The incredible life and times of Greek hero Giorgios Koudas

The incredible life and times of Greek hero Giorgios Koudas

THERE ARE MANY PURPORTED REASONS for Thessalonians to dislike Athenians. It just so happens that football provides an adequate vehicle for espousing such hostilities. Indeed, the sporting arena has acted as an opportune outlet for Greece’s most prominent inter-regional rivalry, one that involves the country’s two largest cities. PAOK and Olympiakos are football clubs that find themselves deeply embedded within the tension.

The antipathy is mutual, though imbalanced. Following the Greek War of Independence Athens, due mainly to its philosophical, political and cultural history, was chosen as the Greek Kingdom’s capital city. This – and Athens’ growth in significance since – no doubt plays a part in the resentment directed towards it from Thessaloniki in the north. This resentment has been utilised successfully by PAOK at times in the past, mainly to create a sense of unease for Olympiakos fans whenever they visit.

The Toumba Stadium resides in eastern Thessaloniki, amidst a clustered mass of urban life. Quaint in size, it is not easily distinguishable from its architectural surroundings unless viewed from above. The stadium name relates to the neighbourhood in which it resides, which itself garnered the name ‘Toumba’ from local archaeological findings, previously thought to be graves. Excavations have since proven this not to be the case, but the name has remained.

The name, derived from the word ‘Tomb’, proved strangely apt for Olympiakos, at least in football terms, between the period of 1966 and 1998. During this time they visited Toumba 33 times and won just twice. It was a barren spell deemed glorious by PAOK fans who saw in their football team a chance to level any relative economic disparities, real or perceived.

On 16 April 2014, PAOK fans once again welcomed their southern rivals to Toumba. The scenes were spectacular and at the same time intimidating. A wall of lit flares engulfed the stadium, creating powerful imagery of an arena seemingly ablaze. Dead anchovies were also found on the Olympiakos bench, an action more chilling than it may first appear to the outsider. Olympiakos fans are known as ‘Anchovies’ because of their club’s location not far from the port of Piraeus. The fish weren’t left to create a rancid smell; the gesture was instead darkly metaphorical. PAOK won the match, progressing to the Greek Cup final.

Some might incline that such behaviour was a bit much even if it was a grudge match for a place in the Cup final, but this is no ordinary regional rivalry. Along with the inter-city resentment, there is one particular moment, regarding one particular player, that jars PAOK fans to this day.

Giorgos Koudas was born into a poor family in Thessaloniki in 1946. By the age of 12 he had signed for PAOK and within a further five years he had made his debut for the club. Koudas’ beginnings in the first team weren’t particularly noticeable. For two seasons he bedded in as the club finished slap-bang in the middle of the Greek first division. His third year of competitive football proved a watershed, though.

In the 1965/66 campaign, Koudas established himself as a regular for PAOK, helping them to sixth place with 13 league goals, one of which came in a 3-2 home win over Olympiakos. He began to earn notoriety amongst supporters of the club thanks to his dribbling ability, speed and prowess in front of goal. Still only a teenager, Koudas had cemented his status as one of Greek football’s brightest talents.

By this point in history, Athenian dominance had been well confirmed on the football pitch; on just three occasions had the Greek title been wrested from the capital’s grip. Rather annoyingly for PAOK fans, each of those three occasions saw the title travel to Thessaloniki only to be held aloft by their local rivals, Aris. Otherwise, the title went to one of Olympiakos, Panathinaikos or AEK Athens.

It was in that summer of 1966 that the 19-year-old Koudas was courted by the giants of Greek football. Olympiakos had just secured their first championship since the 1950s and seemingly wished to earmark the occasion by ‘stealing’ one of PAOK’s finest players. At least that’s how some would have the story be told. Exactly what happened that summer is clouded by a stench of controversy, uncertainty and in some cases, undoubted bias.

Greek football at the time was still in its infancy where professionalism was concerned and as such, when Olympiakos made their intentions clear and agreed personal terms with Koudas, it was then left to PAOK to complete the transfer. The young winger had had his head turned not just by the possibility of playing for Greece’s most historically successful club, but because he and his family needed the money.

Koudas worked outside of football to contribute to his family’s income but they continued to have financial difficulties. “Me and my family have endured a lot and got to the point of depriving ourselves even of food,” Koudas said. “We endured because we loved and still love PAOK.” In spite of his love for PAOK, the allure of a move to Athens loomed large for Koudas. The move would provide him with the opportunity to alleviate money troubles, obtain a different lifestyle whilst also opening up the possibility of playing in continental competition.

