4th April 1968. It’s a clear spring afternoon over Athens and one can almost feel the city buzzing with excitement and anticipation for the event that is set to unfold later on that evening. The electrifying atmosphere has been gradually building up since mid-March, the day when the men’s basketball team of AEK Athens reached the European Cup Winners Cup Finals for the first time in their history : they are, in fact, the very first Greek basketball team to make it that far in any European competition since their inception ! Today is to become a monumental day for Greek sport, its yet to unfold drama vastly more pronounced by the sporting and political background of the era and the part-random, part-skillfully planned sequence of events that led to this glorious moment.
To fully appreciate the context of the story, we need to go back to 1946 and the end of WW2. European-wide basketball resumed just after the end of the war, and the biannual Eurobasket competition among national teams soon becomes a very one-sided sporting affair – and as we’ll see, a very acutely political one, too. The gradual heightening of the Cold War mistrust and rivalry among post-war nations saw the simmering conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact spilling over to different battlegrounds. Sparring nations now competed in fields like science, engineering or, as it were, sports, where Soviet Union begins to build a legacy of absolute, and almost undisputed, superiority. The degree of this dominance specifically in basketball is astonishing : no Western bloc country would succeed in bringing a Eurobasket cup home before Italy finally does in 1983 ! With a run spanning nearly 4 decades, USSR would go on and win a jaw-dropping 13 times, 8 of which wins were consecutive between 1957 and 1971, and with their ideological allies Yugoslavia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia filling in the gaps in between. The runners-up for most seasons, were the very same Eastern bloc countries again and again – their unbroken runs and records mounting and silverware cabinets overflowing with trophies year upon year, leaving their Western competitors hopeless in the face of Soviet team sport perfection.
Things started no different at club level. The renowned Euroleague, the competition among each country’s champions launched in 1958, and for those 10 years before the events of that fateful night in Athens, it also becomes a competition largely dominated by Eastern bloc teams. Big guns such as USSR’s Dinamo Tbilisi, CSKA Moscow and the mighty ASK Riga are steamrolling the early trophies, with the Bulgarian PBC Academic, and the Czechoslovak Spartak Brno and Slavia Praha completing the ongoing rotation of Soviet Bloc teams in the annual finals. So by April 1968, European basketball at all levels and competitions is almost completely dominated by USSR and their Warsaw pact allies.
We say almost completely, because it is at this point where a handful of Western teams emerge, with the talent and elan to break the seemingly unbeatable runs of the Soviet basketball juggernaut. The first reluctant successes are delivered by Real Madrid, who manages to reach the finals in both 1963 and 1964, and loses there – but bravely preserves their momentum in subsequent years when at last, in powerful Queen of Europe fashion, achieves 2 consecutive Euroleague wins in 1964 vs Spartak Brno and 1965 versus CSKA Moskow. The Italians soon join the fray with Simmetnhal Milano, lifting it in 1966 and losing to Real in 1967. Could these be the much anticipated signs of the Red Bear and its disciplined allies finally feeling the heat?
In that same year, the European Cup Winners Cup, (later known as the FIBA Saporta Cup) is established. It is a now long defunct competition, but back in the sixties it was a brand new spectacle, a new exciting club level basketball competition where Cup winners or second placed teams from Championships all over the continent competed for another prestigious European trophy, won for the first time by the Italian Ignis Varese. The European myth of AEK Athens also begins here: It is the culmination of an astonishing trajectory of local and international success, winning consecutive Championships at home and making it to the first Euroleague round in 1964, and to the Euroleague quarter finals in 1965. In the Euroleague of 1966, they reach the semi-finals, the first Greek team to ever do so, but lose against Slavia Praha, with AEKs’s play maker Moshos collapsing during the game – he is struck by terminal cancer, but thirsty for making basketball history with his team, he has hidden it from his teammates. They finish 4th in Europe that year, while Moshos will pass away a few months later. AEK Athens is at that point the best team in Greece and evidently becoming a known quantity in European basketball. Trontzos, the gigantic, towering center, Zoupas, nicknamed “The Doctor” since he was a medicine student at the time, and Americanos (nicknamed “The International” as his name means The American, literally), one of the most prolific scorers in Greek basketball history are part of this magic team.
