Amongst the many Greek gods, goddesses and deities the name of Vasilis Hatzipanagis may not be the most well known or held. Unlike the more famous mythological figures from Greek history, Hatzipanagis has never appeared on coins, wall paintings or on the sides of sacred pottery and drinking cups.
But on the terraces of Greek football; amongst its crumbling footballing temples and passion filled stands there still to this day remains few more divinely held figures. But the story of this curly haired legend goes further back than simply Greek footballing folklore.
At the height of the cold war period the Soviet Union had managed to establish numerous scientific and engineering facilities in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Even with the collapse of the Soviet block in 1991, Tashkent was still the fourth-largest city in the USSR.
Tragedy though struck in 1966 leaving much of city destroyed. As a consequence much of Tashkent’s significance as a key trading point on the historic Silk Road continues to be forgotten.
After the end of the Greek Civil war in 1949 many thousands of Greek political refugees fled as leftist and right wing waring divisions left huge scars upon Greece. At the end of the conflict members of the communist party and political refugees were evacuated to Tashkent and Alma Ata in Central Asia where they settled.
It was in Tashkent in 1954 that the name of Visilis Hatzipanagis first came into the world. His parents had been amongst the many thousands of Greeks who had fled to Uzbekistan after the civil war ended, unwanted and banished from Greece by the new military regime.
At 17 years the footballing talents of Hatzipanagis was spotted by Tashkent club Pakhtakor Tashkent. By 1972 his skills, passing refinement and dribbling skills had helped Pakhtakor win in the Soviet First League, the then second tier of Soviet football.
In his three years in the USSR Hatzipanagis played almost 100 games scoring a total of 22 goals. Despite strict rules over heritage and the undoubted favoritism that was shown to players from the Moscow sides, he soon became a fixture in the Under 19, Under 21 and Olympic teams of the USSR.
By the early seventies Hatzipanagis was a left-sided attacker considered second only to the Ukrainian Oleg Blokhin in the USSR. Although he spoke regularly of a move back the land of his forefathers the pathway had been blocked due to the military junta that ruled in Greece until 1974.
Things changed in July 1974 when the ‘junta of generals’ in Greece collapsed ideologically and politically. Soon after the monarchy was abolished and liberalised political freedoms were restored. Politically in September 1974 the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PA.SO.K) was founded by Papandreou as a new constitution took root.
With the military generals gone the consequences of the Civil War began to diminish. New liberalisations and ideas flooded into the social theatres of Greek society with football being no different. Many clubs fans became more radical and left wing with heroes both foreign and domestic now allowed to flourish. With the loosening of the neo-fascist military grip the pathway for a return home for the boy from Tashkent was clear.
On 22nd November 1975 Hatzipanagis signed for Iraklis FC and the one time boy refugee had at last come home.
Chants of Vasili Kalosorises! (Welcome Vasilis!) welcomed his arrival at the Thessaloniki club Iraklis. At the time Iraklis were seen as prominent rivals to Aris, PAOK and the Athens giants. Such was his reputation that he filled the Kaftanzoglio stadium for his first league match in December 1975.
Interest in Hatzipanagis from stronger leagues grew as his talent came to the fore on the football field. The likes of Panathinaikos, Lazio and Arsenal expressed an interest in the player but, despite financial problems, the club feared the consequences of selling the crowd favourite such was his talent and his ideological value to a post military Greece.
The Greek cup win over Olympiakos in 1976 at the now defunct Nikos Goumas when he scored two goals, cemented his place in the history of the club.
Hatzipanagis stayed at Iraklis until 1991 and made a farewell appearance in a game against Valencia CF in October 1991 – on the date of his 37th birthday.
Hatzipanagis never lost his association with the land of his birth despite his name. He was for many ‘the footballing Nureyev’ and this moniker stuck even during his years in Greek football. He was known for a record number of goals direct from corner kicks which would confuse goalkeepers with wicked swerve and power.
By the time his career came to an end another curly haired magician by the name of Maradona was coming to the fore. Born, like Hatzipanagis in a land torn apart by the military it feels to many Greeks unjust that Maradona should attain so much compared to what Hatzipanagis got from Greece.
In the end it was his roots that ultimately prevented him from playing for the Greek football team more profitably. Uzbek by birth but Greek in name his games for the USSR Olympic and Under 21 sides meant UEFA frowned upon him turning out for the Greek national team. It is thanks to this, rather than his performances for Iraklis, that meant he gained very little note for his football outside of Greece.
Within Greece his footballing esteem and value was and has never been forgotten. Granted the talent never got further than the rather modest Iraklis and his mantlepiece was only ever decorated by the 1976 Greek Cup win. But in 2004, during the greatest modern sporting year in its history, the Greek Football Federation named Valilis Hatzipanagis as its golden player of the past 50 years.
His global impact was much smaller than his footballing qualities show. But his place in Greek history should not be forgotten neither for his footballing impact and contemporary relevance to modern Greek history.