PAOK fans were in uproar. Olympiakos’ move for their homegrown starlet was seen as yet another affront from Athens. The sense of injustice was only heightened when Panathinaikos joined in the scramble for Koudas’ signature, but their offer came to nothing. Koudas’ mind was made up and he joined Olympiakos eager to work under the innovative Hungarian coach, Márton Bukovi. On 16 August 1966, Koudas lined up for the champions in a friendly match in what he assumed was the start of an exciting new chapter in his career. The excitement didn’t last long.

As far as PAOK were concerned the fight was not yet over. Seething fans protested outside the club offices, demanding that the club not sell Koudas to their fierce Athenian rivals. Urged on by the fans, PAOK claimed that they had not agreed Koudas’ transfer and that his move to Olympiakos was illegitimate.

Following Koudas’ friendly bow for the then Greek champions, PAOK responded by urging all clubs to refuse playing Olympiakos were they to field Koudas. It is still not entirely clear whether this was false hubris displayed by PAOK to portray the image of not wishing to sell Koudas – a stance held in order to quell the anger of their fans, or a genuine request. It didn’t matter either way as before long Koudas was selected for military service. A transfer saga with all the intrigue of a murder mystery was soon temporarily forgotten.

Following the climax of the Second World War and the end of the occupation of Greece by Germany and Italy, the country was soon engulfed in a civil war between government forces, backed by the west, and the communist Democratic Army of Greece. The government forces won out and the Communist Party of Greece was outlawed. Strategically, this was an important development for the United States, who sought to contain communism all over the world as the Cold War began.

Anti-communism was the continuing theme as the Greek military maintained a close relationship with the CIA, aiming to guard against the possibility of a left-wing coup in future. A coup would happen in Greece eventually, but it would not be left-wing.

Two decades on and less than a year after Giorgos Koudas had almost provoked a riot in his hometown at the prospect of moving to Athens, Greece was thrown into political turbulence as the military junta came to power in a coup d’état on 21 April 1967. Fearing the possibility of a leftist government taking power with only a few weeks until scheduled elections, the junta placed tanks throughout Athens and arrested leading politicians and civilians suspected of having left-wing views.

What followed was the dissolution of political parties and a crackdown on civil liberties. Article 14 of the Greek constitution – which permitted freedom of thought and freedom of the press – was suspended indefinitely. Over 6,000 suspected communists were imprisoned or exiled and wide varieties of torture techniques were utilised. People no longer had the right to openly express political thought in what had become a police state. Democracy had been disbanded in the very city where the idea had originated.

It was a tragic state of affairs but there was one small mercy as far as PAOK fans were concerned. Costas Aslanidis was appointed Secretary General of Athletics under the junta and set about implementing a number of plans in an attempt to pacify the suppressed Greek people through sport. One of Aslanidis’ plans involved the regulation of transfers, ensuring that no player could transfer between Greek top division clubs. With his military service about to come to an end, Giorgos Koudas’ ambitions of a move to Olympiakos were left unfulfilled. He was impelled to return to PAOK.

So much had happened in the 21-year-old Koudas’s life. His country had experienced internal strife on more than one occasion and his own personal life felt like a microcosm of the overarching chaos. He was still a young man though and remarkably he had only played one full season of competitive football. It would perhaps have been permissible for Koudas to be overwhelmed by a wave of paralysing melancholy given the circumstances, but he showed no sign of feeling perturbed in his first season back in Thessaloniki.

If angry, Koudas harnessed his emotions well, unleashing it all on Greek defences as he tore through them in the 1968/69 campaign, scoring 26 goals in 32 appearances in the league and cup. It was the best tally Koudas would ever accomplish in one season of football, an achievement perhaps indicative of a player more determined than ever to play after years in the military wilderness.

His goalscoring would recalibrate in the following years as PAOK gently pushed against the Greek football elite without much success. The club was without silverware until a Liverpudlian by the name of Les Shannon took charge in 1971. Shannon had come through Liverpool’s academy as a player having been rejected by Everton for his small stature. He wouldn’t make the grade on the red half of Merseyside either, though, and spent the rest of his playing career with Burnley whilst infrequently picking up caps for England’s B team.

Having spent the early portion of his foray into management yo-yoing between divisions with both Bury and Blackpool Shannon resolved to move abroad, where he would ultimately have greater levels of success, primarily with PAOK. He found himself in Thessaloniki having left Blackpool and immediately guided the club to their first ever trophy, winning the Greek Cup in 1972.

