Vassilis Hatzipanagis (born October 26, 1954 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan) was a football (soccer) attacking midfield who played for Iraklis in Salonica, Greece.
Football legend has it that a group of Greek defenders once threatened to sue Vassilis Hatzipanagis because "he makes a fool of us on the pitch and we want compensation". Exaggeration aside, Hatzipanagis was the most spectacular player ever to grace Greece's soccer arenas.
An attacking midfielder with Iraklis FC, he packed in the crowds at Thessaloniki's Kaftantzoglio stadium, where his performances earned him the moniker of 'the footballing Nureyev'. However, the reason he gave for his fancy footwork was simple enough. "When I see defenders in front of me, I want to dribble around every one of them," he once said.
Born to Greek immigrants to the USSR in October 1954, he was spotted by Pakhtakor, a club in Tashkent (now Uzbekistan). They wanted to invest in this raw yet refined player, but the law was strict: he had to apply for Soviet citizenship to be eligible for the Soviet top flight. After much pressure from Pakhtakor officials, Hatzipanagis's parents finally acceded to the request.
Their son made his professional debut at the age of 17, and was soon called into the USSR's Under-19 squad. He graduated to the senior squad, without playing a game, and represented the Soviet Union in the 1976 Olympic qualifying tournament. However, despite being told by national coach Konstantin Beskov that his ability was "way above Greece's level", he turned his back on the Soviet league - where as a left-sided attacker he was considered second only to the great Oleg Blokhin - to move to the land of his fathers.
Hatzipanagis signed for the Thessaloniki club Iraklis, and such was his reputation that he filled the stadium for his first match in December 1975. The Iraklis fans would be the reason this exceptional talent never joined another team. Despite interest from S.S. Lazio, Arsenal FC, FC Porto and VfB Stuttgart, the club's board feared the consequences of selling the crowd favourite. So Hatzipanagis stayed at Iraklis until 1990 and made a farewell appearance in a friendly against Valencia CF in October 1991 - his 37th birthday.
Another highlight for Hatzipanagis was his only appearance for the Greek national side, in a friendly against Poland at the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium in May 1976. The Athens crowd were bewitched by the long-haired wonder, who seemed to do whatever he wanted with the ball. Afterwards, however, Hatzipanagis was notified that he was ineligible for international duty having played for the USSR at junior levels.
Further recognition did come in June 1984, when he was invited to join a World XI featuring Franz Beckenbauer, Mario Kempes, Kevin Keegan and Dominque Rocheteau, for a match against New York Cosmos in New York. And then, in 2004, he was selected as Greece's Golden Player of the past 50 years. Now aged 50, Hatzipanagis said: "It is very touching to see that you are not forgotten, that your contribution is appreciated even after so many years."
He added: "I regret not having been able to wear the Greek national jersey more than once. And I regret not having made a career abroad. I would have liked to play in a better league, to have enjoyed football at that level. If I could turn back the clock, I would do some things differently."