Vasilis Vasilas, pays tribute to Pan-Hellenic’s charismatic striker Giannis Karayiannis (1939-2013)



Giannis Karayiannis (1939-2013)

With the sad passing of, Giannis Karayiannis (1939-2013), last week, Sydney school teacher and historian, Vasilis Vasilas, pays tribute to Pan-Hellenic’s charismatic striker by publishing an old interview with him- in full- for the first time.

Growing up in Athens during the Occupation immensely impacted and shaped my family and childhood. Desperation and survival were our daily lives; as a child, I may have been only an observer of what goes on but I quickly learnt to read and understand the pain and anguish on people’s faces. When my stomach began to rumble from hunger and I was told that there was nothing to eat, I quickly learnt of daily hardship. There is no other greater tragedy in a young family than to lose a parent; in all his desperation, my father, Panayiotis, jumped onto a truck- which was carrying bread- and began throwing out loaves to other hungry people. The Germans arrested him and he was later executed at Goudi. My memories of my father are dream-like- of him returning home and playing with me on rug or handing me a piece of bread. They are almost unreal. My mother, Maria, was left to rear four sons; luckily, my two brothers, Nikolaos and Dimitrios, were much older than Spyros and me, and they worked odd jobs to help us survive.

In Kesariani, our home was less than fifty metres away from the German guardhouse where executions- of captured Greek resistance fighters, petty criminals or ‘troublemakers’- frequently occurred. On May 1, 1944, the Germans executed a few hundred Greeks; I remember the hearing these men singing the Greek national anthem before being shot. The exploding gunshots echoed throughout our minds, leaving a deep sorrow in us. When the council rubbish trucks- carrying all the corpses- drove out of the guardhouse and passed us in the street, there was blood dripping from the trucks and onto the road. Adults and children, we all tried to cover the blood with dirt. These were horrors one cannot forget, even though I was so young. Later that year, the fear of the Germans was replaced by the fear of the Greek Civil War. All the children were told not to openly speak about anything, as it could easily be misconstrued by the authorities and land our families into trouble. These were traumatic years to grow up in; our childhood innocence was taken away from us and we developed this notion that things cannot get better. Even when these wars were over, and the reconstruction of Greece began, we looked for ways to suppress these horrific memories- I played sport.

Despite not being a dedicated student, I still did reasonably well at school. I put all my energy in track and field, basketball and football. At Pagrati High School, I was always first in high jump and was captain of the basketball team. As Ethnikos Asteras’ home ground was close to our house, it was only natural for me to play for them. As a teenager, you dream of playing football for one of the big Athenian football clubs; the skills and techniques I learnt in athletics and basketball would prove invaluable when I did pursue a football career. One afternoon, as we were playing neighbourhood football, George Gasparis- a former A.E.K. Athens player, was passing and stopped to observe us. He invited a group of us to trial with Ethnikos Asteras on the following Tuesday. Gasparis was a scout and coach who took young players and dedicated a lot of time to successfully develop them. This was the beginning of my dream.

From 1953, I spent eight seasons at Ethnikos Asteras, which was one of the better teams in the Athenian A2 competition. For three years, 1958- 61, I had been one of the best centre-backs in the competition. When I was selected to play in the Under 18’s mixed Athens team, I realised the ‘unreachable’ childhood aspirations becoming a reality; in our annual match against the 1st Division Champions- that season, it had been Panathinaikos- we defeated them 2-0 at Near East Stadium. Such matches gave me the exposure for interested 1st Division teams to possibly signing me. A.E.K approached Gasparis; they saw my abilities on the field but needed to find out more about my character. As Panathinaikos was also interested in me, I was sent to the island of Andros where Club President, Nikos Goumas, hosted me while my contract was being finalised and to be signed. From as young as I can remember, I was always an A.E.K supporter. My father was from Aivali, a town on the Asia Minor coast, and came to Greece as a refugee after the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey (1923). A.E.K represents these lost homelands, and there was nothing more sacred than playing for that shirt. While A.E.K was well into their pre-season training, I began mine alone on Andros. A.E.K. came to the island for a friendly against Andros where I made my debut in our 0-9 thrashing. I was playing alongside legendary players such as Kostas Nestorides and Andreas Stamatiades; I had made the big league.

