'PAOK winning the title was the best footballing night of my life… and I’m not even a PAOK fan!'
Thessaloniki-based journalist Vlassis Kambanis on a sensational season in the Greek league, PAOK's 34-year title wait and his city finally getting the better of capital Athens
Vlassis, last Sunday you witnessed the historic moment of PAOK winning the Greek league title after 34 years of waiting. Are you a PAOK fan yourself?
Actually, I have to admit - as you might already know – that I am a big fan of Juventus and not one of PAOK. Having said that, I am from Thessaloniki and the area of Toumba [where PAOK’s stadium is], that's why all my life is tightly connected to whatever happens to the club, especially as far as my job is concerned. I truly believe that a journalist must be neutral and control his emotions, but that day was really special.
On Sunday night, amid the wild celebrations, you texted me: “Do you believe that hell can exist?”. Talk us through that historic day – from the game to the amazing pyro party in the stands and then the open bus parade through Thessaloniki…
Thessaloniki was on fire from Saturday night when many PAOK fans went to the newest section of the promenade that’s close to the famous White Tower, while others went to the Castles to celebrate by organising pyro parties, throwing firecrackers and cheering for the club.
Then on Sunday, the area of Toumba and all the streets close to the stadium were full from 13:00 on, with fans drinking and eating at the canteens and many street vendors selling all kind of PAOK stuff, including t-shirts, scarves, flags and whatever else you can imagine. Then the gates of Toumba Stadium opened at 16:00 and the fans started getting inside.
The atmosphere was amazing and, fortunately, PAOK fans didn't enter the pitch before the fiesta kicked off. As you mentioned in your question, I asked you about hell and I really believe that Toumba Stadium looked like hell. PAOK fans put up an amazing pyro show, using more than 1.000 flares. And the fact that the club celebrated its first title in 34 years made that atmosphere all the more remarkable.
Was this the best footballing night of your life?
For sure, it was my best footballing night and I think that maybe next year – on the same day - I will still not be able to truly understand what happened on 21 April, 2019!
PAOK are still unbeaten in the Greek league – what is this team’s secret to success?
PAOK are unbeaten, because their coach Razvan Lucescu managed to build a solid squad with players that were always ready to sacrifice whatever it was needed in order to become champions.
Owner Ivan Savvidis has been investing a lot into the club all these years and Mr. Lucescu, his staff and the other club officials have managed to make the right choices and prepare a team with exceptional mentality that always fights for the win until the very end. Sometimes they even remind me of Juventus – even if they don’t play good football all the time, they always play for the win. I believe there are three factors that have massively contributed to PAOK's incredible achievement:
* What happened last year at the game against AEK Athens inside Toumba stadium, including the incident with Mr. Savvidis entering the stadium with a gun. Fernando Varela's goal was disallowed for offside, then AEK ended up winning the league and everyone at PAOK was seeking revenge this year. They wanted to demonstrate that PAOK were the best team in Greece!
* PAOK were very competitive in the Champions League qualifiers and managed to eliminate both Basel and Spartak Moscow, then gave Benfica a hard time in Lisbon in the play-offs and showed that the group stages were not impossible to qualify for. It’s true that PAOK didn't play well in the Europa League group stages against Chelsea, BATE Borisov and Vidi but after finishing their European campaign, all the players and their coach Lucescu started to focus more and more on the domestic battles in the Greek league.
* The departure of Alexandar Prijovic in January. PAOK sold the Serbian striker for €10m to Al Ittihad but lost one of their key men, the player who managed to score important goals in the Greek league, including the ones away at Aris and at home against AEK. Prijovic had already scored 18 times in all competitions before he left for the Saudi Arabian team. PAOK’s playing style was entirely focused on Prijovic, but with the Serbian's departure Lucescu had to change his approach by making the team play with more freedom and getting more players involved in the game, contributing with goals and assists. The guys, who deserve a special mention, are Chuba Akpom, former Arsenal striker (scored 3 goals) and Karol Swiderski, a young Polish striker signed from Jagellonia Bialystok in January (6 goals). Last but not least - it's vitally important to highlight the achievements of PAOK's defence and especially those of the rock solid duo, Fernando Varela and Jose Crespo. In 29 games they have conceded just 14 goals and to put it another way – PAOK haven’t conceded more than one goal in any of their league games.
Do you believe PAOK’s manager Razvan Lucescu, son of legendary Mircea Lucecsu, deserves an own statue in Thessaloniki?
Hmm, that's a tricky question but I think no. PAOK were finding themselves in a difficult situation when Razvan Lucescu took over and later didn't manage to lead them to the Europa League group stages because he lost - with all due respect - to Swedish minors, Östersunds FK. At first, the fans weren’t happy with that situation because they thought Lucescu wasn’t capable of transforming PAOK into a winning club.
But the Romanian did manage, as I’ve already mentioned, to build a solid squad. Last year they weren't able to win the league because of the incidents that occurred in the games against Olympiacos Piraeus (Oscar Garcia, the coach of Olympiacos, got hit by a... rolling paper, the game never kicked off and later PAOK got punished) and AEK Athens (Fernando Varela's goal was disallowed, Ivan Savvidis invaded the pitch wearing a gun and the club got punished again). This year PAOK's team is the best in the country and they totally deserve to win the title, but the fans are very demanding.
PAOK have been waiting for this title for so long – was there a moment throughout this season when you thought that things could go wrong and the eagerly anticipated title could slip through their fingers?
