Dimitrios “Mimis” Papaioannou, the football legend who in recent years suffered from serious health problems, has passed at the age of 80.
With a career spanning decades his impact on the game in Greece can’t be understated.
The paragon was recognised by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics in 1999 as the country’s leading footballer of the 20th century.
Beginning his career at his home region of Imathia’s Veria FC in 1959, he was signed by AEK in 1962 for what was then an unheard-of amount, a staggering 175 thousand drachmas.
While his contributions to the sport in the motherland were undeniably great, his tenure in Australia with Western Suburbs ‘Panhellenic’ left diaspora fans with memories they wouldn’t forget.
Speaking with Neos Kosmos, Dimitris Tsabasidis, former president of Panhellenic, who once met the great as a young teen and later organised for him to play in Melbourne; explained how it was he came to know the Greek champ.
“I had an uncle who lived in Papaioannou’s home village of Braniata (now Nea Nikomedeia). One time I’d gone there with my older siblings to help my uncle collect cotton, that was the first time I met Mimis,” he explained.
“A football game had been organised and my uncle arranged for me to join in.”
“When I did there was this guy who was incredibly skilled, the way he played made me want to stick close to him… he’s was reason I became an AEK supporter, he was Mimis Papaioannou,” Tsabasidis said.
That was the pair’s first and only meeting in their youth; but it left a lasting impression.
From that time on, as a young man Tsabasidis would eagerly follow the emergent player’s exploits through newspaper reports, from his appearances with Veria FC through his 17-year career with AEK.
Papaioannou first played in Australia with the Greek national team in 1969, when the Greeks defeated Australia 2-0 in a friendly game at Melbourne’s Olympic Park Stadium, scoring a goal which left him deified.
But it was in 1979, Papaioannou’s final year with AEK, that Dimitris Tsabasidis organised for the legend to come to Australia and compete with Panhellenic.
“He played 23 official games with us in those weeks… and he left fans speechless.”
During his time in the country Papaioannou lived with Tsabasidis and his wife, in that time the two became close.
Tsabasidis recalled in his conversation with Neos Kosmos a story the late Papaioannou shared with him during his stay, concerning his career break in 1965.
“Ferenc Puskás who was a legend with Real Madrid in those years, he suggested to Real’s management that they sign Mimis on.”
“But Mimis, he didn’t take it up… AEK management told him ‘if you leave, the fans will go ballistic.”
He says Papaioannou described a similar series of events which transpired during his visit to Germany in 1965, when he was moonlighting as a vocalist performing to the country’s Greek immigrant community alongside renowned Laïkó singer Stelios Kazantzidis.
“You may not know this but one of the main reasons he went was to earn some extra money for his sister’s wedding… so Kazantzidis said to him, come along we’ll perform together, you’ll make enough to cover it.”
“But while he was there Bayern Munich tried to poach him! When AEK management caught wind they pleaded with him, they said if you leave we won’t be able to deal with the fans, they’ll lose it.”
“And so, to get him back on side they upped his pay so he could help with the wedding, when he was here in ’79 he confided in me, he said ‘Dimitris that year I made the most money in my life.”
And so Papaioannou returned to Athens, AEK and to his greatest love, football.
Over 17 consecutive seasons with AEK, Papaioannou won five first division National championships in 1963, ’68, ’71, ’78, and ’79 and three Greek cups 1964, ’66 and ’78.
The side’s two-time top scorer in 1964 and ’66, he was an integral part of the team’s two European cup runs, the 1968-69 European Cup and the 1976-77 UEFA Cup.
After 480 league matches with AEK, he retired from the sport in Greece, with 234 goals under his belt. A record not broken until AEK striker Thomas Mavros raised the bar 11 years later.
A short stint with the New York Pancyprian-Freedoms followed between 1979 and 1982, with 11 appearances and five goals, soon after he ended his football career at the age of 40.
Tsabasidis told Neos Kosmos he was “saddened to hear that Mimis couldn’t appear at the opening of AEK’s new stadium last year, but as we know he’d been battling dementia for some time.”
AEK Athens FC released a statement following the great’s passing on 15 March.
“The AEK family mourns the loss of the great Mimis Papaiooannou, who passed away at the age of 80,” it read.
“The greatest football player in the history of our team has passed into eternity, having struggled for years with serious health problems.”
Arguably one of the greatest of all time, his loss will be felt by fans at home and across the diaspora.
As Tsabasidis puts it, “he wasn’t just a great player, he was a gentleman and a half.”