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.
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.