Εκατό χρόνια κλείνουμε φέτος εμείς οι Θεσσαλονικείς από την απελευθέρωση της Νύφης του Θερμαϊκού. Μέσα σε αυτή τη χρονιά, δεν θα μπορούσε να λείπει και ένα κείμενο αφιέρωμα στον αθλητικό σύλλογο που συνέδεσε το όνομα του με την ιστορία της πόλης και του Ελληνικού πνεύματος στην Μακεδονία.
Το κείμενο που ακολουθεί γράφτηκε στα Αγγλικά με σκοπό να διαδώσει στο εξωτερικό την ιστορία και τα προβλήματα που εμφανίστηκαν – αν όχι δημιουργήθηκαν εσκεμμένα – εις βάρος μιας ομάδας ορόσημο για την Ελλάδα, ενός συλλόγου που δυστυχώς έπεσε και αυτό θύμα προδοσίας και χειραγώγησης. Γράφτηκε με την ελπίδα πως θα πέσει σε χέρια που θα το χρησιμοποιήσουν για να προωθήσουν τα συμφέροντα όχι μόνο ενός συλλόγου, αλλά της ίδιας της πόλης και χώρας που τόσα χρόνια εμπλούτισε με την παρουσία του στα αθλητικά δρώμενα και κατ’επέκταση τον πολιτισμό.
Καιρός να δούμε πίσω από το πέπλο. Ας θυμηθούμε τι ήταν ο Ηρακλής και τι πρόκειται να γίνει με τα οικόπεδα της Μίκρας που λέγεται εξανεμίζονται στο τέλος της φετινής χρονιάς έτσι και δεν ξεκινήσει η κατασκευή του γηπέδου.
Άραγε ποσο συνένοχοι είμαστε αν αφήσουμε άλλο ένα πολιτιστικό κομμάτι του τόπου να περάσει με συνοπτικές διαδικασίες στα αρχεία;
Iraklis – 104 Years of Pride
It took me two weeks to pluck up the courage to sit down and write this. I had been pondering the task, its importance, how it would be the one point where the sum of my life’s small achievements would converge on. I cannot begin to express the impact I hope the thoughts outlined herein will have on those who need to be mobilized, those who must understand that this is no laughing matter, because this is the story of a team which transcends a sport to reach a nation. Our journey will take us through the club’s history, its generous contributions to sports in Greece, its recent difficulties and the football club’s prejudicial treatment suffered at the hands of officials, and finally proposals for the future.
Iraklis, the Greek name for Zeus’s son, the demigod Heracles or – as the Romans preferred – Hercules, dates back over a century ago. Iraklis first began in 1899 as a cultural club for lovers of literature and music called Omilos Filomouson or Friends of the Arts Association in Salonica (Thessaloniki), which at the time was still a city subdued to the rule of the Ottoman Turks whereas the greater part of the rest of Greece had already been liberated. The club put on several theatrical productions which soon included musical performances. It was not until 1903 that the Association decided to incorporate athletic events to its interests and proceeded to build a gym and found the departments of swimming and cycling. Football, however, was what captured the hearts of the athletes. In 1905 the team played its first official match against Union Sportive headed by Galliano, an Italian major sent to organize Salonica’s Ottoman militia, defeating them 3-0. The significance of the match was twofold: hope swept throughout the city’s Hellenic community on the one hand, while on the other it was the first time the team wore its official colors – blue and white – in reference to the national flag of a Greece that was free from the Turkish yoke.
On November 29, 1908 following a series of financial difficulties, the Association merged with another club, Olympia, to create the Macedonian Athletic Association. The Ottomans, displeased at the sight of the word ‘Macedonian’, demanded the name change. Thus was born the Ottoman Hellenic Club of Thessaloniki – Iraklis. Bickering led to the breakup of the club’s philharmonic orchestra, cultural excursions and choir, leaving the athletic department intact to draw up and sign Iraklis’s Articles of Association on Nov. 29, 1908.
The early years
In the midst of great turmoil (the Balkan Wars), Iraklis distinguished itself as a team that represented the Greek element in a number of athletic tournaments and meets, boosting Greek morale. Salonica was freed on the feast of the city’s patron saint, Demetrius, in 1912 and saw Greek troops finally set foot in the city for the first time in 500 years. The first thing the club did was to make 50 of its finest athletes available to the person in charge of the city’s public safety to form a corps whose task was to patrol city streets.
The club’s achievements rose with its increased participation in national meets. Its name changed to what it is today in 1913 and the club was officially entered alongside other acknowledged clubs in the nation’s books in January of 1915. Despite attention turned to deal with the more pressing issues of WWI, the club made its presence felt in Salonica, introducing the Scout movement.
