Monday 3 January was warm and bright. Ulysses, Odysseus, died. If there is god, then Ulysses Kokkinos was on-side that day.
The man who entertained a generation of fans, on and off the football field, my friend, was dead. I got the call just before midday. It stopped me. Shock and denial. It couldn’t be. Could it?
Sorrow rose from the pit of my stomach. I closed the office door, broke to my knees, and wept. Ulysses an extraordinary footballer and a great South Hellas person. It was only a few days earlier we had talked about meeting up – something we once did so casually, had been monstered by COVID-19 and lockdowns over the last two years.
I pulled myself together and readied for a day of phone calls from friends, many part of the SMFC family. We shared stories. And partly in the hope that Ulysses could hear us. We wanted to assure him that he was greatly loved and respected. Ulysses’ journey is over. I hope god –all the gods – have made space for him.
Odysseus’ charm was contagious, it left people lighter. His love of football was equal to his love of people. He was a product of another time. A post-war Greece was emerging, but still poor. Like his namesake Odysseus, he took the opportunity to leave for a new life on the other side of his world.
Ulysses and his family were refugees. They fled from Turkey for Greece during the second series of pogroms against Greeks in 1964. Between 1964–1965 discriminatory measures issued by the authorities of the Republic of Turkey resulted in the forced expulsion of 30,000 Greeks from Istanbul.
As a teen in Greece his football skills quickly rose to the surface. There is no doubt a path existed for him in European football. In 1968 when he returned to Greece for a period, he signed for Panathinaikos, then in its halcyon period under the legendary Hungarian footballer, Ferenc Puskas.
For Ulysses Europe was not enough. At the age of sixteen he became a stowaway in a ship headed for Australia. The Patris carried a cargo of migrants, Greeks, Yugoslavs, and Italians for Australia’s factories.
Ulysses hid in bowels of the ship, packed tight in the third-class migrants’ cabins. A sixteen-year-old stowaway, with no passport, no money, and not even a change of clothes was bound for a distant world, different to anything he knew.
He left his family for a monumental change of life. When I think back to when I was sixteen, my focus was on sneaking back home late without my parents waking.
The Patris docked in Fremantle, where Ulysses jumped ship armed with an address of a kindly Greek who provided him a change of clothes and a one-way train ticket to Melbourne.
Melbourne was the new home to a growing Greek immigrant community. It was in Melbourne that he found a welcome space in South Melbourne Hellas. Ulysses soon established himself as one of the most enigmatic forwards in Australian football.
He grabbed the hearts of Hellas supporters, new migrants crowding poor inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. Football for them was more than sport, or entertainment. It was essential in developing community wellbeing, a time out of time, as they toiled day in day out to carve a life in a new world.
Ulysses’ story is well documented, I won’t recount his football feats. However, it is worth highlighting some achievements during his time with Hellas. Ulysses Kokkinos scored, 15 State League goals in his first full season in 1967 and won the club’s Golden Boot, in 1970 he scored another seven goals and won a joint South Melbourne Hellas Golden Boot with Armstrong and David Gorrie. With Ulysses Hellas won the Ampol Cup in 1970, the Dockerty Cup 1974, and 1975, and became State League Champions 1974. He was also Victorian representative on many occasions.
Odysseus was good at making friends, Jim Pyrgolios, John Daperis and Jimmy Armstrong were some of his closest. During a short stint at Heidelberg Utd, he added to his caravan of friends, such as, Gary Cole, George Katsakis and more.
The community of football was his family. The world that got the best of his personality.
He was also a father and a grandfather. When his son John died in Perth last year darkness came and settled, and Ulysses was never the same again.
He had his dalliances, demons, and struggles. He lived life to the full. There is a reason Ulysses was often referred to as ‘the George Best of Australian soccer’. His was a young and adored bon vivant in the sexual revolution that marked 1970s.
Women flocked around him, and men wished they were him. The Sunday Observer described him as “Dark haired, brown-eyed and beautifully proportioned.” At 25, he publicly condemned a ruling by the VFL that banned players from having sex 24 hours before a game, describing it as “ridiculous” and saying it was likely to make players play badly. He had as one of his teammates said, “a colourful personality.”
Ulysses had looks and charm and was brilliant on the field. He bathed everyone with his glow. He always greeted friends with a hug, then broke into a huge smile. He looked directly into your eyes to build connection.
The last time I saw him was at the FFA Cup match between South Melbourne and Melbourne City. I hosted him in the corporate room.
Old as he was, he was young again, talking, hugging old friends and supporters. Ulysses was happiest and at his best at South Melbourne, with the club and the people he loved, and loved him back.
Every time we lose someone, a fragment of our past dies along with them. With Ulysses Kokkinos a generation of football goes with him. Odysseus’ loved football and loved life.
My dear friend you will be deeply missed.
Peter Kokotis is a Board Director of South Melbourne Football Club (SMFC) and contributes commentary on football across media. He was a dear friend of Ulysses (Odysseus) Kokkinos.