Monday, December 12, 2011

The Cup went to Thessaloniki as well – to Iraklis. Which begs the question which trophy was more important for the city in 1976 – the title or the Cup? To a point, PAOK are not entirely Thessalonikian club, they are exiled ‘outsiders’, temporarily sheltered by the city. One day, when Greece ‘recovers’ Constantinople, they will move back to their original home. So says the myth, nurtured by opponents… Iraklis, by contrast, is the oldest club in Thessaloniki. Founded in 1908, although the seeds were planted three years earlier. The original concoction was gymnastic club, named ‘Ottoman Hellenic Club of Thessaloniki – Iraklis’.
The all-sports club still exists and is popular as such. The football branch was established in 1908, developing somewhat independent existence and different logo:
It is named after the mythological hero-demigod Heracles or Hercules. Iraklis in Greek. As symbols go… the club colours are blue and white, patriotic to boot, for they are taken from the Greek national flag. As soon as Thessaloniki was no longer part of the Ottoman Empire, the original name was changed – the Ottoman reference was dropped; nationalism emphasized. Then again… those who hate Iraklis would be quick to point at the shameful past of ‘collaboration’ – it is past of ‘resistance’ to supporters, of course. The name suggest might, power, strength, the all-conquering Hercules performing miracles… but look at the logo: the guy is kind of tired and resting, is he not? The club performed no miracles – until 1976 it won precisely nothing. First success! And in the face not only of Athenians, but in the face of PAOK and even more hated Aris! The old boys were kind of fading already, the fan base dwindled to very modest numbers, if there was glory, it was entirely in long gone past and not at all related to football. A revival then? Just about time! It looked so anyway, for the club had money and appeared to be building a strong team. Iraklis got one of the best ever players in Greek football – and managed to keep him to the end of his career. It was very strange transfer: the new star came from USSR.
Vassilis Hadzipanagis came… and won! It was sudden transformation – with this boy Iraklis was suddenly a factor. By Greek standards, it was a big transfer – so far most foreign players were hardly known names even in their home countries. Hadzipanagis was a different story: considered one of the brightest young players in USSR since 1972, and already playing for the Olympic team, he was ‘famous’ when compared to the usual foreign players in Greece. His transfer was a mystery, however: the Soviets did not export players at all. Curiously, Vassily Hadzipanagis was not a Soviet citizen, although born there – the son of Greek Communists, taking refuge in USSR after the Greek Civil War following the end of the World War II, was born in Tashkent, and technically should have been Soviet by virtue of birthplace. Why he was not is unknown – his lack of proper citizenship was discovered when he was invited to the Soviet Junior national team, when he already was playing first division football with Pakhtakor (Tashkent). Hadzipanagis accepted to get Soviet citizenship then and eventually went as high as the Olympic team. Which was his undoing… how exactly Iraklis got interested in player from relatively obscure and far away Asian-based club is murky, but Hadzipanagis wanted to move to Greece as well. The Soviets tried to stop him – pointing out that playing for USSR is much, much better option than playing for Greece (true at the time), but there was apparently no big effort to keep the player: very likely his case was decided on Communist Party level – may be the Greek Communist Party asked the Soviet one and political good will won the day. ‘Good will’ may be not the right word, though… but never mind. Hadzipanagis went to Greece, joined Iraklis and became Vassilis. His contract was lucrative, yet restrictive – it was long-term and later the club refused offers from other Greek and foreign clubs, so Hadzipanagis spent his whole Greek career with Iraklis. Nowadays he is somewhat unhappy that he missed better opportunities, but there is no hard evidence he asked Iraklis for transfer when he was playing. As for the club, it was clever move with high value: Hadzipanagis provided entertainment and gathered crowds until his last playing day. The Greek Federation tried to outsmart FIFA and use the star in the national team, but FIFA was not fooled at all – ruling the match Hadzipanagis appeared with blue national team shirt illegal. Too bad for the player, for he was not able to play real international level football – but I doubt he was to be Soviet national player, if he stayed in USSR: Lobanovsky ruled back then.
Anyway, Hadzipanagis boosted Iraklis immediately: the team still finished at their usual mid-table position (8th) in the regular season, but won the Cup! First trophy! Now, imagine what is in the cards… just bring a few more good players to the new superstar! And watch out PAOK and Aris, intruders and impostors, the ‘old one’ is coming back with a vengeance – the true club of Thessaloniki.
And complete triumph for Thessaloniki in the bargain! May be…