Greek god

South Africa pro­duced one of the best play­ers ever to fea­ture in the Greek league, a star who mys­te­ri­ously quit the game at the age of 21 but whose leg­end lives on to­day.

Kick Off - - Contents - BY MARK GLEE­SON

South African-born An­ge­los Mes­saris played in the 1920s, but is still con­sid­ered a Panathi­naikos leg­end to­day

One of the myth­i­cal fig­ures of Greek foot­ball is still the sub­ject of a song sung from the stands in Athens to­day – a player who was the youngest ever cap­tain of the coun­try’s big­gest club, won four in­ter­na­tional caps and then sud­denly quit with­out ex­pla­na­tion just as his prom­ise was be­gin­ning to flour­ish. But An­ge­los Mes­saris is more than just that. He is also South African-born, and ar­guably the ear­li­est in­ter­na­tional star this coun­try ever had – with­out know­ing it up un­til now. Mes­saris’ fam­ily came to the Cape at the turn of the 20th cen­tury at time of the Gold rush. They were from the Io­nian is­land of Ke­falo­nia, and it was on Green Point Com­mon that Mes­saris learnt to play foot­ball among the sol­diers of the Bri­tish gar­ri­son who orig­i­nally brought the game to the con­ti­nent. At the age of 14 he and his fam­ily went to Athens, and not long af­ter he started play­ing for a small Athe­nian sub­urb club named Goudi. Af­ter three years, Panathi­naikos were look­ing for young tal­ented foot­ballers in an at­tempt to re­new their squad. Mes­saris was spot­ted and re­cruited at the age of 17 along with his brother Apos­to­los, who was three years older. Mes­saris was so much bet­ter than the other play­ers of his time that he was named cap­tain of the team ahead of the 1928/29 sea­son at the age of 18. It made him the youngest cap­tain ever in the his­tory of Panathi­naikos, the most fa­mous side in Greece and the only club from the coun­try to have reached a Euro­pean Cup fi­nal. At the time, Greece had three lo­cal cham­pi­onships: one in Athens, one in Pi­raeus and the other in Thes­sa­loniki. The three cham­pi­ons would face each other (home and away) in a mini tour­na­ment to de­cide the Greek cham­pion. In his first year at Panathi­naikos, Mes­saris led the club to the Athens Cham­pi­onship in 1929, but the Greek cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment was called off.

A year later Panathi­naikos won the Athens Cham­pi­onship again, with Mes­saris top­ping the charts with 13 goals in 10 games, and the team would fight for the na­tional ti­tle against great Pi­raeus ri­vals Olympiakos and Aris Salonika – a ri­valry which per­sists to this day. Panathi­anikos ver­sus Olympiakos re­mains a game where ha­tred and vit­riol is the ma­jor char­ac­ter­is­tic, and is among the most pas­sion­ate of world der­bies. Two goals and three as­sists for Mes­saris in an 8-2 win in June 1930 en route to the na­tional ti­tle made him an im­me­di­ate leg­end. News­pa­pers hailed his per­for­mance as ex­tra­or­di­nary, un­seen be­fore. Olympiakos’ fans had walked from Pi­raeus to Athens

for the game, re­fus­ing to use the trol­leys be­cause they were painted green, the colour of the op­po­si­tion. They had car­ried coffins with them, hop­ing their team would “bury” Panathi­naikos. In­stead, af­ter they lost 8-2, the coffins were smashed and the pieces of wood used in fights be­tween the fans of the two teams. Al­most a cen­tury on, ri­ot­ing be­tween ri­val sup­port­ers con­tin­ues. The 8-2 vic­tory is still the big­gest win ever in an Olympiakos-Panathi­naikos derby. A week later, Panathi­naikos were play­ing against Aris and fans, buoyed by the fa­mous vic­tory against Olympiakos, trav­elled to Thes­sa­loniki by sea, some­thing un­usual at the time. Panathi­naikos won 4-0, with Mes­saris the best player again, this time with a hat-trick. The next day thou­sands of fans went to Athens train sta­tion to wel­come back their he­roes. It was then that the fa­mous song was heard for the first time: “We scored eight against Olympiakos; And an­other four against Aris; Hooray An­ge­los Mes­saris.”

