In Turkey, there was one player last century who truly stood head and shoulders above all others, and he was just 169 cm tall. He wasn’t just a great player; he was able to absorb significant pressures off the pitch. He was the scorer of 506 goals in 752 matches; then there was 21 goals for his national team from 46 matches, captaining Turkey nine times. He was that good, that a statue of him can be found outside the Fenerbahçe Stadium. Oh yeah, this player, well he was a Greek. Lefter Küçükandonyadis.
I could leave the article at that and let his stats and name tell the story, for a Greek in the middle part of twentieth century Turkey was not the most comfortable place to be. Have family. Say goodbye to the family thanks to the policies such as the 1942-44 Wealth Tax (Varlık Vergis), which technically broke the secular Turkish constitution forcing thousands of Greeks, Armenians and Jews to leave. Have friends. Watch them leave too, especially after the 1955 pogrom in Constantinople (Istanbul). Lefter had to watch his family of ten siblings leave for Greece, a country that they were not born in. His father, a fisherman, refused to leave. What tax can a government official place on a fish?
Lefteris Antoniadis or Lefter as he was known in Turkey, was born on the island of Buyukada; the island is one of nine that sit in the Sea of Marmara, which was taken by the Ottomans in April 1453, When Lefter was born, just two years after the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922, and 12 months after the sad population exchange between the two countries, the main Turkish city in Europe was still a culturally diverse city, a place where a young Lefter could worship in a Greek Orthodox church and speak his native Greek language. At the same time, he would be welcomed by Turkish friends and learn the language of his country, Turkey. Yes, he had dual identities, in the same way many migrants do worldwide, except he was no migrant. He grew up mixing with Turks and Greeks. He understood that it was tough being Greek, but there was value in treating everyone with respect, no matter what their apparent origins were; for a Greek in Turkey, their origins were in Turkey.
Fast forward to 1948, the second season of playing with the powerhouse Fenerbahçe, and a young Lefter was called up to the national team. At this stage, there remained about 70,000 people who identified as Greeks of Turkey. Every single one of them would have been proud. At the national level he showed what he did best on the domestic platform; a graceful player who played well enough to remain in the national team until 1963. He also scored two goals at the 1954 World Cup.
The Bleacher Report news site indicates that he may have played 55 times for Turkey, which would also include the Olympics. What is even more exceptional is that there was far less internationals in that era. He was also the superhero of an international match one day when he led his teammates to an improbable win over the best team in the world, Hungary. The great Hungarians were led by the Wayne Rooney of the day, Ferenc Puskas. Scoring two goals. The Greek player was celebrated by the whole country. The Turkish national association would go on to recognise him by awarding him the Golden Honor Medal for 50 matches representing the country. He was the first player to attain that feat.
Fenerbahçe. When former leading players are no longer automatic choices in the Premier League, their agents usually tout Fenerbahçe, which is a massive sporting club. The city and team sit on the Asia side of the Sea of Marmara. Close enough for a young Lefter to be near his island and make trips home if he felt the need.
In 1947, the young Greek had his first stint with the team. Lefter left the home fans in awe, as he consistently played like a future national star. He spent four years with them, before leaving to play in Italy with Fiorentina in 1951-52, one of the first times a player from Turkey took the chance to play elsewhere. The following season he played in France in th the Greek established city of Nice before a return to Fenerbahçe for a further 11 years.
During those years the attacking forward won a number of individual football awards including top scorer on three occasions and a number of trophies for his team. This included Super Lig three times, National Division, Istanbul Football League three times and the Ataturk Cup.
Fans loved the talented goal scorer. Whenever a match would start they would chant his name. They would sing themselves hoarse as he is included in the club anthem. They had many chants that ended up in hero worship.
By 1964 after an emotional farewell to his team, Lefter made his way to AEK Athens, which had its origins from Constantinople. He finished his career in Athens before coaching the Greek team Egaleo in 1965. For the next seven years, he managed many teams in Turkey and Johannesburg in South Africa, with moderate success.
Lefter Küçükandonyadis’ success and his captivating style of play have endeared him to Turkish football fans. He was truly a great. To his dying day, he lived on his island of birth and in Athens, according to writer Ariana Ferentinou. In 2012 he passed away at the age of 87. The Fenerbahçe football stadium came alive with thousands of fans representing different clubs attending to offer they’re thanks to Ordinaryüs (distinguished professor). The 2018 – 19 football season was named the Süper Lig Lefter Küçükandonyadis in his honour.
A Turkish researcher highlighted that due to the Wealth Tax during World War 2, Armenians Jews and Greeks were meant to pay up to several times what they made in tax! A disturbing policy on every level for reasons I do need to outline. Yet Lefter was an asset, he was a good man, a champion; wealthy in every way possible as a human being. His spirit and abilities were priceless, beyond any heinous tax. Just have a look at his statue in Turkey. Just look at what he meant to Turkish football.
Note on goals and games, it is likely he played in more matches and scored more goals. Not all statistics have been counted including some European competition and domestic games.
*Billy Cotsis has ancestry from Asia Minor and Lesvos. He believes in a genuine friendship, peace and a lasting conversation with Turkey, though, not at the expense of the past.