Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It was overall Thessalonikian year – their third big club, Aris, rounded the success with strong performance as well, finishing 6th in the championship. Looked like a major shift in Greek football: much more competitive championship, with strong provincial teams, for there was not only the clubs from Thessaloniki, but others as well, especially the newcomers PAS Ioannina. Looked like Greek football was improving, gaining strength.
But it was hardly so from another perspective: the success of PAOK and Iraklis was bitter pill for Aris. All trophies to the rivals (sweet for both, for the other two consider Aris their arch-enemy) and nothing for the ‘best’ club… measly 6th place. Which, frankly, is pretty much the traditional dwelling of Aris: always among the top six clubs, though, rarely among the medalists.
Aris was founded in 1914, which speculatively explains the name – the First World War started, so it may be some military spirit involved in choosing the name: the ancient Greek god of war Ares. Whether war enthusiasm was the reason or not, the name and the colours of the club – black and yellow – were symbolically thick. Strength, power, crushing victories, rolling over any opponent. It made for perfect clash in Thessaloniki: Ares vs Hercules – Aris vs Iraklis – the god vs the mere demigod. And if Iraklis expressed modern Greek nationalism with their blue and white, Aris evoked deeper roots: the club used the colours of the Byzantine Empire. It was a claim of supremacy from day one. With time the original rivalry faded – PAOK emerged and bypassed Iraklis as the main local rival of Aris, which was entirely the case by the 1970s. So far, Aris was the most successful club at home – they won three titles: 1928, 1932, and 1946, the only championship played during the bitter civil war following the end of the Second World War. This made for bragging… Aris consider themselves ‘one of the big six’ clubs in the country to this very day, although the success ended long time ago. Nominally, they are one of the ‘big’ clubs – by the virtue of titles and by their usual finishing among the first six teams in the league. In reality they were better than most smaller provincial teams, but never a title contender – they finished high, yet rarely among the medalists. By the beginning of the 1970s they were rather second strongest club in Thessaloniki, behind PAOK, which the club and the fans never recognized – they consider their arch-rivals PAOK and Athenian based Panathinaikos, AEK, and Olympiakos (Piraeus). The original Thessalonikian derby counted only for Iraklis by now, but Aris remembered it in 1976, when the old enemy won the Greek Cup, obviously getting strong and dangerous. The season was bitter one for Aris – in the best year ever for Thessalonikian football the rivals won everything and the gods dressed in yellow and black finished only 6th. By the end of the decade they changed their logo, and the new one curiously expressed the predicament of the club:
The mighty god of war is rather idly resting, representing no fighting spirit whatsoever. May be even asleep… which was not the idea in 1975-76. The club took measures to challenge the competition: the usual measures – foreign coach and players. On the surface, typical Greek enforcements for the time: fairly unknown foreigners – Bulgarian coach, Dobromir Zhechev; Brazilian striker – Barboza; and Yugoslavian player, Licanin. There was one more addition, quite mysterious and mirroring the Soviet transfer Iraklis made at the same time: Kostas Isakidis came from Bulgarian 1975 Cup winner Slavia (Sofia).

Top, left to right: Stifas (?), Spyridon, Papafloratos, Barboza, Pallas, Venos, Licanin, Balafas, Koumarias, Tzifopoulos, Papaioannou.
Sitting: Ananiadis, Stavridis, Firos, Ballis, Nalpantis, Kouis, Christidis, Drambis, Lazos, Papazoglou, Vardanis (?), Georgidis (?).
By Greek standards, not a bad squad – few national or at least fairly respected players: Firos, Pallas, Papaioannou, Papazoglou, Christidis. Two foreigners. One mystery: Ananiadis is usually listed as Hungarian, which means he was either ethnic Greek permitted to move ‘home’, or runaway who took Greek name. Unknown player in any case, but Greek football policies were Byzantine… take the new coach Dobromir Zhechev: what credibility had he? Before taking over Aris his coaching career was exactly 6 month long – an assistant coach of Levski-Spartak during the spring half of the 1974-75 season. He was part of the Bulgarian 1974 World Cup squad and was still playing in the fall of 1974. It is possible that Aris were thinking to use him as a player, not as a coach, but since Bulgarian players were not permitted to play abroad that meant Zhechev to become a refugee. Given his age, it was not worthy risk, even if Zhechev was agreeable – convincing UEFA and FIFA to permit him to play in Greece would have been lengthy, months at best. It was tempting to get experienced defender with 4 World Cup finals in his resume, but Zhechev was almost 33 years old and already did not play half a year. As for coaching… he clearly lacked experience.
The arrival of Kostas Isakidis was a scheme kept under cover. He was ethnic Greek born in Bulgaria and one of the new bright players Slavia introduced in 1974. The very young playmaker was arguably the most promising among Slavia’s ‘babies’ and already played for the national team of Bulgaria. Slavia won the Cup in 1975 and seemingly was destined to bigger success… then the season started and Isakidis was no longer in the team. Months passed until rumors were confirmed – he was in Greece. Apparently, not as a defector, but formalities took their tall and he was permitted to play for Aris in the spring of 1976.

