Athletic & Greece: Los Leones and the Land of the Gods

Athletic & Greece: Los Leones and the Land of the Gods

Since 1968, Athletic have played eight times against Greece's 'Big Three' of Panathinaikos FC, Olmpiacos FC and AEK Athens FC. We take a look back at those encounters.

On 27 November 1968, Panathinaikos FC became the first Greek side to take on Athletic Club at The Cathedral. They are one of just three sides from the Hellenic country to have played in Bilbao, joining the other two teams from Greece’s ‘Big Three’: AEK Athens and Olympiacos FC.

Over the past 55 years, we’ve played eight matches against those three clubs – mostly in European competition – with a record of four wins, three draws and just one loss.

Panathinaikos FC

The Zurigorri travelled to Athens for their first round of the 1968/69 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, taking on the mighty Greens at the Leoforos Stadium on 20 November 1968. Despite the final 0-0 scoreline, it was an entertaining affair with both sides having several chances on a warm night.

Athletic won the tie and progressed to the second round thanks to a Jose Francisco Rojo free-kick in the 43rd minute at The Cathedral. The Lions had further chances to go ahead via Javier Ormaza and Anton Arieta, but the Shamrock’s keeper, Panagiotis ‘Takis’ Ikonomopoulos, was in fine form. Nonetheless, Los Rojiblancos eased to 1-0 win.

Testament to the quality on show from both sides, the Panathinaikos XI at San Mames was almost identical to the one that lost to Ajax in the 1971 European Cup final just two seasons later, containing club legends such as Kostas Eleftherakis, Antonis Antoniadis and Mimis Domazos - their record appearance maker.

Curiously, in that same final Ikonomopoulos wore Jose Angel Iribar’s Spain strip with the Panathinaikos’ badge stuck on top. He had swapped shirts with ‘El Txopo’ at the end of an international fixture the year before.

The Greens and the Lions faced each other again almost 50 years down the line in a Europa League play-off match. The first leg in Athens was an absolute thriller. Robin Lod and Bryan Cabezas had the Greeks 2-0 ahead with just over 20 minutes to go. 

However, Athletic never gave up and Aritz Aduriz kickstarted an incredible comeback with a header in the 67th minute. Oscar de Marcos quickly followed that up with a back-post volley and in the 74th minute Aduriz completed the sensational fightback with a panenka penalty.

Los Rojiblancos took no chances in the return fixture at San Mames. Iker Muniain gave Athletic the lead and Los Leones squeezed out the match to guarantee their place in the group stages.

Two former Lions have pulled on the famous green jersey. Josu Sarriegi turned out for Panathinaikos from 2007 until 2012, even becoming a club captain. His most iconic moment was scoring the winning goal in a 0-1 Champions League victory against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan at the San Siro. Left-back Cristian Ganea, who has also played for Aris Thessaloniki, made nine appearances for the club last season before moving to Steaua Bucharest.


In 1988, Athletic faced an AEK side on the cusp of a golden era. According to reports from the time, the Greek outfit ‘completely dominated’ the first match in Athens forcing the Lions to defend deep in their own half. AEK took the opening leg 1-0 with a 23rd minute goal from Dimitris Pittas.

The return fixture in Bilbao was a different story. Backed by 38,000 raucous Athleticzales at the old San Mames, Howard Kendall’s Lions turned around the scoreline within the first five minutes. Genar Andrinua levelled the tie with barely three minutes gone and Peio Uralde put the Zurigorri ahead moments later with a volley. The papers described the first half as “the best of the Kendall era” up to that point.

The Athenians looked to hit Athletic on the counter-attack, but rarely troubled Biurrun in goal. The only downside of the night was that Joseba Agirre and Ander Garitano both suffered serious injuries.

Under Bosnian coach Dušan Bajević, that AEK side went on to become one of the most fabled teams in Greek football history. Between taking over in 1988 and leaving in 1996, the former AEK player led the Yellow-Blacks to four Greek league titles (1988/89, 1991/92, 1992/93, 1993/94) and one Greek Cup (1995/96).

What’s more, that AEK dream team contained two One-Club Men in the forms of goalkeeper Spyros Ikonomopoulos and defender Stelios Manolas, both of whom lined up against Athletic at San Mames.

Athletic academy product Erik Morán spent one season at AEK, helping them to the Greek league title in 2017/18

Olympiacos FC

The Red-Whites are the only other Greek club Athletic have faced in our history. In August 2004, an Olympiacos side led by Bajević which featured Brazilian legends Rivaldo and Giovanni up front played out a 0-0 friendly draw at The Cathedral. 

In 2014, Los Leones travelled to Athens for another pre-season game where we took on Thrylos at the Georgios Karaiskakis in another 0-0 stalemate.

There are several more Athletic-Olympiacos connections. For example, current Zurigorri manager Ernesto Valverde is considered one of the most important head coaches in the Athens side’s history having lifted three league titles (2008/09, 2010/11, 2011/12) and two Greek Cups (2008/09, 2011/12) during his two stints in Greece.

When Txingurri returned to Olympiacos with FC Barcelona for a Champions League match in 2017/18, he said a “part of his heart would always remain” at the Georgios Karaiskakis. In an interview with Athletic Club, Vassilis Nanos, the Greek outfit’s academy manager, said Valverde “changed the club’s culture, introducing a new winning mentality”.

Midfielders Pablo Orbaiz and Francisco Yeste were part of the Olympiacos side that won the 2011/12 Greek league title under Valverde. Orbaiz, on loan from Athletic, played a crucial role, making 37 appearances that season, four of which came in the Champions League

Other Lions in Greece

In addition to the players already mentioned, several other former Lions and Cubs currently compete in Greece, or have plied their trade there, including: Igor Angulo (Apollon Smyrnis, Platanias), Asier Benito (Asteras Tripoli), Iker Guarrotxena (Volos NPS), Iker Bilbao (PAS Giannina), Kike Sola (APO Levadiakos) and Iker Begoña (APO Levadiakos, Thrasyvoulos).

And finally, Howard Kendall, Athletic coach in the late 80s, had two spells in Greece with Xanthi and Ethnikos Piraeus.

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