The 20’s saw the club expand. The volleyball, weightlifting, tennis and basketball clubs were founded and a shooting range added to the gym. Greece’s first official goal in an international game was scored by an Iraklis footballer, Namias, in 1929. Student tournaments were organized under its auspices in 1922 and, with more than 400 students participating in its initial tournament, were deemed a success and repeated in the years that followed. But the club did not stop there. It paved the way for many tournaments by organizing the Pan-Thessalian and first Pan-Macedonian Games, sailing championships, and Pan-Hellenic track and field tournament.
Distinctions continued. Greece was one of the eight founding members of the International Basketball Federation, more commonly known as FIBA, in 1932. It comes as no surprise that Giannis Abatzoglou from Iraklis’s basketball squad was one of the Greek representatives to sign FIBA’s Articles of Association.
What is important to note is that in all sports, Iraklis managed to stand out and win numerous titles which were to continue well into the 80’s. Greece’s top football player of all time was Iraklis’s Vasilis Hatzipanagis, voted single most outstanding Greek player of the past 50 years at the UEFA Jubilee Awards (UEFA’s 50-year anniversary) in 2004. On the whole, awards are so many in all departments that it would require another page altogether to begin to list them.
The difference with other teams
No matter how many ways you read the club’s history, the one thing that makes itself evident throughout is Iraklis’s role in national affairs. No other team’s history is so closely linked to public life. Unofficially present since 1896, illegal for three or four years, its raison d‘être was clearly devoted to the interests and culture of the nation it has always defended, as well as to the Greeks of Macedonia whom it encouraged and aided in the face of centuries of hardship imposed by the Turkish invading armies. It was a breeding ground in the early part of the 20th century for action taken within the framework of the greater Macedonian Struggle waged at the time. Many of its athletes fought and died in the Balkan Wars, yet two names have become engraved in the minds of every Iraklis supporter: Georgios Ivanof and Georgios Katsanis.
Georgios Ivanof (Jerzy Iwanow) was born in Poland. After his mother remarried a Greek he moved to Salonica. Signing up in 1926 for the football squad, he became a member of the polo and swim teams as well. It was thus that during WWII he served in the resistance, taking part in sabotage missions by swimming to enemy ships, planting bombs and sinking them. After escaping a first time in 1941, he was recaptured and shot in 1943, remembering Poland and Greece in his last words.
Georgios Katsanis, from Sidirokastro in the vicinity of Serres, was a champion sprinter for Iraklis in his youth. He died fighting in Cyprus on July 21, 1974, keeping the Turks at bay with the ranger force he headed and no military officer to replace or support him. His body remains unburied to this day.
Iraklis is the one of the few teams (if not the only one) in Greece to have two stadiums named after two of its finest athletes who died fighting for the country it has always strived to enrich culturally, athletically and politically. When club supporters are asked to define their passion for the club, a word heard quite often is the word ‘idea’ – Iraklis is not just a team, it is an idea, a concept.
Prejudicial decisions in Greek football – Precursors in the 80’s
The first signs of malaise appeared in the early 80’s. Attention was naturally drawn to the football team rather than to any of the other sports Iraklis squads outperformed their opponents in. After appearing in the Greek Cup Final in 1980, the football team was relegated to the second division for the first time in its long history due to statements made by PAOK footballer Pellios, who accused the president of the club of trying to bribe him prior to the second leg of the Greek Cup semi-final. In the aftermath, the courts restituted the team’s reputation with a verdict of not guilty, but the team nevertheless was forced to fight its way back from the second division.
Bad luck, many would say; not so. Case one: a year earlier, Panathinaikos, was accused and found guilty of bribery by the Supreme Court but was not relegated.
Case two: in the 82-83 season, Kostas Orfanidis stated the president of Kastoria, Giorgos Halkidis, attempted to bribe him for 2 million drachmas so he would not play well in the Cup match against Panathinaikos. Halkidis was sentenced to three years in prison, while the president of Panathinaikos, Vardis Vardinogiannis was acquitted and the team was naturally not relegated. The acquittal was not the result of the judges’ belief in Vardinogiannis’s innocence, but rather because no penalty was forseen by law as Halkidis was a mere shareholder and not on Panathinaikos’s board of directors.