Panathi­naikos then beat

Olympiakos 2-1 in Pi­raeus and drew 2-2 at home against Aris in the fi­nal game to be crowned un­de­feated cham­pi­ons, with Mes­saris scor­ing a to­tal of seven goals, find­ing the net in all four games. Panathi­naikos won the Athens Cham­pi­onship for the third time in a row in 1931. Six wins in six games, with Mes­saris as the top­scorer again with 13 goals. The na­tional tour­na­ment took on a new form, with eight teams fight­ing for the ti­tle: Panathi­naikos, AEK and Apol­lon from Athens, Olympiakos and Eth­nikos from Pi­raeus and Aris, PAOK, Irak­lis from Thes­sa­loniki. Mes­saris played in only four of the 14 games and scored four times. His last game was at home against AEK on April 23: Panathi­naikos were down 2-0 and he scored two head­ers to force a draw.

Then sud­denly he

re­tired at the age of 21. “We can be sure that he had a se­ri­ous dis­agree­ment with Apos­to­los Niko­laidis, the direc­tor of Panathi­naikos,” ex­plains Greek foot­ball his­to­rian Themis Kes­saris. “Some claim that the rea­son of the clash was Mes­saris’ po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. He was a com­mu­nist, an ac­tive part of a youth com­mu­nist or­gan­i­sa­tion, and Niko­laidis de­manded that Mes­saris would stop his po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment. “Oth­ers say that the duo clashed when Mes­saris didn’t like the fact that some of the play­ers had found ways to gain money from foot­ball, while the ma­jor­ity re­mained am­a­teurs who played for glory. Re­ports in the press claimed that in a heated ar­gu­ment, Niko­laidis slapped Mes­saris, but they were never con­firmed.” In a press state­ment at the time, Mes­saris ex­pressed his gen­eral con­cerns about foot­ball in Greece and stated that he did not en­joy “be­ing like a horse at the races”. “An­other ver­sion of the story says that Mes­saris was close to Spy­ros Merk­ouris. Merk­ouris was heav­ily in­volved in the Panathi­naikos board and he used Mes­saris in or­der to cause prob­lems in­side the team and gain the pres­i­dency of the club,” Kes­saris adds.

What­ever the real

rea­sons, Mes­saris never played for Panathi­naikos again, and went to study at univer­sity in­stead. In 1932, he was one of many play­ers of­fi­cially banned by the club. But Mes­saris came out of re­tire­ment once. He fea­tured in a char­ity game against AEK in 1935, only af­ter he was begged to do so by Merk­ouris, then the mayor of Athens. Af­ter­wards, he re­turned to South Africa where he con­cluded his stud­ies and then went back to Greece to be­come an ex­ec­u­tive man­ager of one of Greece’s lead­ing firms. He never ex­plained why he stopped his foot­ball ca­reer. When jour­nal­ists sought in­ter­views, he said: “Please leave me alone, the foot­baller you’re ask­ing for died long ago.”

But he was

never for­got­ten and when he died aged 68, thou­sands at­tended his fu­neral. Now he is still hailed as Greece’s best pre-war foot­baller. Could he there­fore be South Africa’s too? “His team­mates said, ‘He was like the wind; he could run with the ball stuck at his feet. He put the ball where he wanted, he could do any­thing he wanted to do. His runs, his con­fi­dence, his passes, his drib­bles – it was all a mag­i­cal thing. There was no one like him’,” Kes­saris said.

“HE PUT THE BALL WHERE HE WANTED, HE COULD DO ANY­THING HE WANTED TO DO.”

An­ge­los Mes­saris be­came cap­tain of Panathi­naikos at 18.

Mes­saris lines up with a ri­val cap­tain be­fore the derby. Mes­saris led Panathi­naikos to cham­pi­onship sil­ver­ware.

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