinaikos, has also played host to a number of great players. Gilberto Silva, the former Brazilian captain and World Cup winner, not to mention Arsenal legend, featured for Panathinaikos from 2008-2011.
He was an integral part of their double success, capturing the league title and cup in the 2009-10 campaign. Djibril Cisse, a former French international and Champions League winner, was another integral part of the 09-10 PAO team, leading the league in scoring. Sidney Govou, a member of the 2006 French World Cup team, also featured for Panathinaikos during those years.
More recently in the 2015-16 Super League, the league featured the likes of Esteban Cambiasso (Olympiakos FC), Michael Essien (Panathinaikos FC), and Dimitar Berbatov (PAOK FC). Cambiasso and Essien are both former Champions League winners, while Berbatov has won the Premier League on multiple occasions in addition to being the top scorer of the Premier League.
There is no doubt that some of Europe’s best have played and enjoyed success in the Greek Super League. We should not forget some of the famous managers who have also graced the Greek pitches. Ferenc Puskás, the Hungarian and Real Madrid legend, managed Panathinaikos from 1970-74 which included a European Cup final, the only Greek team to date to appear in a final. He also managed AEK Athens FC during the 1978-79 campaign. More recently, Brazilian legend Zico enjoyed a brief spell with Olympiakos from 2009-2010. Former Italian World Cup winner Gennaro Gattuso had a brief spell in charge of OFI Crete in 2014-2015. And this season, Gus Poyet managed AEK Athens to a 2nd Place finish.
The Greek Super League is a great mix of young Greek players playing alongside experienced foreign veterans. The Greek clubs have proven they can persuade big names to play for them and have shown success in Europe. The league is continuously improving and will be exciting to watch for years to come.
Coming soon: Recapping the 2015-2016 Greek Super League