Love Letters to the European Union: Greece Lightning

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week we’re off to the country that brought us fearsome gods, great philosophers and the European debt crisis. Raise a glass of Metaxa and smash up your crockery for international football’s incredible underdogs. Hellas bellas – it’s Greece!

The Player: Vasilis Hatzipanagis

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So far in this series we’ve profiled players that have made a lasting impression in the shirt of their national teams, whether blazing a trail for BAME footballers, having their careers cut tragically short, or just being wizards with a ball at their feet. This week, it’s a player whose career has been defined by his lack of international caps for his native country. Born to Greek refugees before fleeing for Soviet Uzbekistan amidst civil-war Vasilis Hatzipanagis built a career on missed opportunities.

Initally spotted by Dinamo Tashkent, the eighteen year old instead opted to join local rivals Pakhtakor on account of their impressive youth set-up. It was upon signing his first contract that Hatzipanagis fell into his first bind. Rules on foreign players in the Soviet league were strict, and in order for Pakhtakor to register their new acquisition, the young Greek would have to apply for Soviet citizenship. Once his alleigence had been pledged, Hatzipanagis set about tearing up the Supreme League, helping Pakhator to promotion in 1973, before becoming the second most valuable player in the league behind Ballon D’or winner Oleh Blokhin in ’74 and ’75.

Naturally his domestic perfomances caught the eye of national team selectors and, in 1975, he was drafted into the USSR side for their Olympic Games qualifiers. After four impressive perfomances, including a goal against Yugoslavia on his debut, Hatzipanagis was a shoe-in to represent the Soviet Union at the Montreal Olympics. But suddenly, everything changed. The reign of the Greek military junta had ended in 1974, and the opportunity arose for the 20 year old’s parents to return to Greece. An instinctive patriotism towards the country that provided refuge for his family stirred in Hatzipanagis, and he sought a move to Greece. The only problem was that transfers simply didn’t exist in Soviet football. Players were not considered property, and the buying and selling of employees was prohibited, a fact that put the kibosh on Olympiacos’ move for the midfielder. In order to force the move, Hatzipanagis had to denounce his citizenship and apply for repatriation. And so arrived his second dilemma.

Having been born outside the country, the talented youngster could only apply for repatriation to areas with familial ties. As his grandparents lived in Thessaloniki options were limited, and it was the mid-table side Iraklis that provided salvation. The move was brokered by an Armenian agent and, unbeknownst to Hatzipanagis, included a clause that entitled Iraklis to renewal rights for the next ten years. His entire future had been decided. In his first season, the new star player in the Greek Super League fired his team to their first major trophy, scoring twice (and missing a penalty in the shootout) against Olympiacos in the Greek Cup final. News of his exploits spread across Europe, and offers for his services arrived from AEK, Lazio, Porto and Stuttgart, but Iraklis refused to countenance their approaches. In 1977, Hatzipanagis took his club to court in a case that foreshadowed that of Jean-Marc Bosman. The employee won the battle, but Iraklis would have the last laugh, with the district court’s ruling that an athlete couldn’t be held to a contract for more than five years being overruled by the Court of Appeal. Hatzipanagis remained stuck.

Later that year, a niggling knee injury saw the Greek travel to London for treatment, meeting with Arsenal physio Fred Street, a close friend of his godfather’s. During his rehabilitation, he trained with the Arsenal first team, earning the nickname ‘Aristotle’ along with some admiring looks from the men upstairs. Immediately those in power at Highbury made an approach to sign him, but again Iraklis demurred. The club simply could not afford to let their star player go, with their third place finish in the 1982/83 season highlighting his importance to the team. Even a £1.85m bid from Panathinaikos, which would have blown the Greek transfer record out of the water, was rejected. The stout playmaker was resigned to seeing out his career in Thessaloniki.

The disappointment wouldn’t end there, however. While returning to Greece had been his dream as a youngster, representing the Greek national team would represent the pinnacle of his career. But FIFA stood in his way. Since he’d already represented the Soviet Union, his selection for competitive football was prohibited. Having already ceded his Soviet citizenship, his international career was all but over. One appearance, in a friendly against Poland in 1976, was the sum of his work for Greece. He would earn a second cap in 1999, nine years after retirement, in an exhibition match against Ghana to celebrate his contribution to Greek football.

Vasilis Hatzipanagis looks back on his career with regret, bitterness, and disappointment. There is a sense of loss that the major European leagues never got to see his unique talents up close, robbed by poor advise and mismanagement. The most sorrow is reserved for the national team, the country which he says ‘coarses through my veins’. That sorrow is shared by his fellow countrymen, who may only wonder what might have been had they been able to field ‘The Greek Maradona’.

