A Turkish sports hero. The son of a Greek fisherman. The footballer who balanced two supposedly incompatible national identities.
A few days before the COVID-19 pandemic sent Greece and most of Europe into lockdown, a different crisis was unfolding alongside the Greek-Turkish border. Turkey’s President Erdogan had decided to withdraw from the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’ which was agreed to stop refugees from coming to Greece’s islands in 2016. Within hours, thousands of people had gathered at Greek border posts, hoping — in vain — that they would be allowed safe passage to Europe.
This was just another of a long series of spats between Greece and Turkey in recent months. The newspaper front pages that hang from Athens’ iconic kiosks had a reference to Erdogan almost every day as the two countries’ governments stoked tensions. Not even a pandemic has stopped this: several Greek media outlets falsely claimed this weekend that now Erdogan was planning to use refugees as some sort of biological weapon, sending those infected by the new coronavirus to islands like Lesvos.
The conflict between Greece and Turkey has spanned their modern states’ entire history and dominates their national myths. Even the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that amazing caricature of the Greek migrant diaspora, makes a point of this through Aunt Voula’s and Yiayia’s (grandma) negative references to Turks. Both countries fought for their independence against each other, a century apart, and — like so many countries — defined themselves in opposition to their neighbours.
One of the most intense chapters of this history came in 1922, soon after the Turkish National Movement had secured a decisive military victory against Greek forces and their allies. Greece proposed a “compulsory exchange of Greek and Turkish populations,” a proposition welcomed by both the architects of the new, future Turkish state, but also the League of Nations. In the ashes of the multiethnic mosaic that was the Ottoman Empire, all Orthodox Christians were deemed to be Greeks, all Muslims were Turks. Millions of people became refugees, some sent to a land where they didn’t speak the native tongue. Some were excluded, notably the Greeks of Istanbul. Among them was Hristo Andonyadis, a fisherman on the island of Büyükada.
Lefter was born to Hristo and his wife Argiro in 1925, one of eleven children. His height gave him the nickname ‘küçük‘ (small), which became an integral part of his name.
Lefter left the island and at 13 was playing within the youth setup of Taksim SK, the namesake of Istanbul’s famous square in Beyoglu. At 18 he left Taksim for a three-and-a-half year military service. World War II was raging at the time, but Lefter — like all other Turkish troops — never saw a battlefield. Turkey remained neutral until 1945 when it declared war on Nazi Germany and Japan in order to join the United Nations. Soon after, in 1947, Lefter took his uniform off and wore the one that would make him famous: the blue and yellow of Istanbul’s Fenerbahçe Spor Kulübü.
Any discomfort among fans for having a Christian, or Greek, lead their team’s attack within the young Turkish republic were quickly dispelled by his talent. He went on to score 38 goals in 55 appearances for Fenerbahçe in four years, before trying his luck abroad at Fiorentina and Nice and coming back to Fenerbahçe for another eleven years, 140 goals and 245 appearances. His achievements, which include four top-tier Turkish league titles, justify the widespread belief that he was the best ever player in Turkey’s game.
Now known as Ordinaryüs, the “professor of professors,” Lefter was quickly called up to the Turkish national team, wearing his nation’s shirt 46 times and scoring 21 goals. Two of the most famous ones came in 1954 at the FIFA World Cup. He scored Turkey’s second in a 7-0 win against South Korea, followed by a late consolation goal during a 7-2 play-off defeat against that year’s champions West Germany. Lefter also played in the 1948 Olympics, scoring a late goal to seal Turkey’s 4-0 win over China before a 3-1 quarter-final defeat to eventual silver medalists Yugoslavia.
In 1948, Turkey travelled to Greece for a friendly match. Lefter helped his side record a 1-3 away win with a 20th minute goal. Some Greek fans angrily shouted at him, calling him a ‘traitor to the nation.’
Back at Fenerbahçe and a few months after scoring Turkey’s equaliser in a Mediterranean Cup match against Italy, Lefter was at home when the Istanbul pogrom began on 6 September 1955. A fake news story made the rounds that Greeks had bombed the house where Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk was born in Thessaloniki and soon mobs were attacking Istanbul’s Greek community for two days. Ten years later, around half of that community had fled the city.
Not even Lefter Küçükandonyadis could escape the wrath of these mobs and found himself hiding inside his house to escape the violence. A group gathered outside yelling “hit that kafir (infidel)!” Meanwhile, Lefter was hiding behind his door with a gun. He escaped the violence unscathed, even though his house was damaged. Fenerbahçe fans stood between the mob and Lefter’s family. He felt betrayed though, as he saw children who he had helped financially among the assailants. Lefter never gave any of his attackers up to the authorities. Later, he told a journalist that “they were carrying me around on shoulders when I scored fifteen days ago, that day, I encountered rocks and paint cans.”
