The forgotten genius of Vasilis Hatzipanagis, a player once likened to Maradona

The forgotten genius of Vasilis Hatzipanagis, a player once likened to Maradona

In 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a speech entitled ‘The Sinews of Peace’. In it he made reference to an “Iron Curtain” that had descended across Europe as a result of Josef Stalin’s brand of totalitarian communism. The term, coined by the Bulldog himself, caught on with a wildfire spontaneity, and would go on to echo throughout the 20th century.

Europe in the wake of the Second World War was a continent divided, and Churchill’s implication was clear: behind the Soviet veil, life was a joyless regime of monochromatic brutalism and dreary paranoia, but to the west, where freedom and liberty were the orders of the day, life was pretty decent.

Fast forward 40 years and the effects of that socio-political fissure could be seen in the contrasting career paths of two mercurial footballing maestros.

The year was 1986. Thatcherism was in full, punishingly deregulatory swing, Tom Cruise was flying jets and volleying balls in Top Gun, and a sun-drenched Mexican World Cup was broadcast around the world in dizzying technicolour. The tournament would go down in history for a diminutive Argentine by the name of Diego Maradona cementing his status as a demigod amongst mortals by carrying his nation to glory on his stocky shoulders, albeit with a little divine intervention and some blatant cheating.

El Pibe de Oro – The Golden Boy – had been plying his trade superlatively in Western Europe for the past four years, first at Barcelona, then at Napoli, and was now basking in the culmination of the competitiveness, the liberty, and the fame that this brought with it. Diego also discovered life on the continent came with other, more stimulating perks too.

By contrast, the man they christened ‘The Greek Maradona’ watched the World Cup from afar, stranded in limbo between his ancestral homeland and his adopted one, constrained by the roots of his Soviet birth, and with a solitary international cap honouring his Hellenic heritage.

Vasilis Hatzipanagis was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 26 October 1954. His parents were political refugees from Greece who had fled a civil war that saw thousands of communist sympathisers displaced into regions further east. As a cruel epilogue to this upheaval, anybody suspected of fighting the government was stripped of their citizenship in 1947 and banned from returning to the country. This included Vasilis’ parents, and consequentially their child grew up in a patriotic grey area. Despite being ethnically Hellenic, the boy was neither fully Greek, nor was he entirely Uzbek.

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From a young age, Hatzipanagis was a precocious talent, the sort of irrepressible creative savant that seems to perceive the game in slow motion and makes a mockery of the rigidity of convention. Like all great artists, his flair was a compulsion. ”When I see defenders in front of me,” he once told a reporter, “I want to dribble around every one of them.”

Unsurprisingly, Vasilis’ ability to mesmerise and dumbfound soon captured the attention of some of the region’s most notable clubs, and as a teen he signed for Pakhtakor Tashkent FK, Uzbekistan’s only representative in the USSR’s premier division, the Soviet Higher League.

There was just one condition, but it would prove to be a life-altering one for the teenager. Sporting law in the USSR stated that for a player to compete in the top flight they must hold citizenship of the Union. On this point it was strictly uncompromising. And so, driven by the promise of a career in full-back humiliation, Vasilis Hatzipanagis, the nowhere child born of a continent in turmoil, became Vasilis Hatzipanagis, the Soviet citizen.

Vasilis’ game was a craft, and things started impressively for the young artisan. A first-team debut at just 17 set Hatzipanagis on a trajectory that would see him rise from unrefined bamboozler to a player in possession of a rare, sophisticated audacity.

At his peak, Vasilis was widely regarded as the second best left winger in the USSR, inferior only to the legendary Ukrainian Oleh Blokhin. To contextualise this reputation, Blokhin would go on to become both the Union and the league’s all-time top goalscorer, and won Soviet Player of the Year in three of the four seasons that Hatzipanagis donned the yellow and blue of Pakhtakor. Being second to Blokhin was akin to being smaller than Oasis or less literate than Kerouac; sometimes the greats are just unsurpassable, and there’s no shame in that.

Domestic renown inevitably led to international recognition. The young Uzbek was called upon to represent his de facto homeland in a qualifying tournament for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Given the precarious and insular nature of Soviet football in the mid-20th century, it’s premier division was, somewhat ridiculously, considered to be an amateur league. As such, the USSR was able to field a side that must have looked like that team of cartoon aliens in Space Jam compared to the part-timers cobbled together to face them.

Vasilis was an instant success, tying a bow in the ribbon of a 3-0 victory over Yugoslavia with a debut goal. He’d go on to feature three more times in that qualifying campaign, and enjoyed the peculiarity of facing Iceland twice, meaning that he literally played half of his Soviet international career against everybody’s favourite plucky Nordics.

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Hatzipanagis would not be present in Montreal to win a bronze medal with his adopted compatriots, however. Things were about to change for the winger, and once again he would be at the behest of powers greater than himself, like a candy wrapper caught in an updraft.

Since 1967, Greece had been under the control of a series of far-right military juntas, known commonly as the Reign of the Colonels. To hugely over-simplify a complex period in Greek history, the USA, post World War Two, decided to prop up a series of authoritarian regimes in the region, guided by the flawed wisdom of the Truman Doctrine, to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe.

This worked, to a degree, until 1965, when the young King Constantine II lost his head and, in the ensuing tantrum, ousted his newly elected centrist Prime Minister, creating a constitutional crisis known as the ‘Apostasia’.

It’s a universal truth, sadly proven the world over, that extremism will rise in times of political instability. Few places had witnessed either of these phenomena as acutely as Europe had during the 20th century, and Greece would be no exception to the threat of power-hungry men with machine guns and fragile egos.