The following season PAOK would ascend to second in the league, their highest position in years as they finished two points behind, you guessed it, Olympiakos. The 1973/74 season was to be Shannon’s last with the club and although they slipped down the league table to fourth, a second Greek Cup was won, while they also reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, where they were eliminated by AC Milan despite a 2-2 draw at Toumba.

Shannon steered the club in the beginning of an era of success otherwise unparalleled in PAOK history. His two Greek Cups testify to his management, but he also left a legacy not viewable when peering into a trophy cabinet. It was he who converted Koudas from a winger into an attacking midfielder, moving him from outside to inside as a way of promoting Koudas’ role within the team. In turn, Koudas was crucial to Shannon, captaining PAOK to their first ever cup wins, even scoring both goals in the 1972 final victory over Panathinaikos. That particular win was all the more emphatic for the arena in which it was earned: the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, home to Olympiakos.

Koudas had been told to return to PAOK after years of controversy and enforced exile, while Shannon had found PAOK having departed England to begin an adventurous managerial journey. Together they led the club, founded by refugees in 1926 on the back of the Greco-Turkish war, into a new period of competitiveness whereby the club and its followers could, at least temporarily, shake off any feeling of inferiority or isolation. PAOK were an established contender within Greek football.

Not long after Shannon’s departure, PAOK brought in Gyula Lóránt as his replacement. As a player, the Hungarian had been a crucial cog in the Mighty Magyars team of the 1950s. Indeed, he had an excellent view of Hungary’s famous 6-3 hammering of England at Wembley on 25 November 1953. Playing that day as he often did in a deep centre-half position, Lóránt was perfectly placed to watch his cohorts – Puskás, Kocsis, Hidegkuti et al – tear the home side apart in a display often reminisced over as one of the defining points in international football history.

In Shannon, Lóránt had a hard act to follow at PAOK. Koudas still remained though, and in Lóránt’s first season in charge he hit 15 goals in all competitions, his best tally since the phenomenal 26-goal haul of 1968/69, to lead PAOK to their first ever Greek championship. That season PAOK lost just twice as they finally managed to pull clear of the leviathan capital triumvirate of AEK, Panathinaikos and Olympiakos. Once again the Greek title was wrested from Athens in favour of Thessaloniki but unlike in the past, this time it was PAOK’s.

Lóránt moved on swiftly as PAOK managers tend to do, returning to his previous managerial home of Germany where he took charge of Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayern Munich and Schalke. He would, however, be welcomed back to PAOK for the 1980/81 season. Sadly, he died of a heart attack whilst watching on from the touchline, as his team missed a penalty in a clash with Olympiakos in May 1981. Trivially, PAOK would win through a Vasilis Vasilakos goal. The goal, and win, was dedicated to Lóránt – the first manager to lead the club to the Greek league title.

By now Koudas was staunchly committed to the cause. He no longer felt the urge to move south; success could be brought to the north. He was given the nickname ‘Alexander the Great’ after the King who led the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon in its conquering of the entire Hellenic world. Koudas and PAOK were no longer a symbol of refugees and outsiders. Instead they were a representation of northern Greece and its struggle for supremacy with Athens.

Four years later, Greece qualified for their first international competition, beating the Soviet Union, Finland and Hungary to make it to Euro 1980. Koudas now captained the national team whilst another Thessalonian; Alketas Panagoulias, managed it. The squad selected to represent Greece in Italy that summer included five PAOK players: Konstantinos Iosifidis, the Ioannis Damanakis and Gounaris, Giorgos Kostikos and Koudas. There were more PAOK players than those of any other club. It was the ultimate clarification of PAOK’s enhanced importance within Greek football. Greece drew 0-0 with West Germany having only lost to the Netherlands via a penalty, but they exited at the group stages, finishing bottom without a win and having scored just once. It was a breakthrough nonetheless.

Another Greek title proved elusive for Koudas. He came close in 1982 as PAOK finished third, but the club’s second (and thus far last) championship would be won in 1985, one year after their iconic skipper’s retirement at the age of 37. Koudas had spent the best part of 20 years playing for PAOK, during which time he firmly consolidated his status as the club’s greatest ever player. He made 607 appearances in all competitions, more than anyone else in club history, and scored 164 goals. Koudas was the irrepressible force that propelled a golden PAOK generation.

When asked to discuss what happened in that strange summer of 1966, when he nearly said goodbye to PAOK and Thessaloniki, Koudas responded: “I did not fully understand the love that the people had for me at that time.” It could all have been so very different, but PAOK fans don’t care. Their beloved Koudas never played against them.

By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman

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