1967 is a very tough year for Greece. It’s a bad year for the champs of AEK Athens to start with, who got kicked out at the first round of that season’s Euroleague and then also lost the season’s championship to their rivals Panathinaikos, coming only second. And what’s worse, on the 21st of April 1967 a successful military coup storms the palace, forces the king’s hand and deposes the government. The so called Colonels’ Junta is aiming to counter the recently elected socialist government’s plans for a swing to the left, and as a result the tanks are now rolling in the streets of Athens. The colonels take power, secretly supported by an uncompromisingly shrewd US government seeking to safeguard NATO’s eastern border against Soviet encroachment. Martial law is declared, followed by edicts limiting the freedom of speech, press and congregation of the Greeks, and 8000 arrests take place on that first night : ministers, officials, journalists and other possibly socialist leaning dissidents – the first wave of many more arrests to come. So Greece is the focus of a proper Cold War political confrontation going warmer, at the same time that AEK Athens qualifies for the new Saporta Cup, that will kick off a few months later in November 1967. They soon go from victory to victory, magically reaching the finals by the time the first anniversary of the Greek Junta is approaching, in April 1968.
European basketball finals up to this point are played over two or more games, the team with the higher cumulative points winning the trophy – but for the 1968 ECW Cup, FIBA has decided to change the format to a single match final. The Greek Junta are sensing an opportunity : Hosting such a major sporting event is bound to put Greece in the spotlight in a positive way, and they can use the good press, following a year of tanks, curfews and arrests that has angered every democratic government in Europe.
Christos Zoupas remembers that the city where the final was to be held would be picked at the toss of a coin at FIBA, but the Greek Colonels applied pressure to FIBA to allow the final to be held in Athens. At the same time, they reached out to Slavia Praha and bought out the right to host the final, offering them a price equivalent to their stadium fully sold out – 5000 tickets upfront – as well as inviting the entire team to Athens one week prior the big game, all expenses covered ! They secure the final this way. The Czechoslovaks arrive,with them their star center, and arguably the best Czech basketball player ever, Jiri Zidek (Sr) . His wife has just given birth to a baby, and an AEK delegation is showering Mrs Zidek with baby gifts. Several days of constant sightseeing, public appearances and souvlaki dinners ensue : there are some rumours to this day that this was all an elaborate plan to distract and exhaust the opponents prior to the final. But whatever the truth might have been, the day of the final arrived and fans begin to pour into the characteristic Kallimarmaron Stadium, the Athenian cradle of sport since ancient times and the place of revival of the modern Olympic Games were in 1896.
The junta is removing all curfews and barriers to congregation for this special night. A massive crowd of 80.000 is allowed inside the stadium, 65000 seated and another 15000 standing ticket holders are gathered in anticipation of the great final – a surprisingly large number for a sporting event at the time and still a Guiness World record for attendance in an outdoor basketball game. Outside, another crowd of 40.000 is waiting for the game, listening to reactions of those inside and tuned to their radios. In 1968, Greek television comprised two channels : channel 1 or ERT was the first and only channel until 1966, when channel 2 or YENED, the channel of the Greek Armed Forces is established. Neither are capable of live outside broadcasting at the time of the final, so radio is the only way to experience the game live for those not lucky to get their hands on a ticket. Vassilis Georgiou, the now legendary radio commentator is at the stadium several hours in advance, excited, full of anticipation and feeling the weight of sporting history on his shoulders as much as the players themselves. His radio broadcast, and especially the last few moments of the game is still the stuff of sporting legend in Greece.
The game begins, and it is a cracker. There were no quarters in European basketball at the time, so the game is played in two 20 minute halves. AEK Athens finishes ahead 47-38 at half time, and the crowd is electrified ! But the experienced Slavia Praha are no pushovers. They enter the second half with renewed energy and will catch up to AEK Athens with 57-56 at around 11 minutes in, changing the tide to 58-60 soon after and setting the stage for a nail-biting last 8 minutes !! At this crucial moment, Giorgos Americanos will show leadership by taking point of AEK Athens’s attacking efforts and will single handedly manage to turn the tables again, putting the Greeks ahead with 60-58, a lead that is still held into the final moments of the game.