Case three: in the 1985-86 season AEK also became embroiled in a bribery scandal. The culprits were caught red-handed. The outcome? Four points were to be deducted from the following season, AEK was not relegated and was permitted to play a play-off match with Iraklis to see who would proceed to play in the UEFA championship. The match went down in history as the ‘play-off of shame’. Iraklis appeared with 9 substitute players, having given its starting lineup players leave. The play-off never made it to full time. AEK won, technically speaking, after one injury and three red cards left Iraklis with only 5 players on the field.
Case four: one year later, the Chilean Alejandro Hisis who played for OFI was found guilty on doping charges but as OFI was set to play in the UEFA games in Europe and no one wanted to indispose the Cretan fans – avid voters of the government in power that year – no points were deducted, and an expert was brought in to clear urine samples.
Clouds began to appear and things take a turn for the worse at the millennium. In 2000 the football team was sold over to one of Greece’s top entrepreneurs, Evangelos Mytilineos, for approximately 3.5 million EUR to supporters’ enthusiasm. Here finally was a businessman whose word carried weight, whose plans for the team presaged grandeur the likes the club had never seen before. Money seemed to have been invested to acquire ten new players, one of Greece’s top coaches, the late Giannis Kyrastas, by winning him over from Panathinaikos, create the team’s new emblem, advertise season tickets and set aside special family stands that entertained young children during home games with various events and happenings. Mytilineos kicked off his very first season with a spectacular show and concert, drawing crowds of supporters who believed the best was yet to come.
What did come at the end of that first season was the sale of the team’s top scorer Konstantinou to Panathinaikos, Kyrastas to Italian Catania, and Tavlaridis to Arsenal. The sum of this selling spree amounted to 3 billion Drachmas (8.7 million EUR) and yet audits later showed the entrepreneur had eschewed tax payment on players’ contracts during the subsequent 2 years he stayed on. Iraklis was handed over to a close friend, Spanoudakis — who never presented assets to justify any transfer of shares – with the promise that Mytilineos would continue his ‘support’ though debts kept rising.
In April of 2005 Dimitris Choulis took over the team, refinanced debt payments and managed to secure the team’s permit to play with a 120,000 EUR down payment. The Professional Sports Committee however refused to validate the transfer of shares to Choulis, leaving Iraklis trapped with a debt of 8 million EUR in addition to another 1.5 million EUR on Choulis’s side, forcing him to leave. The team remained in Spanoudakis’s hands but by this time, Greece’s Revenue Service was already threatening to close the club down while stories began to spread of invoices sent to the club’s central offices from night clubs and expenses accrued as a result of pleasure trips to Miami.
In the following years, more players were sold but none of the same caliber were purchased to replace them. Each year, efforts were made to pay part of the salary owed to footballers but debts increased until Spanoudakis announced he was unable to continue at the helm, opening the way for Greek singer Remos and his associates to finish off the team completely. Valuable players were sold off and others hired, some of which never played or presented injuries mid-season leaving supporters to wonder at the validity of pre-signing medicals. Such players usually demanded recourse, submerging the team further in the red.
The team’s management before the events of last year, a consortium led by Giannis Takis, spoke of Iraklis as the club of shame and corruption, with unpaid taxes and social security payments, utility bills, players and employees. What he failed to add was the context of corruption and debt in which Iraklis found itself – the Superleague.
Justice is blind when it comes to some
The relegation of the club in 2011 had been prepared if not foreshadowed in 2010 when the Hellenic Football Federation, presided by Sophocles Pilavios, refused to allow the club to play in the following season. What happened two years ago happened in the spring and summer of 2011 as well, when the chaos of legal decisions that were overturned and which were valid for some but not others did nothing more but justify the thoughts of healthy football supporters throughout Greece that Greek football is merely an extension of the corruption in the political world. Of all the teams in the Superleague with financial problems, a number of which were given the luxury to refinance debts as a result of government intervention, only Iraklis was found wanting.
In 1993 Stephanos Manos, Finance minister then, brought a motion up for vote in Parliament to regulate debts football club Olympiakos had accrued which, without much ado, erased 2.6 billion Drachmas (11.1 million USD) owed to the Bank of Crete.
In 2004, AEK, a team that two years ago owed the government (just the government and not players or other creditors) 70 million EUR, was given leave to plead article 44 and forgo payment that year to the tune of 28 million EUR. In its financial statements that year and the next, it added the 74.3 million EUR it expected to win in a suit filed against a former club president which would be tried in May 2007. In other words, the legal department that handled AEK’s case already knew the outcome and the Hellenic Football Federation received records based on predictions, yet allowed an insolvent team to play in the first division. AEK’s debt, on the whole, was slashed down from 170.8 million to 23.3 million EUR.
