Back in 2008, when Johan Cruyff was asked by Joan Laporta who would be the most suitable replacement for the outgoing Frank Rijkaard, he pointed to Pep Guardiola. The Blaugrana were ready to turn the page and Rijkaard gathered all his staff at a local restaurant for a farewell dinner.
Just next to where they were having their wine, the Dutchman spotted a familiar figure. Sitting next to his agent Iñaki Ibañez and the general manager of Olympiacos, Giannis Chrysikopoulos, Ernesto Valverde was all set to bid his own farewell to the Catalan city.
In a move that would later modernise the Greek champions and revolutionise football in the Balkan country, the Espanyol coach was about to agree terms to take over at Olympiacos. “Life is full of coincidences, as the evening before Ernesto’s definitive ‘yes’ to the Olympiacos proposal, me, Mr Chrysikopoulos and Valverde were having dinner at a Barcelona restaurant,” Ibañez told Sport24. “Right next to us was Rijkaard, who had a farewell dinner with his staff. The next day I realised that in that restaurant Rijkaard was saying adios to Barcelona and Ernesto was saying hola to Olympiacos.”
Cruyff believed that coincidence is logical and what was happening in that restaurant back in May 2008 made complete sense. While Barcelona were in need of a fresh start, 3,000km to the east, Olympiacos sought a coach who would introduce them to a new, contemporary era of football.
As Guardiola would demonstrate to everyone across Europe during his Barcelona tenure, modern football dictated rapid ball movement, interchange and a technical, attacking mindset.
That was exactly what the then Olympiacos owner, Sokratis Kokkalis, sought to bring to his team. “I believe that Valverde is one of the best new coaches in Spain,” he told the press conference during the official presentation of the Spanish tactician. “He was our target due to the style of football that his teams were playing in Spain. We want Olympiacos to play modern, fast and beautiful football and I believe that he is capable of making that happen.”
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Valverde arrived in Greece to replace the current Barcelona general manager Pep Segura, who had just won the domestic double as coach of the giants. To put it into context, Olympiacos were far from a side in crisis, desperate to turn the page and build something new. As a matter of fact, the club had won 11 out of the previous 12 Greek league titles, while they had also established a reputation as a Champions League club.
Olympiacos had been ceaselessly featuring in the tournament since 1998, but this was something that was about to end.
In his official debut, Valverde saw his team thrashed by Anorthosis Famagusta in the Champions League qualifiers. The Cypriot side knocked out Erythrolefki (Red-Whites) 3-1 on aggregate, and although the team would advance to the Europa League group stage, it was a major blow for the fans and an early setback for the new regime.
Despite the disappointment of elimination, the team hit the ground running in the league, remaining undefeated until the end of October. The players started showing glimpses of Valverde’s brand of football and the inauguration of the new Olympiacos was set to place at the Karaiskakis Stadium on 27 November against Benfica.
A team featuring the likes of David Luiz, Óscar Cardozo, Nuno Gomez and José Antonio Reyes were thrashed 5-1 as Valverde’s side offered one of the best first-half displays in the history of the club. And, for a club as successful as Olympiacos, that’s quite something.
While Guardiola was introducing his glorious tiki-taka to the world, Valverde was affording the Olympiacos fans their own dreams, centred around a similar approach to the game and a new era of brilliance, It was fast, stylish and composed – and it was dominant.
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Traditionally a team mostly dependent on their superstars’ individual performances, Olympiacos were slowly entering the modern era. Attacking from the back, putting pressure on their rivals, maintaining possession and continuous movement with and without the ball were just some of the innovations that the Spaniard introduced to the fans that night in November.
Olympiacos went on to beat Hertha 4-0 and progress to the Europe League round of 32, where they were knocked out by Saint-Étienne on 5-2 aggregate.
Despite elimination from Europe, however, Valverde achieved the team’s ultimate target of winning the domestic double in style. While Olympiacos clinched the Super League, suffering just three defeats, the team also reached the cup final, which was to be of the most astonishing encounters in the history of Greek football, to beat AEK Athens on penalties.
A game of eight goals – four of which were in extra time – various comebacks and three red cards finished in a 4-4 draw and a shootout, where, after almost 30 penalties, the Erythrolefki prevailed against their opponents. “In his first term, Valverde put his seal on Olympiacos and that’s why he is treated as a god in Greece,” said striker Darko Kovačević years later to praise his former coach. “He taught me many things and made me see football from a different perspective.”
With a domestic double in the bag, Valverde departed Greece seeking a challenge back in his native country, before returning to Olympiacos a year later to find a club which had managed to reach their nadir.
In his absence, they had finished fifth in the league and kicked-off the 2010/11 season with an embarrassing elimination from European competition against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Evangelos Marinakis succeeded legendary president Sokratis Kokkalis, with the fans were concerned about the future of the club.
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The new owner needed drastic change to survive the flux and Valverde was summoned once again to reinvigorate the team, raising the supporters immediately. The current Barcelona boss led his team to glorious European wins against Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, as well as qualification for the Europa League quarter-finals – for the first time in the club’s history – and domestic dominance, with two league titles and a cup.
More importantly, he earned the respect of Greek fans, leaving a laudable legacy of a modern model of football, one which Olympiacos have endeavoured to follow since.
After a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the team’s fiercest rivals, Panathinaikos, critics pointed to Olympiacos’ attacking philosophy as letting them down defensively, but Valverde was adamant that long-term success would be built on attack. “Olympiacos are a team that always try to win, and we need to have an attacking approach, but also play good in defence” he noted. “We acknowledge the risks of this type of football, but this is our philosophy and we aren’t going to change it, because that’s what our fans like.”
To fully comprehend the impact of Valverde, we just need to take a look at his successor on the bench, Leonardo Jardim. The Portuguese was dismissed eight months after his appointment – having been unbeaten in Greece and having reached Europa League’s round of 32 – simply because the team were not playing attractive football.
Years after Valverde ended his second term at the club, his interpreter for Olympiacos, Marina Tsali, explained the reasons behind the fans’ adoration of the former Athletic Club coach. “To understand why he’s so loved here, you have to keep in mind that the Greeks love LaLiga and the style of play of the Spanish teams,” she told MARCA. “Valverde was the first person to propose that type of football here and that delighted everyone.
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“He was loved, above all, because of how well the team played under him, and he also won titles, while rivals liked him because he was always very respectful of them, and he answered everyone with humility.”
When Olympiacos drew Barcelona in the Champions League group stage of the 2017/18 season, Valverde was set to return – this time as a rival – to a place that he felt was his second home. “He was there for two spells and you will see when he goes back how much they love him,” one of his former players at Olympiacos, Moisés Hurtado, told MARCA. “He won titles but he also had a very colourful way of playing.
“Moreover, they love him for his personality, as he is not a person who has a big ego or who wants to be the star, and that is highly valued there. The coach is a very important figure there. Ernesto Valverde was a God.”
Ahead of the encounter, an article published by the Catalan newspaper Sport labelled him as the man “who could be minister” of Greece. Fans welcomed him back to Karaiskakis with a huge banner reading ‘Ernesto gracias por todo’, while Marinakis honoured him for his services to the club.
For both the supporters and the players that he managed, Valverde is the coach who modernised Olympiacos’ style of football and revolutionised aspects of the game in Greece. It was he who introduced neutrals and partisans to Spain’s ultra-modern, successful model, one which promises to have a considerable impact in youth development for years to come.
For Greek fans, particularly those of Olympiacos, the Spaniard is not just the current coach of Barcelona. For them, Ernesto Valverde is més que un entrenador.
By Panos Kostopoulos @Panos88k