Giorgos Sideris: An Olympiacos and Greek Great

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Giorgos Sideris was born in Piraeus, Greece on 4 April 1938. The youngest in a family of nine, Giorgos had a difficult childhood. In 1940, shortly after his birth and the commencement of World War Two, Italy declared war on Greece eventually leading to Axis occupation shared amongst Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. With nine mouths to feed, the Sideris family regularly grew accustomed with going to sleep hungry. Even when World War Two ultimately came to an end, another bitter civil war had erupted in Greece.

The fighting finally came to a stop in 1949, when Sideris was 11-years-old. By this point, he was firmly occupied in assisting his father to provide for his family in a war-torn economy. His father was a street-based greengrocer in the Agios Ioannis Rentis suburb of Piraeus. Giorgos helped his dad pull heavy carts of fruit and veg in often-poorly-built portable stands. He’d also find other odd-jobs — anything that paid to put food in his family’s mouths — In addition to helping his father: “I will have to sit for hours telling you what work I have done for survival,” he would later recall.

Wrestling Over Football?

Unlike the tales of Maradona, Messi and the like, where they seem to have been born with the ball at their feet, Sideris’ rise to footballing stardom saw a delay. With the ongoing wars during his childhood, Sideris’ mother thought best to keep him out of the streets and in the safety of indoors. Thus, he did not develop an affinity for the game at an early age. Though he enjoyed playing football with his older brothers at home, it was wrestling Giorgos enjoyed most.

Shortly after the civil war ended, Giorgos took up wrestling with interest. Taking part regularly in wrestling competitions, along with helping his dad push and pull heavy carts loaded with fresh produce daily, gradually built his stature “into one of a boxer.” He attributed his time spent wrestling to the development of a lack of fear of being hit: there was a reason his nickname was The Bulldozer. Despite the aggressive-sounding moniker, Sideris only ever received one red card in his career — a 1961 friendly in the incredibly wholesome-named ‘Christmas Cup’ against AEK Athens. Funnily enough, the backlash from fans to Sideris’ dismissal was so bad that the referee needed to leave so the match could continue.

Despite his affinity to wrestling, he had an incredible talent for football at a young age. When he was 15, one of his local teams midfielder, Atromitos Piraeus, fell ill on the morning of a match. Giorgos was asked by the coach, on recommendation of his older brother, to fill the spot.

Filling A Spot

The young Greek refused because he had no footwear for the game. But, his coach offered him a pair of his own. Giorgos produced such an impressive display that the Atromitos hierarchy decided on signing the youngster immediately. “Keep the shoes,” he was told by his new coach.

Giorgos began his youth career playing in the centre of midfield. However, his coaches soon became aware of his goalscoring capabilities. He quickly found a home further up the field with his position firmly settled as a striker. After five years of juggling his youth team career with helping his father’s vegetable stand, Giorgos was promoted to the senior team. It was a steep rise to the highest division of Greek football.

In an outstanding debut season in which Sideris became the fulcrum of Atromitos’ attack, the youngster’s direct, no-holding-back attacking style plundered 28 goals in 30 league appearances. Alongside his impressive first season, he received a national team call up where he made his debut in a 1–1 draw against France. His goals had saved Atromitos from relegation as they finished a disappointing 7th (out of 8) in their regional league. But the cat was out of the bag; they were in possession of a talented young striker.

Giorgos Sideris: Olympiacos’ Prolific Frontman

As interest rose, Giorgos Sideris had his heart set on a move to Panathinaikos. But Savvas Theodoridis, a friend of his, had ushered him towards Olympiacos, fresh off winning their sixth consecutive league title. Olympiacos were keen to continue their domestic dominance. Despite resistance to the move from Sideris himself, the Atromitos president Skordilis had received an offer too good to refuse and forced the move. The youngster reluctantly joined the Erythrolefki, and in return, five Olympiacos players went to Atromitos.

Despite his averseness, Sideris was a professional and kicked off the newly formed Alpha Ethniki league with Olympiacos. But by all accounts, he had an underwhelming debut season. Expectations were high, but 10 goals in 28 league appearances was bettered by his strike partner Elias Yfantis (16).

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The Greek outfit also faced AC Milan in the preliminary rounds of the European Cup. Despite holding Milan to a 2–2 draw in the first leg — where manager Bruno Vale gave Sideris his European debut — they exited the competition after a 3–1 defeat in the second leg.

Things didn’t much improve domestically. Unfortunately for Sideris and the Olympiacos faithful, this is when their eternal enemies, Panathinaikos, ramped up a gear. The emergence of Mimis Domazos, who would go on to become one of the greatest Greek players of all time, and the fading influence of Thanasis Bebis at Olympiacos, who had played a large role in Olympiacos’s aforementioned six consecutive titles — allowed Panathinaikos to usurp the holders to the title for the first time since 1953.

