In 1975, PAOK played their maiden match in the UEFA Cup (renamed UEFA Europa League in 2009-10). The first opponent to visit Thessaloniki that season were mighty FC Barcelona, boasting the talents of Johan Cruyff, Carles Rexach and Johan Neeskens among others. On 16 September 1975, in packed Toumba (50.000 spectators) Gyula Lóránt’s troops prevailed 1-0 thanks to a Giorgos Koudas’ goal in minute 72. In the second leg, at “Camp Nou”, PAOK were eliminated following a heavy 6-1 loss.
In 1982-’83, the “Double-Headed Eagle” needed extra time to see off French side FC Sochaux-Montbéliard in the first round of the competition (1-0 and 2-1, Christos Dimopoulos scoring PAOK’s crucial goal in the second leg). One year later, the encounters against FC Bayern München for the UEFA Cup edition of 1983-84 gained a special place in PAOK’s Hall of Fame, despite elimination.
In 1983-’84, PAOK were drawn against the mighty Bavarians. The first leg at Toumba ended in goalless draw, while the second leg in Munich’s Olympic Stadium remains unforgettable to this day. After a battle of titanic proportions, the two sides faced off in a penalty shootout, PAOK eventually losing 9-8!
Maradona at Toumba
Five years later, PAOK faced SSC Napoli featuring the incomparable Diego Maradona, Brazilian Careca and several other stars. The Italian side prevailed 1-0 in the San Paolo leg. Tickets for the Toumba match had been sold out one week earlier and there were no seats available on 21 September 1988, as everybody flocked to watch Diegito live. Napoli took the lead through Careca and PAOK leveled with a Skartados goal after the interval.
PAOK suffered one more elimination through penalty shootout in the first round of the 1990-‘91 UEFA Cup. The Double-Headed Eagle and Sevilla FC couldn’t break the deadlock –the Spanish sealed their passage to the following round with a 4-3 score from the spot! In 1991-‘92, PAOK eliminated KV Mechelen of Belgium in the first round. They faced FC Tirol Innsbruck behind closed doors, banned by UEFA for crowd trouble in the Toumba leg against KV Mechelen.
The Thessaloniki club would go on to face worse situations. PAOK were paired with Paris Saint-Germain FC in the first round of the UEFA Cup. The first leg at “Parc des Princes” marked the European debut of David Ginola, while PAOK were missing several regular players. They were reduced to ten in the 63rd minute, following Alexis Alexiou’s dismissal. The French outfit prevailed 2-0 gaining a healthy advantage in the tie. The second leg at Toumba was marred by serious incidents at the end of the first half – Paris Saint-Germain were already leading 2-0 all but clinching qualification. Dutch referee John Blankenstein and UEFA Referee Observer Károly Palotai registered the referee act. On 4 October, UEFA Disciplinary Committee decided the following:
- The encounter was declared as forfeited and PAOK were deemed to have lost the game 0-3.
- PAOK were excluded from participating in the next UEFA club competition for which it would otherwise qualify in the following two seasons.
Back to Europe
PAOK FC filed an appeal and managed to have their ban reduced to one year. They returned to European competition in 1997-‘98. The first leg against FC Spartak Trnava made it to the history books thanks to PAOK’s remarkable comeback. Despite trailing 0-3 after 30 minutes of play, they turned it around and won 5-3. The fact that the Double-Headed Eagle were reduced to 10 following Spyros Marangos’ dismissal made the feat all the more astonishing. In the second leg, Thodoros Zagorakis scored the solitary goal to seal qualification to the next stage, where Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal FC were waiting.
On 16 September 1997, Kostas Fratzeskos’ goal decided the Toumba encounter against the Gunners and, a fortnight later, the Double-Headed Eagle created a huge upset in “Highbury”. Arsenal cancelled out the first leg’s result through a goal by Dennis Bergkamp in the 22nd minute and applied pressure to score a second goal. However, three minutes from time, Zisis Vryzas netted the equalizer with a powerful shot sealing a historic qualification over Arsenal. The London team would go on to claim the domestic double that season.
In the following years, PAOK would continue their European journey without fail. On 16 September 1999, they recorded their largest victory in the European Cups, a 7-0 over Lokomotivi Tbilisi. Later they were eliminated by SL Benfica on a penalty shoot-out. One year later, they qualified over Udinese Calcio with an impressive 3-0 victory in extra time. In 2001-02, they defeated 1.FK Příbram 6-1 –along with this season’s 6-1 win over FC Dinamo Minsk, these are the largest European victories recorded at home. In 2002-’03 they celebrated in Zurich their qualification at the expense of Swiss outfit Grasshoppers, with a last-gasp goal by Dimitris Markos.
PAOK eliminated FC Metalurh Donetsk in 2005-06 with two draws (1-1 at Toumba and 2-2 in Ukraine) to gain access to the UEFA Cup group stage, where they faced FC Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Rapid București, VfB Stuttgart and Stade Rennais FC.
Qualification in Istanbul
After four years of absence, the “Double-Headed Eagle” returned to European competitions in 2009, but were soon sent packing by Dutch outfit SC Heerenveen. However the best was yet to come. After getting eliminated by AFC Ajax from the UEFA Champions League, PAOK transferred to the UEFA Europa League play-offs and were drawn to face Fenerbahçe SK. They defeated the Turkish side in Thessaloniki, with a solitary goal by Vieirinha, that 1-0 win leaving the tie wide open. At “Şükrü Saracoğlu” Stadium on 26 August, PAOK wasted several opportunities mainly through Salpingidis, but Fener leveled the tie, forcing extra time. Pavlos Dermitzakis’ golden sub, Zlatan Muslimović, shocked the home crowd to seal a grand and historic qualification.