Furthermore, Aris managed to decrease its debt in 2004 from 17.3 million EUR to just 2 million EUR and receive a further 4.1 million EUR from public finances thanks to Deputy Minister of Sports Georgios Orfanos. OFI also profited from a reduction in debt from 7.5 million to 700,000 EUR.
In 2011, when Iraklis was deemed unfit to play in the 2011-2012 season, the Hellenic Football Federation accepted verdicts from appeals for other teams, but when the same courts ruled in favor of the club, disregarded them altogether. When it stated that the club’s validation papers were not in order and the club asked that all validation folders be opened to confirm fair treatment, even politicians invoked the Football Federation’s right to self-administration, refusing to set rumors of favoritism and corruption to rest. The Federation’s legal representative, Theodoros Kouridis, succinctly stated before Members of Parliament that by wanting to help one team, others would be harmed and no one followed up on this statement.
UEFA’s emissaries came to Greece to check matters but never examined other files, though Iraklis had expressly requested this and despite the hundreds if not thousands of e-mails UEFA never acknowledged receiving as a result of an initiative launched by a Greek blog which also asked it examine the fairness of decisions taken.
The raw end of the deal
In the eyes of the objective bystander, the impassioned observer, the Hellenic Football Federation showed prejudice in its judgments, both as far as what verdicts to accept as definitive were concerned, as well as the severity of sanctions it chose to impose. Iraklis was relegated for defaming Greek football, all because Giannis Takis forged an official document. Instead of sanctioning the man, they sanctioned the team. When pertinent questions that go straight to the heart of the matter were asked to the Federation’s president, the arrogance characteristic of an institution in shambles – that of Greek football – sealed lips and left those questions unanswered.
It is a fact that through the years, Iraklis also made use of certain of the favorable laws to refinance debts that other teams made use of. It is a fact that the club’s management sunk the team deeper into a situation that would prove inextricable. What is unbearable is the neglect and sudden disregard of sports officials and the political world in the case of a club whose presidents are to blame. What is intolerable is that other teams were and still are in no better predicament than the one Iraklis was in.
In the last two years it seems that the trend to erase every official manifestation of the word ‘Macedonian’ by closing down entire ministries and concealing disagreeable facts from history books that would not please those bent on forging close ties with former enemies who, as we speak, are buying Greek land with the government’s blessing, has spread. While neighboring usurpers to the north are baptizing airports and erecting statues and arches with the names of Macedon kings in the hope of leaving a false history as legacy to younger generations, Greece is feeding off its children, blotting out its roots with summary decisions that show anything but just, indiscriminate and catholic justice.
The issue of Iraklis is one that concerns the historian, the municipality, the average parent who wishes to send his or her child to an academy where they will fulfill their potential. The issue is one that should concern those who see it as a cameo of Greek society today, who wish to put an end to the savaging of a nation. No one has asked for leniency. All we, the healthy-minded supporters ask for is fair treatment that we unfortunately know is not a trademark either of the Hellenic Football Federation or the 300 politicians in Parliament at the moment.
The club’s athletic facilities in Mikra have long been in the sights of entrepreneurs and now seem to have been added to the list of shopping items the Troika desires. Some would have it that precious natural resources grace the soil beneath, which is what so many say the team’s decline and debts are owed to, in the hopes the club would one day sell off its land. This is the reason why the state still owes the team its own stadium when first it favored a decision to force the club to share its facilities with students from the adjoining Aristotle University and then later in the 1950’s hand over the club’s gym to expand the campus. In the years to come, temporary arrangements were agreed upon between the governments and the club, and each time expansion requirements for the university sent Iraklis packing.
Iraklis is slowing dying, ladies and gentlemen, and it is not only by any fault of its own. Those who destroyed it are still at large and those who condone this are those who should have been present to support the club and cleanse the sport itself. The team is fighting its way back now but what is its destination? If fixed matches are the norm and the judicial system insists on acquitting many key players in this corrupt industry, why strive to return to a guild that – for lack of harsher words – is ‘inconsistent’ in its governance?
One cannot imagine Salonica without Iraklis. This year the city normally should celebrate 100 years of freedom and City Council still has not published plans to commemorate the year the Ottoman Turks surrendered the city back to its rightful owners. How hopeful can one be that the fate of the city’s and country’s most historic club will take a turn for the better with people who wholly disregard its importance to the community, discount its contributions to a nation and cannot be bothered with its welfare for the sake of generations to come? Does anyone honestly understand the link between Iraklis, Salonica, culture, history and geopolitics?
This work by https://mysatelite.wordpress.com/ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.