Well, look, there was this one moment but it wasn’t connected to a specific game. PAOK fans were starting to get anxious in January after Alexandar Prijovic was sold to Al Ittihad and many of them thought that maybe the team would not be as effective as it used to be in terms of goals and league wins. Also, last December, Pontus Wernbloom, PAOK’s biggest transfer deal last summer, was seriously injured and PAOK fans thought that the club would not be able to replace him properly. Finally, they bought Polish striker Karol Swiderski from Jagiellonia Bialystok and got Croatian midfielder Josip Misic on loan from Sporting Lisbon. And now PAOK could finish the season unbeaten.
You’ve already mentioned the gun incident club owner Ivan Savvidis was involved in. How is Savvidis perceived by PAOK fans, Greek media, rivals?
Look, that was a really sensitive topic because Ivan Savvidis had a handgun in a holster but rest assured that he wouldn’t do anything mad that could destroy himself and, of course, the club. It was enough that he stormed the pitch for him to get severely punished (three years of exclusion) and also the club to suffer another point deduction. Mr. Savvidis acquired the ownership of the club almost 7 years ago and since then he’s paid all of the club's debts to the Greek State, an amount that totalled €10,886,811, spent a lot of money to upgrade the facilities at Toumba Stadium and at PAOK Sport Center in Nea Mesimvria and, of course, spent big on transfers.
The club has managed to win two Greek Cups, one league title, played five times in the Europa League group stages and twice in the Champions League play-offs so it goes without saying that PAOK fans have a lot of respect for Mr. Savvidis and recognise his enormous contribution to the club’s recent success. Now – as far as the Greek media landscape is concerned – certain outlets are treating him accordingly depending on whose side they’re on. Websites of Olympiacos, AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and Aris Thessaloniki depicted and described Mr. Savvidis as a … criminal and demanded his exemplary punishment because of the gun incident. On the other hand, PAOK’s media tried to alleviate that situation and protect him as much as possible. Nowadays, I think that the situation has calmed down and I want to underline that Mr. Savvidis had the right to enter the pitch for the fiesta after the end of game against Levadiakos and participate in the celebrations. It wasn’t an illegal action as many media outlets are trying to point out in a wrong way.
Do you think that the fans of the other Thessaloniki teams are happy about PAOK’s triumph – simply because it has ended Athens’ dominance. Or are the Thessaloniki rivals just jealous of PAOK?
The other teams of Thessaloniki, Aris and Iraklis, are not happy with PAOK’s triumph. Especially those of Aris think that PAOK’s upgrade and Ivan Savvidis’ presence harm Thessaloniki despite the fact that in the previous four years they were playing twice in the third division and twice in the second.
I don’t want to talk about Iraklis because it’s a really special club with different mentality, special fans and of course doesn’t deserve to continuously encounter so many difficulties and injustice. On the other hand, I want to mention that Aris fans don’t feel jealous of PAOK but I think that they don’t realise they cannot compete in any way with their eternal rival, as of today at least. In basketball they have exceptional history full of massive achievements but in football their ultras are affiliated with those of Botev Plovdiv so it’s an appropriate parallel to draw between their status in Greek football and the one of the Bulgarian club in your Parva Liga.
A few weeks ago I visited Athens and on my way from the airport I was chatting to this taxi driver who was an Olympiacos fan but even he had to admit that PAOK were this season’s team to beat in Greece. How cool is it for the city of Thessaloniki to finally defeat the capital at football?
As I just said, the fans of the other teams in Thessaloniki doesn’t really care about PAOK’s achievement. Considering the fact that PAOK have the most fans in Thessaloniki, it’s normal that the major part of the city is still celebrating their triumph and many of them truly believe that Razvan Lucescu’s team has managed to end the so-called «football Junta» that describes the situation in Greek football and refers to the Athenian teams (Panathinaikos & AEK) as well as Olympiacos Piraeus.
Do you believe this PAOK title could mark the start to a black and white dominance in Greek football? Or the Athens heavyweights will bounce back next season?
For sure, it’s not normal that a football powerhouse such as Olympiacos have now lost the title for two years in a row. They played some good football under the guidance of Portuguese coach Pedro Martins but that just makes the fact that PAOK are still unbeaten all the more impressive. AEK Athens clinched the title last year and played again in the Champions League group stages after 12 years of absence but they haven’t managed to be competitive throughout the current campaign. We cannot talk about Panathinaikos because they are in a very difficult situation right now and nobody knows when they would manage to bounce back.
I would also like to add that for the first time in 29 years we have three different champions over the course of three consecutive seasons: Olympiacos (in 2017), AEK (in 2018) and now PAOK. And if you think Olympiacos were champions for 7 seasons in a row before that (2011-2017)... I’m sure Olympiacos will try to bounce back and, of course, AEK will be determined to better their performances but I strongly believe that PAOK are the main favourites to win the title next season too.
You’re also very fond of Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo. Is this what you wish for – PAOK coming up against Juve & Cristiano in next season’s Champions League group stages in a massive black and white clash?
Yes, everybody knows that I am a passionate fan of Juventus and I also have very good contacts with the Old Lady’s club in Bulgaria. I had the privilege to watch Juventus play twice against Olympiacos in Piraeus at Karaiskakis Stadium in 2014 and 2018 but there’s no doubt that it would be a dream for me to watch Juventus play in my city against PAOK!