Dazzling veteran best footballer in half-century

Retired soccer star Vassilis Hadzipanagis, renowned for his remarkable abilities between the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, has been named Greece’s best soccer player over the past 50 years. The decision, based on a vote conducted by the Hellenic Soccer Federation (EPO) on behalf of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, was announced yesterday. UEFA, currently preparing for its jubilee year celebrations next year, intends to stage a ceremony for the top players of each of its 52 member states, at its headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. Hadzipanagis was the favorite choice for just under half of the 9,061 Greek participants who took part in the voting. The player, who spent his entire career in Greece with just one club, Iraklis, after relocating from the former Soviet Union in his early 20s, accumulated 4,104 of the 9,061 votes cast. Mimis Domazos ended second with 1,982 votes and Mimis Papaioannou third with 817 votes. Hadzipanagis never played for the national team after FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, ruled that a single cap earned with the Soviet Union during his junior years was enough to bar the dazzling attacking midfielder from representing Greece. It was not uncommon for fans of other clubs to fill the stands during Iraklis games, important or not, simply to admire the fluid player’s exceptional skills. With Iraklis, traditionally a respectable side in domestic competition but never a major force, Hadzipanagis won a solitary title, the Greek Cup in 1976. The Thessaloniki team upset perennial powerhouse Olympiakos in the final after a penalty shootout broke the encounter’s 4-4 deadlock. Commenting on this major post-career highlight, Hadzipanagis told local radio station Flash FM that he felt «proud and moved» by the distinction. «I still haven’t thought about what I’m going to say when the time comes to speak before the other European winners of this award at UEFA’s ceremony. But I’m certain that I will speak about Greek soccer in the most commendable way,» said Hadzipanagis. Responding to a question about Greece’s recent qualification for the Euro 2004 finals in Portugal, after topping Group 6 ahead of favorite Spain, Hadzipanagis said «capturing first place in a difficult group was a major success.» Years after his retirement, Hadzipanagis could not hide his disappointment over not being permitted to play with the national side. «Everybody knows how much I would have liked to have played for the national team,» said Hatzipanagis, «and what kept me away.»