Many believed that the pogrom’s aftermath would convince Lefter to abandon Istanbul. Two months later, when he visited Greece, the daily sports newspaper Athlitiki Iho demanded that “janissary Lefter should leave Greece!” (using the term used to describe the Ottoman Empire’s elite infantry recruited among Christians.) “His visit provoked general indignation and his appearance in a Greek stadium repulsion” the newspaper wrote of Lefter, who “completely forgot and always betrayed his origins.”
Lefter didn’t leave his club and town in 1955. A month later he added another goal to his national team tally, this time against Portugal, and the year after he scored twice as Turkey beat Puskas’ famous Hungary 3-1. Over the next few years he won two Istanbul leagues, three national titles and a league top scorer title.
Lefter eventually did move to Greece in 1964, when his long career for Fenerbahçe and Turkey was over. Thinking that he was signing an autograph, he was duped into signing a contract for AEK Athens, a team itself founded in 1924 by Greeks who fled Istanbul. He played five matches, scoring two goals, before an injury cut his time at AEK short.
He then coached Athens’ club Egaleo — the reason he had gone to Greece in the first place — for a brief while, followed by a season as manager in South Africa and short stints at seven Turkish clubs. Somewhere in between, Lefter played some more matches for Fenerbahçe at age 46, helping his club deal with a shortage of playing staff due to injuries and bans. Lefter quit football for good because his fear of flying stopped him from travelling to Izmir for an away game. Soon after he retired from management too, in 1972.
Lefter was a living legend for fans in Turkey. Fenerbahçe’s fans chanted his name long after his career was over and his statue welcomes supporters and visitors to the club’s home Şükrü Saracoğlu stadium. When he passed away on 13 January 2012, the entire nation joined in grief for their hero. 10,000 people took part in the funeral ceremony at the Şükrü Saracoğlu. Fenerbahçe fans were joined by their great rivals from Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor. Erdogan, then Prime Minister, was also there. Lefter was buried a few days later on his island’s Orthodox Christian cemetery.
Reading through stories in Greek media from that time, I was struck by an anecdote that featured in many of them. Lefter wore a cross around his neck and under his Turkish national team shirt, according to these articles, and he would reveal it over the shirt during the anthem. “He was the only one who could do it,” boasted one of the writers.
There is no way to verify whether this was indeed true. But 90 years after the population exchange, the media were still using religion as the ultimate symbol of whether he was ‘ours’ or ‘theirs.’ The image of a Greek living under Turkish rule performing little acts of resistance for his faith and his nation is commonplace among the Greek nation’s mythology.
Lefter himself hated interviews and refused to address such questions from the Greek media over the years. After his death, the following quote was widely attributed to him in the Greek press: “I know that, when I die, they will cover my coffin with the red crescent, but my heart will be blue with a cross.” There is no reference online to this quote on any article that predates Lefter’s death.
Lefter did have to balance two seemingly contradictory identities, Turkish and Rum (Greek), throughout his life. A traitor for some in Greece, an infidel for some in Turkey, from threat to hero, to threat and then hero again.
Thousands of descendants of those excluded from the population exchange, like Lefter’s father was, still live in Greece and Turkey. On the Greek side, the Muslim minority of Western Thrace is one of the country’s most marginalised groups. Suspicions about their ‘true allegiance’ extend to football. Xanthi F.C., a club based in Thrace, has a provision banning Turkish ownership within its statutes. Earlier this year, a member of Greece’s Professional Sports Committee wrote that Greek Muslims could help Fenerbahçe’s President buy Xanthi. She went on to attack a decision to allow Turkish lessons in the area’s schools as a step towards “integrating our Thrace to [Turkey’s] sphere of influence and finally her sovereignty!” That member was not writing a nationalist pamphlet — this was all part of a Committee judgment on multi-club ownership involving Xanthi and PAOK.
Even those who had to make the journey to a new home across the Aegean Sea were faced with suspicion, discrimination and hostility. Class, cultural and linguistic differences overshadowed what refugees and locals had in common, with those already in Greece questioning the ‘Greekness’ of those who arrived. Fans of AEK Athens, the club founded by these refugees, are called ‘Turks’ by their opponents to this day.
On the other side of the border, Ekrem İmamoğlu had to face accusations that he was ‘Greek’ on the campaign trail to become Istanbul’s new mayor. The Mayor’s response was to dismiss his opponents and say “you cannot insult someone over ethnic identity.” Looking back at the times of the Ottoman Empire, the boundaries of these ethnic identities were blurred — the architects of the population exchange knew this well, which is why they stuck to religion rather than ancestry to define their new nations.
The greatest Turkish football player of all time, the professor of professors, was one of the very few people within Greece or Turkey who managed to overcome this divide.
The 2018-19 edition of the Turkish Süper Lig was named after Lefter. That season, his beloved Fenerbahçe ended sixth and missed out on European football.