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Greece's answer to Nureyev

Published: Wednesday 26 January 2011, 11.30CET
Vassilis Hatzipanagis left behind the chance of international football with the USSR to thrill football fans in Greece, the land of his forebears.
by Vassiliki Papantonopoulou
Greece's answer to Nureyev
Greece's Golden Player, Vassilis Hatzipanagis ©Getty Images
Published: Wednesday 26 January 2011, 11.30CET

Greece's answer to Nureyev

Vassilis Hatzipanagis left behind the chance of international football with the USSR to thrill football fans in Greece, the land of his forebears.

To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Greece chose Vassilis Hatzipanagis as their Golden Player.

Football legend has it that a group of Greek defenders once threatened to sue Vassilis Hatzipanagis because "he makes a fool of us on the pitch and we want compensation". Exaggeration aside, Hatzipanagis was the most spectacular player ever to grace Greece's soccer arenas.

An attacking midfielder with Iraklis FC, he packed in the crowds at Salonika's Kaftantzoglio Stadium, where his performances earned him the moniker 'the footballing Nureyev'. However, the reason he gave for his fancy footwork was simple enough. "When I see defenders in front of me, I want to dribble around every one of them," he once said.

Born to Greek immigrants to the USSR in October 1954, he was spotted by FC Pakhtakor, a club based in Tashkent (now capital of the modern-day Uzbekistan). They wanted to invest in this raw yet refined player, but the law was strict: he had to apply for Soviet citizenship to be eligible for the Soviet top flight. After much pressure from Pakhtakor officials, Hatzipanagis's parents finally acceded to the request.

Their son made his professional debut at the age of 17, and was soon called into the USSR's Under-19 squad. He graduated to the seniors, without playing a game, and represented the Soviet Union in the 1976 Olympic qualifying tournament. However, despite being told by national coach Konstantin Beskov that his ability was "way above Greece's level", he turned his back on the Soviet league – where as a left-sided attacker he was considered second only to the great Oleg Blokhin – to move to his parents' homeland.

Hatzipanagis signed for Iraklis, and such was his reputation that he filled the stadium for his first match in December 1975. The Iraklis fans would be the reason this exceptional talent never joined another team. Despite interest from S.S. Lazio, Arsenal FC, FC Porto and VfB Stuttgart, the club's board feared the consequences of selling the crowd favourite. Hatzipanagis stayed at Iraklis until 1990 and made a farewell appearance in a friendly against Valencia CF in 26 October 1991 – his 37th birthday.

Another highlight for Hatzipanagis was his only appearance for the Greece national side, in a friendly against Poland at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium in May 1976. The Athens crowd were bewitched by the long-haired wonder, who seemed to do whatever he wanted with the ball. Afterwards, however, Hatzipanagis was notified that he was ineligible for international duty having played for the USSR at junior levels.

Further recognition did come in June 1984, when he was invited to join a World XI featuring Franz Beckenbauer, Mario Kempes, Kevin Keegan and Dominique Rocheteau, for a match against New York Cosmos in New York, and then, of course, with his nomination as Greece's Golden Player. Hatzipanagis said: "It is very touching to see that you are not forgotten, that your contribution is appreciated even after so many years."

He added: "I regret not having been able to wear the Greek national jersey more than once. And I regret not having made a career abroad. I would have liked to play in a better league, to have enjoyed football at that level. If I could turn back the clock, I would do some things differently."

Last updated: 26 January 2011

Last updated: 02/03/11 12.08CET

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