On Thursday in Athens, Panathinaikos hosts two-time defending champion Olympiacos Piraeus in their first Turkish Airlines Euroleague game on Greek soil since 2002. Since then, both teams have become symbols of Greek sports excellence by winning half of the Euroleague titles available in those 12 years, including five of the last seven. On the occasion of the Reds and the Greens returning to the Euroleague stage together this week, Euroleague.net conducted a double interview with two emblematic players from these teams — Antonis Fotsis of Panathinaikos and Georgios Printezis of Olympiacos — both of whom born and raised on this rivalry.
Guys, thanks for being part of this special interview before Panathinaikos and Olympiacos play their first Euroleague game together in Greece for 12 years. First question, for both of you: How exciting is this part of the Euroleague season, when every game bigger and more important, for each of you?
Fotsis: "For sure we are very happy to be in the Top16, and we expected that the games would be tougher, since all the teams are better. We started well now, but we have had a small setback in our performance. I believe that the game against Olympiacos is good for us, a tough game. They are Euroleague champions for two seasons in a row. It is going to be a difficult game, but we played against each other in the past. I hope it is going to be a great game, so that the fans enjoy it."
Printezis: "We all know that the Top 16 phase in the last two years has become very difficult and long. In my opinion, it is like a new league, with a lot of games, some of which can be even more difficult than some games in the playoffs or even in the Final Four. It doesn't play any role that we finished first in our regular season group. All the teams are very strong now, and we are in a very difficult group, where Panathinaikos plays as well. Any team can win at any moment in any arena. You have to be in your best shape not only during one month, like in previous Top 16s, but during a very long period."
Georgios, almost halfway through the Top 16, Olympiacos is doing better than at the same time last year or the year before. Are things going according to plan for the Reds?
Printezis: "It is too soon to say that we are better. It is true that at the moment we are second in this group, but there is still a lot ahead of us, and much will be based on the Thursday results, a crucial game for both us and Panathinaikos. Last season, we were not that good in the Top 16, and even in the playoffs, we played against a team of our level and we won in the last game on our court, and many may remember how it happened. So there is a long road ahead. We have to be focused on the goal and go game by game."
Antonis, as a Panathinaikos player since the 1990s, you know as well as anyone how the club's heart beats. What does your team's heartbeat tell you now about this Euroleague this season?
Fotsis: "All these years that I am in Panathinaikos, although there was always a lot of talent on the team, our strongest weapon was the fact that all 12 players were trying hard to give everything for the team and on the court to help achieve the goals. This is what makes us good, that we put ourselves individually below what's good for the team."
Fans outside Greece don't often get to watch Olympiacos vs. Panathinaikos. This week, as a Euroleague game, they will. How much of a showcase is Thursday's game for Greece and how can the fans help?
Fotsis: "The message that we have to send is the same that we have been trying to send all of these years: there is a nice atmosphere and environment on the court during the game among the players, who don't have any problems with one another. They only try to do their best for their teams to win, and the same should happen outside the court, meaning that the fans should enjoy a very nice basketball game, in a civilized environment and all of us to go back home satisfied."
Printezis: "I agree 100% with Antonis. On the court, there is real derby, and all the games between these two teams have a very high interest. But many times this is ruined mainly by other factors and from fans that do some silly things. I consider that these are very few of the fans. All things taken into consideration, I think we have no reason to be jealous of any other derby in Europe."
In the Basketball Capitals documentary film about Athens, we saw how much respect there is between the players and coaches of these two clubs. To compete well against your archrival, as players or fans, how much do you need to respect him?
Fotsis: "Definitely, there is a lot of progress. About the fans, I believe that the situation is not like it used to be in the past. The numbers of fans misbehaving is becoming smaller, and this starts from the players. It is obvious that on the court that there is a lot of respect and although we are opponents and we try to do our best to win, we have been in the same teams or we know each other for many years, and there is mutual respect. All of this is what sport should be about, to do your best under normal circumstances for your team to win, and no more. This is why it is entertaining and satisfying. I think this is the best part of it."
Printezis: "Personally, I don't believe that because a very small group of fans cause problems externally that this applies to all the fans. I have met many fans both from Olympiacos and Panathinaikos who speak very correctly, who like basketball and don't like many of the things that have taken place. I want to believe that the majority think this way. It is a very small group that ruins this, but we shouldn't focus on that because, as Antonis stated, among the players, we have no issue with each other. Most of us are friends, with the national team we live in the same rooms two months every summer, we live together, we go out together, we have the same goal every summer. So it is a bit unnecessary and stupid when these other distractions happen."
These two teams have won five of the last seven Euroleague titles. How much do Olympiacos and Panathinaikos make each other better because of the intense competition between them, and how proud should fans be of what both teams have accomplished on an international level?
Fotsis: "Of course, when your main opponent becomes better, you also have to become better in order to beat him. If Olympiacos were to become worse, then then we wouldn't have to improve ourselves because things would be easier, and we would stand still. Olympiacos is back-to-back Euroleague champion and all the strong opponents in Greece and in Europe want to beat them to be in their place. In order to do this, we have to improve because we are facing not just any type of team, but rather the best."