Isakidis with Slavia in 1974-75.
The real intriguing part of this transfer is coincidence: Isakidis duplicated the transfer of Hadzipanagis – both were ethnic Greeks; both were very talented and included in the national teams of USSR and Bulgaria, both were young, both were transferred at the same time and to the same city. Yet, the countries of their birth did not transfer players to play professionally abroad. The truth will be probably hidden forever, but it looks like high state politics were at play and the players were just bargaining chips for something else. The players perhaps were entirely unaware of the big game, but they paid high price anyway: since both played for their homeland national teams, they had no chance playing for Greece. It is possible the Soviets instructed Bulgaria to play along; it is possible Bulgarian football officials just used Hadzipanagis’ precedent for their own purposes – onlyl speculations and nothing made clear to this very day. Mere coincidence? Unlikely.
The parallels stopped in Thessaloniki, though: Hadzipanagis became great star of Greek football, but not Isakidis – he kind of faded and disappeared from sight.
As far as Aris was concerned, all of the above helped them not – they won nothing and Zhechev was sacked at the end of the season. On a bigger scale it was different – Greek football was becoming better and more competitive: provincial teams were seemingly challenging the big Athenian clubs. Thessaloniki’s clubs were prime example – their combined performance was incredibly strong and they were not even the only fresh wind: bright newcomers were elbowing ahead as well – PAS Ioannina.
The club from the capital of Epirus region has confusing name – it is spelled ‘Giannina’, ‘Jiannina’, and ‘Ioannina’. Hard to tell which spelling is correct, but let’s settle on ‘Ioannina’ for now. As much as Greek hate to be compared to Turks, this club mirrors Trabzonspor – it was founded in 1966 after a merger of two small local clubs, just like the Turkish club. Then the new club quickly climbed through the leagues and appeared in the First Greek League in 1974 – the same year Trabzonspor won promotion. Solid midtable finish in their first season, shooting straight to the top the next year – PAS Ioannina finished 5th, seemingly on the verge of greater things. The strong performance was attributed mainly to six players, but here one enters the dark world of Greek football scheming… the mighty six players arrived from Argentina. To this very day both official and unofficial Ioannina sources maintain that the Argentines were of Greek descent. Half of them played under Greek names for the club, the rest – not, but none of the original names suggest Greek roots. Sober statisticians at RSSSF consider all of the bunch proper foreigners, some of them ‘Italo-Argentine’, but none clearly of Greek origins permitting ‘oriundi’ status (for that matter Isakidis is considered foreign player as well – because he played for the Bulgarian A-team, unlike Hadzipanagis). Very likely the club forged documents in order to speed up naturalization and thus be able to use the whole company (even the shady Greek rules generally followed the main European rules: only two foreign players on the pitch.) Whatever was cooked up, one thing is certain: the best years of PAS Ioannina were due to Oscar Marcelino Alvarez, Alfredo Glasmann, Edourdo Lisa, Juan Montez, Edouardo Rigani, and Sergio Espinoza. As for Greek roots… you be the judge. Rigani appeared under the name Kontogeorgakis and Glasmann became Glasmanis. None was well known player, but they were strong enough to elevate Ioannina – Alvarez was particularly impressive and caught the eye of Panathinaikos and was transferred in the summer of 1976. No matter – the rest five stayed and suddenly PAS Ioannina was forceful opponent.

PAS Ioannina getting ready for 1976-77 season – minus Alvarez, but with new coach, fresh from Aris (Thessaloniki): bottom row, left to right: Maipas, Espinoza, Demiris, Liakos, Papachristou, Kontogeorgakis (Rigani), Mantos, Tsourlidas, Hadziantoniou, Bretanos, Voiatzis.
Top: Dobromir Zhechev (Bulgaria) – coach, Seitaridids, Teodoridis (?), Hadzikapetanis, Montez, Christodoulou, Zisis, Glasmanis (Glasmann), Pantelidis, Kapsimalis, Lisa, Bagias, Grammeniatis, Karamanolakis (?) – assistant coach.
Not a single noticeable Greek player, but enough Argentine power to keep them going. By 1976 the foreign imports already had strong and positive impact on Greek football. The quality was increasing and the 1975-76 season suggested tougher, competitive future, further bettering the local game. However, it was a false alarm… the big Athenian three quickly restored the status quo and the provincial clubs were kept at bay once again. The Greeks still had to wait a few years until climbing up the steep ladder of European football – it was building time so far.