Written by Keith Whitelock
This article was originally published in 2018
People need to stop using our game for their own personal gain.
Anyone reading this article has at least a passing interest in rugby league. Some readers have been avid fans their whole life, showing up to games, sharing in triumphs and bad times with the rugby league club you follow. A lesser but still significant percentage of readers may even play the game on a weekly basis, showing up to your local ground and playing the game with teammates who have since gone on to become friends. How far would you go to play the game you love? Would you play at 1am in the morning if this was the only time available at your local ground? Would you risk being arrested by police to have the feeling of breaking through that defensive line, wind blowing in your hair as the sound of chasing footsteps sound in your periphery? This sounds like a farfetched situation posing a completely hypothetical question however this is the reality currently facing rugby league players in Greece.
For context and perspective, we need to go back three years to 2015 where the sport in Greece was run by the Hellenic Rugby League Federation under the stewardship of Anastasios “Tasos” Pantazidis. After a year of questionable decisions, including allegations of financial indiscretions, four of the active five clubs signed a motion of no confidence against the then president of the organisation. In the ensuing squabble, one of these clubs backed down, leading to the breakaway of the other three clubs to go on and form their own competition.
It’s April 2015 and players, along with coaches and other people associated with this new competition sign a petition for the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) to step in and take action. Numbering more than 100 signatories, the RLEF agrees to open an investigation in to the rapidly escalating situation. Pantazidis, as president of the organisation in question, is quick to label this breakaway competition as “rebels”. The real name of the organisation became the aptly named Greek Rugby League Association and is headed up by experienced referee George Stilianos.
Everything Rugby League spoke with George who is aware how crazy this situation would seem to the average rugby league fan around the world. “They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I think this is the perfect example of that” says George. “Even sitting here… it all sounds just too far-fetched!”
Moving back to May 2015, the RLEF set their sights on mediating a resolution between the two organisations, investigating the causes that led things to get to this stage. Around this time, Pantazidis attends the RLEF Annual General Meeting in Belgrade, as he is entitled, to represent Greece as the recognised organisation at the time.
As the months go by, the original Hellenic Rugby League Federation start to struggle for playing numbers, having to forfeit their Euro Group C match against Malta. Things become slightly better for the HRLF as they manage to field a team for their match at home to Spain. The team struggled for cohesion, going down 76-4, with some positions needing to be filled by Rugby Union players who have never played rugby league before.
Initially, rugby league benefited from Pantazidis experience in the ministry of sport, having access to a good network to help the game grow. Now that there are two competitions, this key standing threatened to halt the progress of the game, as Pantazidis is speculated to be behind a campaign to deter venues from hosting any games associated with the GRLA (the rebel league). This is when the infamous happened. In what is quite possibly a world record for the latest kick-off to a game of rugby league, players took to the field at 12:15am, having to wait for the local football teams to complete their games. It wasn’t until 1:47 am that the final whistle was blown between the Attica Rhinos and Rhodes Knights.
2016 rolls around and the now four team competition continues to play regular games whilst moves behind the scenes begin to have the GRLA registered as a legal entity in the Greek Courts.
Around this time as well, the matter escalates from the RLEF to the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF). RLIF CEO David Collier and RLEF Director of Central & Eastern Europe, Jovan Vujosevic visit Athens for an unannounced inspection visit, as both organisations are claiming to have regular Rugby League activity. The duo attends a GRLA match between the Aris Eagles and Rhodes Knights and are said to be impressed with the overall conduct of the match. The HFRL have two games scheduled for this same weekend which fail to eventuate, widely believed to be due to a lack of playing numbers.
In April 2016, the RLEF made its most drastic move yet, suspending the HFRL for “wilfully acting in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the RLEF and international rugby league”. Members of the RLEF voted 33-1 in favour of the resolution, while outlining plans to rehabilitate the sport in Greece.
One month later, Pantazidis. Sends out ‘notice of fine and suspension’ letters to all the players involved in filing the original complaint to the RLEF. The more severe ‘offenders’ are given five-figure monetary fines and decade-long bans from the sport.
It was around this time that Pantazidis became President of the Hellenic Federation of Modern Pentathlon. This helped to give authority of the sport of Rugby League to the Hellenic Federation of Modern Pentathlon.
By August 2016, the RLEF had formally expelled the HFRL, with Danny Kazandijan stating “We extended every opportunity to the HFRL to work together to ensure a transparent, collaborative approach to governance but, regrettably, there was no reciprocal will”.
At the end of 2016, the GRLA added a team from Patra, Greece’s third largest city. At this time, Rhodes hosts a tournament which is said to have attracted over 100 participants, including a Turkish XIII which played in an historic friendly. This proved to be the start of a relationship with Turkey which saw George and fellow Serbian colleague Radoslav Novakovic travel to Istanbul to conduct a match officials course as the inaugural Turkish Rugby League season was about to kick off.