Printezis: "I have the same opinion: as long as Panathinaikos is strong, we will continue trying to be better. The same happens with Panathinaikos. When you see your main opponent improve and do well in Europe, that gives a motive to the team and the fans, a positive pressure to achieve something more."
During some very tough years for Greece, these two clubs are a symbol of Greek excellence, the best at what they do. How important is it for everyone — clubs, teams, fans — to show that excellence in these two Top 16 games coming up?
Fotsis: "Both Olympiacos and Panathinaikos are protagonists in Europe over the last years. They have shown that although as a country and because of the crisis we are not doing well, this hasn't affected the level of the two teams. I hope that we continue like this, to give a bit of joy to all the people who definitely need it."
Printezis: "As you said, in just the last five years, four of the Euroleague trophies have come to Greece. This is a very important fact for Greek basketball and for the country in general. In such a difficult period, we see that basketball is a very popular sport, and no matter if Olympiacos wins or Panathinaikos wins, there are a lot of people that are happy, who like very much what they see. It is an additional motivation for us in these Euroleague games and especially to reach the end and become the Euroleague champion for the whole season."
Panathinaikos and Olympiacos have started the Top 16 in different ways. How important is this game?
Fotsis: "This is definitely a very special game. All games against Olympiacos are special, especially now that we will face each other in the Top 16, in the last game of its first half. Of course, playing against Olympiacos at home gives you extra motivation. You need to put up a big effort in order to win."
Printezis: "On paper, and due to our previous results, we could be a bit more 'relaxed', but this is a game that we really need to win, for psychological reasons and to assure second place in this group as soon as possible. I wouldn't say that it is a game 'with no tomorrow', though. There is still a long road ahead of us in the Top 16, and the first leg of games is just finishing. The second half of the Top 16 is very difficult for all teams and a lot of things can happen."
Considering the previous situations we have seen, both teams spend all their strength and energy focusing only on this game. It is easy to fall into a trap in that way?
Fotsis: "For sure, it is easy to fall in, because all the games between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos have monopolized the interest in Greece over the last few years. It may be a Euroleague game, but both teams live for games like this, both in the Greek playoffs and in the Euroleague. It is going to be a very tough game, both teams will have to give everything in order to win."
Printezis: "We all know it is a special game. Even if it was a friendly game, it would have a certain importance for us, the players, and for the fans of each team. Both teams want to win, especially now that this will be a Top 16 game. We will play in an arena where we didn't play the way we wanted on our last two visits."
Antonis, according to what Georgios said, there is still a long road to run in the Top 16 but, theoretically, Olympiacos is a bit more 'relaxed' while Panathinaikos seems to have its back against the wall. How much more important does that make this game for you?
Fotsis: "In general, we don't look at what the other team thinks. We focus on how we can be better. For us, it is a game against Olympiacos at our home court and no matter our position in the group standings or which round we are into, we will give everything we have in this game. We always take one game at a time."
Georgios, what does Olympiacos have to do so that you don't have the same performances as earlier this season in Greek competitions?
"We didn't show the identity we have as a team in our last road games against Panathinaikos. We were without the energy, the confidence, all of the skills that have characterized us as a team in the last two years, which has brought us a lot of success. If we do this, I believe the result will be positive for us not only in this game, also in the long term, as we will face Panathinaikos many times in the long run."
As power forwards, you will also have to face each other individually in Thursday's game. Which are the main strengths of your opponent?
Fotsis: "It is clear what Georgios does on the court: he is a player with a lot of energy, you always have to be focused on him, he can give you big troubles in a very small amount of time. You always have to be focused on him!"
Printezis: "We all know what Antonis can do after all these years. I have to say the same things about him: he can create a lot of damage in a small period of time. You can't leave him open, not even for one second, because he can kill you with his outside shooting. Furthermore, he is also good on defense. You know that whenever he is on the court, he will give his team a plus."
Antonis, is defense as safe as money in the bank for Panathinaikos?
Fotsis: "Of course, this has been our foundation for many years, this is where we start from. No matter how good we are on offense or how much talent we have, you will have difficult days, you won't be able to score, but we know that defense is always there even in our worst day. It is a matter of will, and it doesn't matter if you have a good or a bad day on offense."
Georgios, Panathinaikos has a stable value, which is its defense, especially in the recent games against Olympiacos. Even when you beat them at home in the Greek League, you scored only 55 points, way below your average of 80. What happens to your offense against them?
Printezis: "I don't believe that offense is our only ingredient. We have shown a lot of improvement on defense as well, especially now in the Top 16. We have had very good defensive, well-studied games — meaning that playing good defense gives you the possibility to run and score easy points. You cannot be at your best and score 100 points in each game: you will have bad days as well. In the long term, you have to be as good as possible in a certain aspect; you have to be good on defense so you can be good on offense, too."