In their debut season in the competition’s group stage, PAOK did exceptionally well earning a place in the last 32 phase, from a section featuring Villarreal CF, GNK Dinamo Zagreb and Club Brugge KV. They fought hard in the knock-outs but were edged out by PFC CSKA Moskva (0-1, 1-1). They would return to the same competition and the same stage one year later…
After seeing off Vålerenga Fotball and FC Karpaty Lviv in the qualifiers of UEFA Europa League 2011-’12, PAOK were drawn into a group also consisting of Tottenham Hotspur FC, FC Rubin Kazan and Shamrock Rovers FC. They topped their section undefeated, with their 2-1 win over the Spurs in “White Hart Lane” on 30 November 2011standing out. In the last 32 stage, they couldn’t overcome the hurdle of Udinese Calcio. The 2012-‘13 season was a bad interval –PAOK were ousted early by SK Rapid Wien. In the following season, they went through the group stage undefeated, their rivals being AZ, Maccabi Haifa FC and FC Shakhter Karagandy, securing their third qualification to the knock-outs in four seasons. They bowed out however as eventual finalists SL Benfica recorded two victories.
In 2014-15, PAOK were paired with FC Zimbru Chișinău on their way to the UEFA Europa League group stage. Despite losing 1-0 in Moldova, they qualified comfortably thanks to Toumba power in the second leg. In the group stage, they were drawn against ACF Fiorentina, EA Guingamp and FC Dinamo Minsk. They defeated the team from Belarus twice, got a 1-1 draw at “Artemio Franchi”, but their two home defeats spelled elimination.
The summer of 2015 signaled a weird and tough period for the team. For the first time ever, PAOK had to negotiate a three-round UEFA Europa League qualifying campaign. They played their first encounter in mid-July. Without proper preparation and fielding a different squad from round to round due to roster changes, Igor Tudor managed to steer his troops away from trouble. NK Lokomotiva Zagreb caused PAOK fans a bit of stress with their 2-1 win in the first leg, but crashed and burned in Toumba (6-0). FC Spartak Trnava put on a decent fight, but couldn’t overcome PAOK’s hurdle (1-0, 1-1). As for Brøndby IF, they were overwhelmed in packed Toumba, losing 5-0, Róbert Mak netting a hat-trick. The second leg was just a formality (1-1).
PAOK had no luck in the UEFA Europa League group stage draw, landing in a group with Borussia Dortmund, FC Krasnodar and Qäbälä FC. They had no luck on the pitch either. Mere details saw them lose to all three rivals in their first matches and, by the time they visited FC Krasnodar in Russia, they had their back against the wall. Despite their unsuccessful journey, PAOK boast a huge victory in Germany over Borussia Dortmund. With nothing to play for but their prestige, the “Double-Headed Eagle” proved their might and recorded one of the most important wins of their European history.
A Magical evening in Tuscany
With Vladan ivic in the dugout in the summer of 2016, PAOK claimed two easy victories against Dinamo Tbilisi and cruised into the group stages where they faced Fiorentina, Slovan Liberec and Qarabag FC. After being held to a 0-0 draw with Fiorentina in a low-key match at the Toumba, the game in Italy at the Artemio Franchi Stadium was a completely different story. It was one of those European nights which remain etched into the memory.
Against a Fiorentina team coached by Paulo Souza, PAOK produced a superb display and went in front thanks to goals from Yevgeny Shakhov and Djalma Campos. The home side managed to pull level at 2-2, but then came the icing on the cake in the third minute of added time when Gary Rodriguez’s wonderful goal have PAOK a 3-2 victory.
As a result, PAOK deservedly qualified as the second-placed team in the group and met Schalke in the Round of 32. Despite high expectations, however, the qualification was effectively lost in the first leg at the Toumba, which ended in a 3-0 win for the Germans. It was a different game at the Auf Schalke Arena in the second leg where PAOK put in a good display to claim a 1-1 draw, which was of course not enough to turn the tie around.
Three difficult seasons
In the summer of 2017 PAOK started with a win and a draw in the 2nd qualifying round against Olympic Donetsk. The next opponent in the play-offs was Sweden’s Ostersund, who were welcomed to the Tumba for Razvan Lucescu’s first match in charge as coach. The Double-headed Eagle of the North won 3-1. What followed though was completely unexpected. Yes, the Swedes may have eliminated Galatasaray in the previous round, but nobody expected PAOK to concede two goals in seven minutes, collapse and subsequently suffer another painful European exit.
The following season, after having lost out to Benfica in the Champions League qualifiers, PAOK moved down into the Europa League group stage in a section including Chelsea, Bate Borisov and Mol Vidi. PAOK managed to lose twice against Vidi, once against Bate Borisov at the Toumba, and twice against Chelsea.
In the summer of 2019, after a bitter exit from the Champions League at teh hands of Ajax, PAOK were then pitted against Slovan Bratislava in the Europa League play-offs. The task seemed like a straightforward one, but PAOK lost 1-0 in the first leg in Slovakia, with a late goal from a defensive error, and at the Toumba in the second leg, a worse-case scenario became reality. Abel Ferreira’s side won 3-2 and missed the chance to score a fourth, which meant that the two away goals scored by Slovan was enough to send the Slovenian side through at the expense of PAOK.