AC Milan Interested

A Greek Cup final victory in which Sideris contributed a goal to a 3–0 win over Panathinaikos softened the pain. Still, much of the focus remained on Mimis Domazos and Panathinaikos’s growing stature. Despite the title staying in Athens with Panathinaikos over the following two seasons, Sideris registered 40 goals in 52 appearances. Sideris became known for his bravery, throwing himself at every opportunity, and running head-down into duels. More often than not, he would get up unscathed, either winning the ball or scoring a goal in the process.

He began attracting interest from abroad. But a potential move to AC Milan in 1962 was blocked by Olympiacos because he was far too valuable to be sold. Giorgos stayed put, AC Milan went on to win the European Cup that year. The league title remained in Athens — surprisingly though, to a Kostas Nestoridis-inspired AEK, rather than Panathinaikos. Another two league titles to Panathinaikos in 63/64 and 64/65 — the former being an invincible season — created a six-year drought for Olympiacos. Thankfully though, for Sideris and the fans, one man was about to change the team’s fortunes: Márton Bukovi.

Bukovi, who represented the great Ferencvárosi side of the 1920s, and later played a significant part in the success of the Mighty Magyars, was a Hungarian manager with an established pedigree when he signed to manage Olympiacos in 1965. His pragmatic approach and focus on defensive solidity brought the next two titles back to Piraeus with Olympiacos to immediate success. Despite a more defensive-minded system, Giorgos still found the back of the net 43 times during the two title-winning seasons — securing his second domestic golden boot in the process.

Grass Not Always Greener

Choosing to end on a high, Bukovi retired after that second title win and without the famed Hungarian’s tactical nous, the league flew back to Athens with AEK. By this point, Sideris was beginning to want out of Olympiacos — feeling underappreciated by his employers. In 1968/69, he routinely dropped hints to the media about wanting to experience football “in different European atmospheres” whilst simultaneously having the most impressive season of his career. He scored an incredible 35 goals in 34 league appearances whilst leading Olympiacos to the Greek Cup Final with a further 9 goals in 4. Incidentally Olympiacos ‘lost’ the final (to Panathinaikos) via a coin toss after extra-time failed to separate the two sides.

Sideris won the European silver shoe that season, finishing one goal behind the Bulgarian, Petar Zhekov. Despite his best efforts, no move ever materialised in the summer of ’69, and the following season started poorly coupled with him gaining considerable weight during his time off. Those subpar performances eventually led to the Greek falling out of favour and was at times entirely left out of the match-day squad. On 7 November 1969, during a national team break, Giorgos Sideris had finally had enough. He decided to make two phone calls. One to his wife, and the other to the offices of the newspaper ‘Athletic Echo.’

He began by telling journalists: “I take my hat [off] and [would like] to leave Olympiacos as a gentleman. I have no complaints nor do I hold any grudges but I’m capable of playing a few more years, and I will certainly continue my football career elsewhere.”

Despite Giorgos beginning the call stating he had no complaints; he indicated his ire with Olympiacos and how they handled his weight problem.

Leaving As A Gentleman

“That is why I will ask for a transfer. Olympiacos paid 30,000 Drachmas to acquire me, and since then, I have played for ten glorious years. Which footballer is in constant shape? I admit I am out of shape. Couldn’t they give me time? My humiliation became public, and I am demoralised as a footballer. This is unacceptable to me because no matter how it is, I am Sideris with a great story at Olympiacos. This story has tarnished and hurt me a lot, but it does not matter. I wish Olympiacos always wins and lets me go somewhere else to find solace.”

A couple of months later, Sideris’ wish rung true. He became one of the first Greek footballers to be transferred abroad as he left for newly-promoted Royal Antwerp in Belgium. But in a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, Sideris hated his time abroad, vehemently disliking the weather as well as the “casual” footballing culture. His solitary year in Belgium brought seven goals in 25 appearances whilst helping the Antwerp side avoid relegation. Within a year, Sideris was back at Olympiacos.

Now 33, Giorgos was approaching retirement. Yves Triantafyllos had become Olympiacos’ main goalscoring threat, and thus Sideris’ influence was minimal in his final campaign. His second debut arrived late into the season, on 6 February 1972, in a 3–2 win over Panachaiki in which Sideris contributed two goals. Fittingly, it was the eternal derby where Sideris made his final appearance, coming on as a 55th-minute substitute in place of Giotis Papadimitriou. Unfortunately, he failed to make a difference and the game finished 0–0.

Giorgos Sideris, Record-Holder

Giorgos Sideris remains Olympiacos’s highest goal scorer in history with 224 goals in 285 appearances. After an incredible career The Bulldozer, one of the all-time greats of Greek football, finally hung up his boots in 1972. Fortunately, that same year, other greats were emerging. Vasilis Hatzipanagis, coined The Greek Maradona, had begun his career in Uzbekistan, and Thomas Mavros, soon to be the Greek League’s all-time top scorer, was finding his footing at Panionios, before lighting up the league. The 1960s and ’70s produced Greece’s most talented crop of footballers and the era began with, arguably, the most impressive of the lot: Giorgos Sideris.

Words by – @ProbsLeeAlves