PAOK debutized in the European Champions Clubs’ Cup (European Cup) on 15 September 1976. On that day the “Double-Headed Eagle” recorded their maiden win in the competition prevailing 2-0 over AC Omonia in Cyprus thanks to goals by Giorgos Koudas and Stavros Sarafis. The 1-1 draw at Toumba sealed qualification. In the following round, the powerful FC Dynamo Kyiv with star Oleh Blokhin at their ranks made light work of the tie, winning 4-0 in Kyiv and 2-0 in Thessaloniki.
Nine years later, PAOK’s second league title gave them the opportunity to test themselves in the top continental competition. They were drawn against the likes of Hans-Peter Briegel, Preben Elkjær and Antonio Di Gennaro of Italian champions Hellas Verona FC. PAOK’s campaign was quickly over following their defeats in Verona (3-1) and Thessaloniki (1-2).
So close and yet so far
As the name and the format of the European Cup changed and the UEFA Champions League admitted also non-champions, PAOK got close to that elusive group spot three times.
In 2004, PAOK fielded non-eligible Liassos Louka in the home encounter against Maccabi Tel Aviv FC, lost the match 3-0 on paper and were eliminated. Their second chance came in the summer of 2010, when they were paired with Luís Suárez’ AFC Ajax. After a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam, they were held 3-3 in Toumba, the Dutch side qualifying on the away goals rule.
In the summer of 2013, PAOK came closer than ever to the UEFA Champions League group stage. FC Metalist Kharkiv were expelled from the competition by UEFA due to their implication in fixed encounters at home and the “Double-Headed Eagle” found themselves in the play-offs, for a tie against FC Schalke 04. Thanks to a spectacular goal by Miroslav Stoch, PAOK earned a 1-1 draw at Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen. Qualification was decided behind closed doors at Toumba. The Thessaloniki outfit put on a huge effort, cancelled Schalke’s lead twice and tried to score a third goal that would seal their maiden participation in the UEFA Champions League group stage. However they failed to convert their chances, allowing the Germans to score at stoppage time and deprive them of their dream.
From Ajax to Benfica
In the summer of 2016, AFC Ajax crossed paths with the “Double-Headed Eagle” again, six years after their first meeting in the 3rd qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. Vladan Ivić’s players were impressive in both legs. They got a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam, dominated the Toumba match entirely, but the Dutch side managed to win and qualify with just two attempts on goal.
The summer of 2018 signaled PAOK’s last-to-date and toughest attempt for UEFA Champions League group stage football. The new qualifying system resulted in less ‘tickets’ up for grabs, therefore the “Double-Headed Eagle” needed to go the extra mile in order to achieve the dream. PAOK exceeded expectations, came closer than ever to the… promised land, but fell short at the last hurdle. They took on mighty FC Basel first. The Swiss side’s know-how in continental competition wasn’t enough to see them past PAOK’s quality. The Thessaloniki side prevailed 2-1 in Toumba and thrashed Basel 3-0 in “Sankt Jakob Park”, earning a deserved passage to the next stage.
FC Spartak Moscow was the next obstacle on PAOK’s course. The Russian side started impressively into the Toumba tie, cruising to a 2-0 lead in the first quarter. They thought they had the match in the bag –but they were proven wrong. PAOK staged a spectacular comeback taking a 3-2 lead before the interval. FC Spartak Moscow approached the second leg with the conviction they could overturn that result. Wrong once again… PAOK kept a clean sheet in Russia with their compact defence and threatening attacking plays, stamping their ticket for the play-offs.
SL Benfica were waiting. The Lisbon side dominated the “Estádio Da Luz” leg and squandered several opportunities for a comfortable victory. PAOK held their rivals to a 1-1 draw courtesy of a Warda goal. But that result didn’t prove enough to put an end to the negative streak of qualifications lost in Toumba Stadium. Prijović fired the home side to a deserved early lead, but it all went south after the 20th minute. A set-piece goal, a blunder and a fine save by Benfica’s Greek goalkeeper Vlachodimos tilted the balance in favour of the Portuguese side, who won 4-1.
A painfully bitter exit
Yet again in the summer of 2019, Ajax were our opponents in the UEFA Champions League 3rd qualifying round. In the first leg, a frenzied Toumba was stunned into silence after 10 minutes by Dimitris Giannoulis’ own goal. Nevertheless, Giannoulis made amends by providing the assist for Chuba Akom to level the match in the 32nd minute after the team reacted well. PAOK produced an impressive first-half display and went ahead after 39 minutes courtesy of Leo Matos’ header. However, PAOK gave away a cheap goal in the 57th minute which saved the Dutch side’s blushes and earned them a draw.
Then came the second leg. And it was a bittersweet beauty of a match at the Johann Cruyff Arena. PAOK opened the scoring in the 23rd minute through Biseswar great strike. It was a dream start, but the rest of the match proved difficult, with many incidents and controversies. The Dutch side were awarded a penalty which Alexandros Paschalakis saved, but the home side won another spot-kick in the 43rd minute and this time they were successful from 12 yards. Ajax went ahead in the 79th minute and then won yet another penalty in the 85th minute, which was converted to make it 3-1 to the home side. Was that it? No, PAOK, and Biseswar in particular, had a different view, the Dutchman scoring in the third minute of added time – moments after Akpom had hit the woodwork – to make it 3-2 and silence the home crowd. A tense finish ensued. There were still a few minutes left, but in the end those minutes were not allowed to be played out as PAOK suffered a painfully bitter exit.
Two magical nights and an icy affair
The pandemic brought a halt to many national championships, but the European competitions continued, albeit in the deafening silence of stadiums without supporters. In the summer of 2020, PAOK started in the 2nd qualifying round of the Champions League, with their first opponents being Besiktas. On August 25 at the Toumba, PAOK earned an emphatic 3-1 – at halftime – win, with the undisputed man-of-the-match being Christos Tzolis. The «little man» scored in the seventh and in the 24th minutes, while he also provided the assist for Dimitris Pelkas to make it 3-0, and he continued to threaten the Turkish goal in hte second half as well. Besiktas managed to reduce the arrears in the 37th minute, but that was the end of the scoring.
PAOK’s next opponent was Benfica. On September 15, 2020, in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League, PAOK produced another astonishing European performance, especially in terms of its performance in the second half. In the 63rd minute, Dimitris Giannoulis, after a brilliant exchange with Akpom, opened the scoring, and in the 75th minute, with a lung-bursting run and assist, he gave Andrija Zivkovic the opportunity to score in a great way to make it 2-0. Everything seemed to favor a Double-headed Eagle qualification. And indeed, Silva’s late goal for Benfica in added time only served to make the final score 2-1.
Next up for PAOK it was Krasnodar. Two matches for the coveted qualification to the group stages of the Champions League remained. And this time it seemed, especially given the performances against Besiktas and Benfica, more feasible than ever. The first leg took place in Russia. PAOK’s performance was good, and although Pelkas missed a penalty in the seventh minute, he found a way to put the Double-headed Eagle ahead after 33 minutes. The Russians, however, equalized in the 39th minute, and then the match was decided in two minutes of madness. In the 68th minute, El Kaddouri hit the crossbar for PAOK, and in the 70th minute, Cabella (assisted by Berg) gave his team the victory. Obviously there were still high hopes for qualification when the return leg came around on September 30. An anxious-looking PAOK, however, found themselves behind in the 73rd minute due to an own goal by Giannis Michailidis. El Kaddouri equalized in the 77th minute, giving reasonable hopes of a comeback, but Cabella made it 2-1 again to the visitors and that was the end. And yes, the final exit was bitter. Both bitter and inglorious…