Part of the agreement was for A.E.K. to find me work; there was very little money in football and you still needed a good job to survive. Whether it was in Greece’s national communications or water companies, it did not bother me; all I wanted was job security. However, nothing had eventuated. Our coach, Trifonas Tzanetis, did not show a liking towards me and he showed this by only selecting me on important matches. It was like being thrown into the ‘fire’ every time; I was not prepared as my match-time before these matches was extremely limited. My matches include: a loss to Barcelona 2-5, wins against Bolton and L.U.S.K , 4-1 and 2-0 respectively, a win against Olympiakos 2-0 and a draw in our return match against them. I did not mind playing against such great teams and I also desired stability- to build my confidence and fitness for these matches over a few matches.

I did not leave A.E.K. because I could not break into 1st Grade, or I was never playing; it was the issue of work. George Salapatas was visiting Greece on a business trip and approached me with Pan-Hellenic’s offer. Former A.E.K. player and Pan-Hellenic winger, Chris Ambos, who was already playing for Pan-Hellenic, probably recommended me to the Club’s coaching staff and Committee. When I boarded onto the Sydney-bound plane in September 1962 I looked back and believed it was the last time I was seeing Athens. Despite thousands of Greeks migrating to Australia, it was still an enormous decision to come here- especially for sports stars. What if I did not make it in Sydney and returned to Greece; how difficult would it be to re-establish myself?

Luckily I was still only twenty-two years old when I arrived in Sydney in 1962; although there was so much uncertainty, my young spirit allowed me to adjust and overcome any initial problems. My reunion with my fiancé, Eleutheria, in January 1963 also made it easier for me. My initial experiences at Pan-Hellenic were not favourable; I cannot say the Club looked after me. It was only after a couple seasons, when I was moved to striker and began scoring goals, that suddenly Pan-Hellenic changed their attitude and looked after me. However, those first years at the Club were difficult. Once I began to overcome the language barrier, I began to get onto my feet. If the Club was not going to look after me, I had to do things for myself. Thankfully there were people like Comino Omeros who lived nearby and we became family friends and even worked together. Others such as Paul and Kay Peters looked after us as if we were family. We were fortunate to establish a caring support network that helped us adjust to Sydney.

Although the team made the semi-finals in 1963, the Committee had a change of direction towards who they would sign to play for the team; suddenly, Greek players- including myself- were out of favour. I was so disappointed when my dear friend, Ambos, was released. The 1964 team was almost a new team. I did not understand why the Committee would tamper with a team that was already relatively strong enough to make the finals. The Committee did not have experience in the management of a football team; they suddenly came onto the scene and their inexperience showed. Club Secretary, George Pappas, was a good administrator but a successful team needs an efficient group of administrators to maintain its order and progress. Club President, Andrew Carr, and later Angelo Mallos, may have been enthusiastic and willing to spend lots of money to help the Club, but experience and expertise was needed to ensure their generosity was reaching places where it was really needed.

For a couple of seasons, I was in the players’ wilderness but I continued going to training and was still very fit. I was happy to play 2nd Grade; it did not worry me. Off the field, the birth of daughter, Maria Christina, brought Eleutheria and I great joy. I had other priorities to really worry about- other than the decisions of the coaching staff. However, I did become disgusted by the manner some of the Greek players were treated when our new coach, Manny Poulikakis, brushed them aside. He decided to release club stalwarts, Omeros and Sotiris Patrinos, and Fotis Dakouvanos. I was the best player in 2nd Grade, and I would be invited to play in 1st Grade; but I continued to turn up for the 2nd Grade matches. This was my personal protest against what I believed were poor coaching decisions. I had absolutely no problems with any of the Pan-Hellenic players- Greek or non-Greek. I fondly remember going to a pub after training with players such as John Cole, Roy Blitz, Doug Logan and Jimmy Pearson and they would teach me English. I only had problems with the coaching staff. When Pan-Hellenic was on the verge of relegation in 1965, I openly expressed my appalled feelings to Poulikakis; I would turn up to training and ask him, “Are you still here?” He did not see out the season.

