Manuel Veth –
PAOK and Aris might be the two biggest clubs in Thessaloniki. But few know that Iraklis are the city’s oldest club and that as a founder of the first division were never relegated on the playing field, yet play in the third division nonetheless.
It is only a stone throw from PAOK’s Toumba Stadium to the Kaftanzoglio Stadium, which is the home of one of Thessaloniki’s other clubs Iraklis. Iraklis, in fact, are one of the oldest clubs in the countries founded in 1908 the club predates the foundation of PAOK (1926) and Aris (1914).
Known as Ghireos (the Elder) Iraklis are a proud club that has spent the majority of its history in the Greek first division. A founding member of the Alpha Ethniki – the competition that would eventually become the SuperLeague Greece – Iraklis consistently stayed in the first division until 1980.
Iraklis – Earning their first star
It was that year that the club earned its first star. Iraklis had eliminated local rivals PAOK but was then accused of attempting to bribe PAOK’s Filotas Pellios. As a result, of the scandal, Iraklis were forcefully relegated from the first division – the club would then be cleared of the allegations halfway through the 1980/81 season, but the damage had been done.
Thankfully, the club was able to return to the first division quickly, and from 1981 to 2011 the club was a constant member of first the Alpha Ethniki and later the SuperLeague Greece. But in 2011 the club’s second star would arrive.
During that time Iraklis were the home of Vassilis Hatzipanagis a Soviet national of Greek decent, who played for the club from 1975 to 1990. Hatzipanagis to this day remains the club’s biggest legend scoring 62 goals in 281 games. When he retired in 1990 an era ended, and the club would fall to the ownership of private business people.
After several ownership changes, the club would fall into the hands of Giorgos Spanoudakis. Under Spanoudakis the club would spend freely without being overly successful on the pitch. The result was growing debt to former players and coaches resulted in the club becoming more and more unstable.
2011 and the arrival of the second star
In 2007 the club was sold to a consortium of local businesspeople. But despite, the fact, that many of the debts were paid off the club remained in trouble and was eventually refused a licence to play in the first division in 2011.
Iraklis, therefore, became the first club in Greek football to be relegated from the first division without ever finishing on a relegation spot. But that is not the end of the story.
When one visits the Kaftanzoglio Stadium today, it is easy to spot the fan shirts with the three stars or the black shirts with the numbers 80.11.17. That is because Iraklis managed to be relegated a third time from the top division without finishing in a relegation spot in 2017.
Relegated to the third division the club was restructured following several merges with other local clubs. Legally the new entity was no longer connected with the old club but was seen as a continuation of the former club nonetheless, and by 2015 the old club was merged with the new club to once again wholly re-establish the club.
2017 brought the third star
Owned by Spyros Papathanasakis, the club returned to the top flight that year. But the honeymoon between the new owner and the club was brief. By 2017 debts had once again caught up with the team. On September 7, 2017, Papathanasakis announced that the club was no longer able to meet financial obligations and that Iraklis FC would be dissolved.
Papathanasakis then quickly stepped down from the club, and a new committee promptly rallied to save the team from complete dissolution. Their effort allowed the club to start the 2017/18 season in the Gamma Ethniki (third division) and despite having just 14 players in the squad, Iraklis managed to finish their division and qualify for the second division playoffs.
It was at that stage that the Futbolgrad Network visited the Kaftanzoglio Stadium. Facing Apollon Paralimnio Iraklis where first in their group and a win would see them all but secure promotion to the second division – although mathematically they could still be eliminated from the promotion group stage playoffs.
Scoring early Iraklis would eventually see out what was a poor match. But the true story was not on the field but among the many Iraklis fans that had come out to support their club.
Iraklis, in fact, work together with Aniko, an organisation that tries to use football to empower refugees that arrived in Greece. But the partnership does not end there. Iraklis also allows Aniko to use the club’s training fields where Thomas Farines, a Futbolgrad Network writer and the project leader of Aniko, conducts his training sessions with young refugees that have recently arrived in Greece.
As such the club is one of three teams in the city to participate in the program – the other two are Apollon and Aris – which speaks volumes to the current club leadership and also the fan scene. “They are very open to us and have supported us very wherever they can”, Farines explains ahead of Iraklis’ game against Apollon.
It is another aspect of a club that is currently re-inventing itself in the third division, and while the football might not be spectacular, it appears only a question of time until Ghireosreturn to the top flight. Where hopefully they can avoid collecting the fourth star in their collections of relegations without finishing in a relegation spot.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.