Few Greeks can boast their contribution to a certain soccer club spanning across five decades, but Argentine Juan Ramon Rocha has been what he calls a “Panathinaikos soldier” since the late 1970s, and after being a player throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s to turn into the coach to lead the Greens to the 1996 Champions League semis, he is back on the club’s bench as the head coach on Sunday in the clash with PAOK, after the resignation of Jesualdo Ferreira.
While no one can doubt whether “the Indian,” as his nickname back home was, has dedicated his life to Panathinaikos, having spent several years as a scout and a youth team coach as well, it has not always been certain to what extent he is an Argentine or a Greek.
Back in 1979, when the then new owner of Panathinaikos Giorgos Vardinoyiannis brought this promising young star of the Boca Juniors midfield to Greece, the law did not allow for foreign players to join the newly-professionalized Greek soccer. That clause had not stopped club owners from signing stars from abroad, bending the law by giving them fake Greek names and pretending they had a Greek origin.
That was also the case with Rocha, who came to Greece with the name Boublis and becoming a citizen of the suburb of Aegaleo. A series of court battles proved that he had no Greek origins, nearly put him in jail and resulted in a ban, but Rocha picked himself up and returned to the field to lead Panathinaikos in 1984 to its first league triumph in seven years.
Boublis or no Boublis, Rocha was among the key players of Panathinaikos who took the club to the semifinals of the 1985 Champions Cup, with Rocha scoring what he thought would be the opening goal at Anfield, in the first leg of the semifinal against Liverpool, only to see it disallowed for what the referee only considered to be offside. The Greens went on to lose 4-0 on the night, and 5-0 on aggregate, but their fans still wonder what would have happened if…
The Argentine, who had played for Newell’s Old Boys during the first six years of his career, formed a formidable midfield force with Yugoslav international Velimir Zajec at Panathinaikos from the summer of 1985 and won the Greek double in 1986 and a total of five Greek cups before retiring from soccer in 1989, at the age of 35 years.
The Greek game lost a player with great vision and skill who had graced the midfield with his tireless imaginative play, but the Santo Tome-born player turned immediately to coaching. His first stints at Paniliakos, Ilisiakos and Kalamata were good enough to secure him the credentials he needed to replace departed Ivica Osim on the Panathinaikos bench in 1994.
His impact on the team was instant. Although he did not possess a “magic wand” which the press said at the time that he had, he led Panathinaikos to back-to-back league triumphs in 1995 and 1996, capped by yet another entry to the semifinals of Europe’s top club competition. Rocha reached the peak of his coaching time when the Greens played Ajax in Amsterdam and against all odds they won 1-0 in the first leg, courtesy of an amazing run along most of the field by Giorgos Donis and a delicate chip by talismanic striker Krzysztof Warzycha. However, the Greek champions lost 3-0 in Athens to miss out on a second European final, after 1971.
A few months later, the decline of Panathinaikos as a club started, from which the team is yet to emerge. Rocha was soon on his way out after a string of poor performances. He had mixed results next year on the Aris bench, but was never far away from Panathinaikos. In 1999 he was called to task again as the head coach, but without any success.
Some brief spells on the benches of Xanthi, Ilisiakos and Olympiakos Nicosia (twice) followed in the decade of 2000, that ended with Rocha working as a scout and then as the Under-20 team coach, leading the club to youth championship triumphs and bringing up a number of talented youngsters for the first team whom he will now be managing again as the club’s head coach. By now it has become clear that it is only Panathinaikos that becomes him, and that he is at heart more Greek than his papers, fake or real, would suggest.
It is no secret that several Greece managers would have loved to have him at their disposal as a player, and might have done so had Rocha not played twice for the national team of Argentina.
With a number of underperforming players in the Greens’ squad at the moment, some of them of Latin origin just like Rocha, it is no coincidence the board of Panathinaikos has chosen “the Indian” to take over from Ferreira. After all, they remember how Rocha transformed the career of another Argentine, the midfielder Juan Jose Borelli in the 1990s, and they will hope he can do the same now.
The irony is that his third debut on the Panathinaikos bench, on November 18, will be against a team coached by the man who gifted him the most glorious night of his managerial career, Donis, who is also the father of two of the Panathinaikos youth team members. Maybe the talented guitar player and merengue singer, that Rocha also is, could pen a song about this momentous encounter for him to hum along, while downing one after another the bottles of water he loves to drink on the bench during games. Panathinaikos fans would certainly drink to the success of the man who would be Greek.