The arrival of our new coach, Walter Tamandl, changed our fortunes; he was a coach that made me enjoy playing for him. Playing for F.K. Austria and Prague in their hey-day made everyone listen up. However, the team still found itself in play-offs against a strong Polonia for relegation. Whoever lost was relegated. We were down 1-0 when our half, Johnny Sanchez, instructed me to move up front. Blitz made a dash down the sideline and crossed the ball, which I headed the ball into the net to equalise- we survived with a 1-1 draw. At high school, I could jump 1.85cm in the high jump, so it was only natural to jump for such high crosses. In the next relegation play-off, Tamandl instructed me to play forward and I scored a double in our 5-4 win. We celebrated our victory at the Hellenic Club; I cannot remember that night! From this point I was Pan-Hellenic’s striker. Over the next three seasons, I would be the Club’s top scorer and in 1967, I was third in the whole competition- after Giacomo Giacometi and Johnny Warren. The player who I attribute my success as striker was Blitz; we really complimented each other because his precision crosses needed someone to put the ball into the opposition’s net. It was as though Blitz and I were a couple; we both made each other look great on the field. I remember going together Paddy’s Markets once and all the Italian fruit stall owners gave us all these bags of fruit; it was their way of showing Blitz and I their appreciation of what we were achieving on the field- it did not matter if they were A.P.I.A. supporters.

When certain players begin to shine on the field, it is mostly because they are surrounded by in-form players: George McCulloch was workaholic; John Cole was a classic defender and Brian Smith never stopped running. In 1968, Tamandl returned for his second-stint as coach at the club and Greek legend, Takis Loukanidis, arrived to a team already playing well which needed a classy player, such as him, to cap it off. Our confidence was up throughout the season, but I feel the team was tired in final few rounds. The Minor Premiership slipped through our fingers; we did not finish the year on a high- losing to Prague 1-0, and drawing to Melita Eagles 1-1. Everyone remembers Loukanidis’ failed penalty against Hakoah; I always took our team’s penalties but this time he asked me if he could take it. I saw no problem with it. The rest is history.

The match against Melita was my last match for Pan-Hellenic. During the 1st half, I had missed some opportunities and I was having an unlucky day. At the interval, Tamandl informed me I was being substituted. I could not believe this. This decision also deprived me of any chance of being the competition’s top goal scorer. I later found out certain members of the Club’s executive instructed Tamandl to change his tactics. Naturally, I was upset. I walked out of the Club; I was not going to give anyone the satisfaction to humiliate me. It was an abrupt exit.

However, my football career continued. I went down to Canberra Olympic as player-coach for one season, before playing for the local Juventus- where we won the local Championship and Cup double. I received an offer to play for New York’s Greek- Americans by their coach at the time, Alketos Panagoulias. Suddenly, I found myself a migrant a second time and moving to another country again; I suppose it was much easier this time because I could communicate (i.e. English). It was in the United States that Eleutheria gave birth to our second daughter, Angela Patricia. I enjoyed myself playing there, as the team was practically filled with former Greek1st Division players such as Kyriakos Hasekidis, Lolos Hasekidis and Kostas Kouyioukas. In 1974, we won the U.S.A Championship and Cup double, and I retired on a high note. I still remained close to the team- coaching it several times over the years- until my family and I returned to Greece in 1989.

For two years I was not involved with sport in any way. An opportunity did arise when A.E.K. legend, Andreas Stamatiades and I were asked to become involved with A.E.K’s Academy; between Apostolos Toskas, George Karafeskos and Stelios Serafidis, we all rotated in coaching the different age groups. My association with the Academy lasted until 2002. I remained General Secretary of A.E.K.’s “All Stars”- organising friendly matches against other “all stars” teams to help other players who were not as fortunate as us- in health and finances.

I spent almost six seasons at Pan-Hellenic; it was disappointing to leave behind so many friends. The years at the Club coincided with so many developments in our lives- experiencing personal growth and my young family. Our supporters were incredible; my daughter, Maria, used to come to watch some of our matches; our supporters would care for her until the final whistle and return her to me after the match. In 1968, she was actually Miss Junior Pan-Hellenic, and one of my proudest moments was escorting her onto the stage. Such are my wonderful memories at the Club. Both our daughters grew up in football circles; whether at training or at matches- it was a way of life for our family. I love Pan-Hellenic the same way I love Ethnikos Asteras because I experienced all the joys and sorrows of what it meant to be football player. I am a happy retired grandfather who looks through photo albums of my football career and… I would not change anything. Pan-Hellenic and Sydney always have a separate part in my heart- with the fondest memories.

Extracts of this interview and all photographs were published in: Vasilios Vasilas, ‘The Giant Who Never Awoke: History and Oral Stories of Pan-Hellenic SC (1957-76), Sydney, (2012).

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