When Dunphy goes off on his next hyperbolic rant about the true greats, Brady, Giles, Puskas and Aidan O’Brien, remember this name… Vassilis Hatzipanagis.
Born to Greek political refugees in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1954, Hatzipanagis’ story is probably the greatest story of modern sport denied by the machinations of politics. Regarded now as a player to match Maradona and Pelé, Hatzipanagis made his early career with Pakhtakor of Tashkent – taking up Soviet citizenship in order to play in what the communists pretended was an amateur league system.
Playing 96 games for Pakhtakor before he was 20 he attracted enough attention to play at all underage levels for the USSR and alongside the great Oleg Blokhin in the senior team, scoring on his debut in Olympic qualifying.
Things went badly wrong at this point. As the political situation in Greece changed drastically with the overthrow of the military Junta and a return to democratic elections in 1974, many tens of thousands of exiled Greeks returned. These included Hatzipanagis’ family, with the blessing of the USSR a Moscow-based agent organised a pro-contract for him with Iraklis Thessaloniki, a 2nd rate team in what the Russian’s regarded as a 2nd rate league. The fatal flaw in the move was the agent’s insistence that he relinquish his USSR citizenship. Iraklis signed him on a ten year contract, renewable at their whim.
Despite serious enquiries from the biggest teams including Arsenal, Lazio, Porto, Stuttgart and more (one offer was for £1.85m, a sum unheard of at the time) Iraklis refused to negotiate. Hatzipanagis was packing the stands and astonishing crowds. Despite being in court over his contract (and winning but to no avail due to Greek Justice’s irregularities) he always gave everything for his team on the pitch. This 15 year period was Iraklis greatest and even more than Maradona’s Napoli it was a one man team.
The other great sadness in the story is his International career, or lack there of. Playing for Greece in a friendly shortly after his arrival, astounding the crowds as usual, FIFA decided he was ineligible for the Greek national team due to his previous 4 games for the USSR Olympic team. The Russians said they were completely behind Hatzipanagis but as he had relinquished his USSR passport they no longer had any leverage with FIFA. Unfortunately the Greeks through a mix of apathy and powerlessness never had the ruling overturned and the world was denied seeing one of the greatest talents of all time both in a professional and an international frame.
So the next time someone tries to bullshit you in the pub about Ronaldo, just remind them that for all his slick hair and diving he’ll never be fit to clean Vassilis Hatzipanagis’ boots.
For more on this story buy The Blizzard (Issue One), we got ours at Casa Rebelde on Crow Street in Temple Bar.