On 21 April 1967, there was a coup led by senior, right-wing members of the military, and after a flimsy, token gesture resistance from the crown, rule was established. Civil rights were immediately suppressed, democracy was dismantled, and torture was widespread. Hell returned to Greece.

Fast forward seven years and a series of uprisings, failed attempts at liberalisation, and a Turkish invasion of Cyprus, had pressurised the regime into a collapse. The Third Hellenic Republic – Greece as we know it today – was founded, and for Vasilis Hatzipanagis and his exiled family, it meant one thing: they could go home

Unsurprisingly, the fledgling star’s decision to do so was met with a lack of enthusiasm in the Soviet Union. National team coach Konstantin Beskov pleaded with Hatzipanagis to stay, repeatedly telling him that his unnatural abilities were far beyond the level of Greek football, but the winger was not to be swayed.

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In 1975 Vasilis signed for Thessaloniki club, GS Iraklis. He would never leave. So exceptional was Hatzipanagis’ contribution, so unprecedented was the success that he dragged unassumingly in his wake, that the 15 years he spent out on the left-hand touchline for Iraklis would come to be regarded as the ‘Vasilis Years’. He was, amongst fans and teammates alike, ‘The Absolute Star’.

On his debut, his homecoming parade, Hatzipanagis was greeted with a welcome worthy of a Homeric hero. A capacity crowd, a cacophonous sea of blue and white, packed itself into Iraklis’ Kaftanzoglio Stadium to witness the one they called ‘The footballing Nureyev’. It’s not hard to see why.

Few videos exist of Hatzipanagis, and the ones that do are painstakingly archived into grainy YouTube compilations that give bewitching, fleeting glimpses of a truly remarkable talent. Vasilis was not a prolific goalscorer, a ruthless extra-terrestrial predator, nor was he a grand architect, dictating and orchestrating with selfless diligence – but he was a visionary artist, a sketcher of precious moments that resonate through tales of familial nostalgia like heirlooms, a bringer of gasps, a player of wonder. We’re talking about a man who scored seven goals directly from corners in 1982/83 alone. He was a FIFA glitch incarnate.

Watching his slight figure writhe and contort its way through escapologist act after escapologist act is reminisce of watching George Best or Garrincha. There’s a playfulness in his motion, a teasing hesitance in his approach to the defender before he decides which way he’s going to rewire his cerebral cortex this time, the manner in which he’s going to make it difficult for him to look his children in the eye when he gets home and they ask him how the match went. He was a tongue twister made human, a dazzling headache crowned by a mane of hazel ringlets. The comparisons to Rudolf Nureyev, the great Soviet ballet dancer, are obvious and justified.

And yet, there’s a dolefulness in watching Hatzipanagis in full flight – a lamentable feeling of what might have been. The best of the amateurish homemade tributes to the man is soundtracked by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He spins and feints, flicks and hustles, and all the while that melancholy score marches on. It’s eerie.

The sad fact is that Hatzipanagis could have gone on to much greater things in any of the top leagues in Europe. If rumours are to be believed he was approached by Stuttgart, Porto, Lazio, Arsenal and more besides. Each time an inquiry was made, Iraklis would flatly refuse it. Vasilis’ contract was weighted in a way that made it all but impossible for him to speak up in protest. Such was his love affair with the Iraklis fans and the struggle he’d endured to make it back home in the first place, it’s difficult to say whether he would have left in any case, but a player of his ability should have at least been given the opportunity to thrive in the big time.

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This is a man who, in 1984, was invited to play in an exhibition match alongside the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Mario Kempes, Hugo Sánchez and Ruud Krol, but whose greatest career honour was a Greek Cup winners medal in 1976. It doesn’t compute. The reality is that Hatzipanagis became so integral to the survival of Iraklis, so interwoven to the fabric of the appeal of the club, that he couldn’t be allowed to leave, for financial as much as footballing reasons. He was the pillar to their Parthenon.

Cruelly, things were just as downcast for Vasilis at international level. Upon his return to Greece in 1976, he made his long-awaited debut for the national side in a friendly against Poland in Athens. Shortly after the match he was notified that he wouldn’t be eligible to play for his country ever again on account of his brief flirtation with the USSR Olympic squad the previous year. And that was that. Hatzipanagis would never pull on the colours of his homeland for the rest of his playing career.

Once again, the man who could have had it all, who watched his peers garner recognition and fortune abroad, who is unironically compared to the greatest footballer of all-time, was left shackled to the misfortune of his birthplace.

The Greeks know a thing or two about tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must depict the downfall of a basically good person following a fatal misjudgement, producing suffering for the protagonist and pity on the past of the audience. It’s hard not to see Hatzipanagis’ career as anything other than tragic, but, in a pleasing middle finger pointed squarely at Aristotelean dramatic convention, at least it has something of a happy ending.

Long after he had hung up his boots in a 2-0 defeat to Valencia at the Mestalla in 1990, Vasilis was given one more chance to experience the thrill and the pride that he so desperately missed out on as a player. On 14 December 1999, in an entirely inconsequential friendly against Ghana, Hatzipanagis was allowed to pull on that blue jersey one last time and represent the country of his fathers. He played 20 minutes and did very little, but that wasn’t important.

And then, in 2003, 50 years since the formation of UEFA, and 49 since Hatzipanagis was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he was honoured alongside the likes of Bobby Moore, Just Fontaine, Ferenc Puskás, Johan Cruyff and Eusébio as his nation’s Golden Player of the last half-century.

Finally, after years in the shadows, Vasilis Hatzipanagis was out where he belonged – up amongst the greats.

By Jason Jones @jwjones57

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