The Game: Portugal 0-1 Greece, 2004

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Uruguay in 1950, West Germany in 1954, Denmark in 1992. Shock winners of major international tournaments were few and far between, and with the chasm in resources between established footballing nations and those with less pedigree ever widening, that seemed unlikely to change at the beginning of a new millennium. The footballing landscape in 2004, though, provided a level playing field. France’s era of dominance had ended in humiliating circumstances in Asia, finishing bottom of a group containing Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay. Germany, unconvincing finalists in Japan and South Korea, were in the midst of a talent drought, and had exited the previous European Championships at the group stage. Spain were still the nearly-men of international football, constantly looking promising before flaking in the big games. Italy were suffering the same crisis as Germany, and Portugal and England’s Golden Generations had so far flattered to deceive. In short, the 2004 European Championships were up for grabs.

Greece had already upset the odds before they’d even arrived in Porto for the opening game against the hosts. It was only the third tournament the they’d reached, and their qualification was worth its own Greek myth. Drawn against Raul’s Spain and Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine, defeats to the two group favourites in their opening two matches made the chances of their first tournament appearance for eight years slim. Then, like the proverbial phoenix, they rose from the ashes. Victories over Armenia and Northern Ireland were followed by a staggering win in Zaragoza, as Bolton Wanderers’ Stelios Giannakopoulos scored the only goal of the game to give Spain their first loss of the campaign. Next, Ukraine were put to the sword with a late Angelos Charisteas winner, before another victorious double header against the group minnows earned them top spot in a tricky group. From 16th October 2002 to 11th October 2003, Greece’s competitive record read: Played 6, Won 6, Conceded 0. What followed shouldn’t really have come as a surprise.

Regardless, Portugal were strong favourites in the tournament curtain-raiser, with Fernando Couto, Rui Costa and Luis Figo named in their star-studded line-up. It was the 19 year old upstart Cristiano Ronaldo that finally broke the Greek resistance in the 93rd minute of the game, though it arrived too late, as Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Basinas had already done the damage at the other end to provide a jaw dropping start to the competition. A hard-fought point against old foes Spain in the second game left Greece looking good for a place in the quarter-finals, and despite going two goals down to Russia in the final group game, Zisis Vryzas’ strike would prove to be decisive – the Pirate Ship lost 2-1, but edged out Spain on goals scored.

In the quarter-finals, the Greeks lined up against the heavyweights. Portugal and England, Sweden and the Netherlands, Denmark and the Czech Republic, and France – their next opponents. Germany, Italy, and of course Spain, had already departed. Surely it was Greece’s turn to follow suit. Otto Rehhagel, the German disciplinarian who had taken the role as head coach in 2001, had a history of upsetting the odds, having taken Kaiserslautern from the second division to the Bundesliga title in the late 90s. Though tactically astute, his pragmatic approach had begun to falter – his side’s success was built on the solidity of its defence, and in three games they had uncharacteristically shipped four goals. On the eve of the France game, Rehhagel’s squad suggested a change of system, and Giourkas Seitaridis was tasked with man-marking Thierry Henry, while his teammates switched to zonal marking. Remarkably, it worked. Jacques Santini’s team resorted to long range efforts; Greece played for set-pieces, though ironically Charisteas headed the winning goal from a Theo Zagorakis cross in open play, and the holders were out.

Next, the Czechs, who’d begun to treat the European Championships as their own personal playground. Runners up in ’96, there was a feeling they could go all the way in Portgual, with Pavel Nedved providing inspiration behind the little and large combo of Jan Koller and Milan Baros. Against Greece, they had all of the play and none of the luck. Defensive, dour, negative – call it what you like, it got the job done. Traianos Dellas’ goal on the stroke of half-time in extra-time would go down in history – the only ‘silver’ goal to ever be scored, with UEFA ditching the initiative after the tournament. Greece’s extraordinary story had one final chapter – the hosts, in the final.

Days before the meeting with Portugal, a team meeting was called to clear the air between conflicting squad members, and reflect on what had already been achieved, and the achievements that lay in wait. For the first time, nerves had begun to jangle in the Greek camp, despite their win over Portugal earlier in the tournament. Suddenly, everything seemed real.

Portugal charged at the Greece backline from the off. Ronaldo, Deco, Figo, all looking for inroads past Dellas and his discplined colleagues. Despite dominating possession, they found no way through. The pressure didn’t let up in the second half. The hosts, determined to keep the trophy in Lisbon, committing more and more men forwards, pinning the Greeks back into their half with wave after wave of attack. Then the underdogs broke forwards, winning a corner. Angelos Basinas floated a ball in, Charisteas, again, leaped highest, evading the reach of Ricardo, and buried the ball into an empty net. Greece were one-nil up, and half an hour away from lifting the European Championships. The next thirty minutes were a blur. Time managed to grind to a halt, and yet players struggle to recall anything between the goal and the final whistle. The enduring images, Ronaldo’s tears and white-shirted delight, will stay in the history books forever. In Benfica’s Stadium of Light, Greece cast off their shadows and became champions of Europe.

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