1 minute to go now, and AEK Athens is still ahead of Slavia Praha. The night is alight with flares and camera flashes illuminating the stadium. A constant din from the delirious crowd is further erupting every time a basket is scored, and streamers, newspapers, handkerchiefs are thrown on the track surrounding the concrete pitch. It is a thunderous atmosphere : urban legends still persist decades later, about how the Junta might have actually encouraged this rowdy atmosphere to intimidate the opponents, or how the reporters were instructed to flash their cameras in sync every time a Slavia Praha player was about to take a shot.. or maybe, could this have been a much needed release for the many Athenians who gathered there that night, after a whole year of living in fear and repression? Pierre Tessier, the reporter of the French sports paper L’Equipe related that very moment : “The starry sky is streaked by a thousand colourful flares each time a basket is scored, and for over 2 hours, the cry of AEK! AEK! covered every other sound“. Vasilis Georgiou, the Greek commentator, becomes a broadcasting legend that night, especially with his frantic delivery of the final moments of the game : “The God of Greece, the God of AEK is with us! Come Americanos, come Trontzos, come on Zoupas! Americanos is scoring a wonderful goal and he comes over and kisses me, I kiss him back ! ..Christeas is smiling assuredly as he’s about to take the two shots.. smile on, Christeas! He scores the first, and now he scores the second, just like I’ve told you.. and since Trontzos scored this dreamlike basket, there’s no way we’re losing now, gentlemen ! .. We’re holding the ball outside the area!! Come on boys!! 89-82, it’s over! It’s over ! The ascension of Greek basketball! The great AEK, the dreamlike AEK has won the European Cup! George, (referring to Americanos) we tore them to pieces! We lifted it !! AEK – GREECE – EUROPE !!”
The stadium explodes in joy. Thousands of fans invade the pitch and rush past the dazed Czechoslovaks, who stand astonished, even bemused by the crowd’s reaction. As Jiri Zidek Sr related 3 decades later “That magical night in Athens in 1968 was one of the greatest moments of my career. Unforgettable moments. There were 80.000 people applauding us and we were not quite certain whether we had lost or won“. The celebrations spill over outside the stadium, into the streets of Athens.
The crowds are embracing their heroes, and soon they have lifted and carry them around the streets on their shoulders, an ancient Olympic tradition that still holds to this day. When Giorgos Americanos tries to finally retire to their car and leave the stadium with his wife, the crowds will soon recognize him close to the Omonia area : they proceed to lift the car with him and his wife inside and carry it for 2km to Victoria Square !! Celebrations carry on through the night, with the team ending up in a nightclub to celebrate the huge victory in typical Greek fashion.
This is a great sporting victory, and the very first international success in Greek team sports. But it is also a huge win for the Army Colonels : On the first anniversary of the Junta, this was a great opportunity to display national pride and unity, and to give the still cowering people of Greece the chance to rejoice and forget the acute repression they have been experiencing during the recent purges. In addition, this is a victory that would please Greece’s European NATO allies and also USA, who have been routinely owned by USSR and its Communist allies in international basketball since the 50s. I’d like to think that those first wins of Real Madrid and AEK in the late 60s were a bit like a sporting moon landing : A most definite and permanent dent on Communist superiority in the relentless race for athletic titles and prestige that lasted well into the 80s. The victory of 1968 will create a first wave of basketball culture in Greece, that will culminate with the victory over the big bear itself, USSR, in the nail-biting final of Eurobasket 1987. It was a memorable, never say die game with many ups and downs I still remember watching as a small boy – but let this be a subject to another Cold War sporting story.
As the 5th of April 1968 dawned, Slavia Praha would return home to a much changed Czechoslovakia. It is the date when Alexander Dubcek and his associates will publish the Action Program , a plan to liberalize the country and to achieve socialism maturity away from the direct influence of the USSR. This plan will lead the country into the period of unrest known as the Prague Spring and will culminate to the subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the military suppression of the unrest in the same summer. As it turned out, 1968 was to be a very bad year for the proud people of Czechoslovakia, nearly as bad as 1967 was for the Greeks : for losing in sport is one thing, but losing one’s freedoms is quite another, a hefty price paid by those two countries who have been among the more reluctant participants in this Cold War confrontation that was gripping Europe at the time.
Photo and Story Sources :