February 2017 saw a landmark moment for the GRLA, with the Greek courts formally approving their application as a legal entity. This was shortly followed by another pivotal moment where the GRLA was granted Observer status by the RLEF. During this time, George travels to Istanbul to referee the Grand Final of the Turkish Rugby league.
On the back of a string of successful moments, the GRLA announces it plans to send a team to Serbia, solely made up on domestic players. Pantazidis strongly objected to these plans and decides to take the GRLA to court with the aim of preventing them playing under the Greek identity. This included the national anthem and colours. George also claims that Pantazidis also urged the court to warn participants of a one-year of house arrest and fines of €100,000, electing to represent the GRLA himself along with Aris Dardamanis.
The next month, the court rules against the motion set by the HRFL, paving the way for the GRLA to tour Serbia and represent Greece against both Serbia and Bulgaria.
March 2018 saw the GRLA progress through the RLEF levels again to be awarded Affiliate Member status as the domestic competitions add a fifth team, this time from the city of Larisa. A relatively consistent domestic scene enables the GRLA to send three teams to participate in the Balkan Super League, an international club competition consisting of teams from Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Greek teams hold their own, each gaining one win and one loss.
By now we are in May / June 2018. It was around this time that things started to get even nastier, as legal action is taken against venue owners around the country if they allow GRLA matches to be played. Police show up the 70th minute of a Balkan Super League match in Athens between the Attica Rhinos and Radnicki Nis of Serbia. Common sense partially prevails as the local authorities allow the teams to complete the final 10 minutes of the game as a representative from each club attends the police station for questioning and statements.
With the GRLA recognised by the RLEF as the authority to run rugby league in Greece, a team travels to Kharkiv, Ukraine to participate in 2021 Rugby League World Cup Qualifiers. They prevail 28-26.
Next came one of the more bizarre moments in the whole debacle as it was Greece’s turn to host a game in the World Cup Qualifiers, this time against Malta. Conscious of the current environment, the match is organised in top secret on the outskirts of Athens. Neither Malta staff nor Greek players were told where the match was being played, for fear of police intervention. Each team was given a meeting point and driven by bus to the venue with none of them knew the venue until they actually arrived there. The Greeks prevail again, beating Malta 60-4, a World Cup birth now in sight.
Not to be deterred, the 5 team domestic competition kicks off as planned with new participants AEL Larisa. During the time, legal action commences against the venue that staged the World Cup Qualifier between Greece and Malta. At this time, George Stilianos is summoned to local police station for questioning, specifically regarding a match that ‘allegedly’ happened in Larisa in April. If Greece beat Norway in May 2019, they find themselves just one stage before 2021 World Cup qualification.
It’s fair to say that situation has now reached crisis point, with GRLA players told not to upload any match photos and results of matches no longer being published for fear of legal action.
Now, at this stage of the article, you’re probably thinking one of two things (or both), this story is crazy, or “gee, this article is long”. Similar to a late-night infomercial, I say “but wait, there’s more”. Whilst all this was happening, Pantazidis also ran (and continues to run) a rebel international rugby league organisation in competitions to the RLIF (you know, the organisation that’s been running international rugby league since 1927). This organisation is called “World Rugby League”. A quick browse of the website raises eyebrows to say the least. Despite grossly incorrect claims that rugby league is a sport from ancient times, “3000 years old and still new”, the spelling and grammar would make a primary school English teacher fall off her chair.
As unprofessional and amateur as this website seems to be, the organisation did prove to cause damage to Rugby League’s application to the Global Association of International Sports Federations (formally known as sport accord). At the same time Pole Dancing, FootGolf and Kettlebell Lifting were accepted as Observer Sports, the RLIF application was declined. Later media reports published a combination of Rugby Union officials sitting a rival governing body along with GAISF “rival governing body clause” itself. 2018 saw common sense prevail with Rugby League being given Observer Status by GAISF but the debacle was a bad look for the game.
“World Rugby League” claims at least 14 member countries, including Brazil and Argentina. Robert Burgin of the Latin Heat states these claims are completely false. “We have contacted this organisation to see why they would try to white-ant the development of two nations which has been conducted over the past six years with great sacrifice and volunteer effort. They have no verifiable presence or financial investment in either Brasil or Argentina. All players and teams which have competed in rugby league in both nations are aligned with the RLIF, as is Latin Heat Rugby League, which assists staging and coordinating activities. Nobody in Brazilian rugby league has heard of the supposed WRL contact for their nation. The Argentinian contact they list lives in Italy and is involved in rugby union. The moves of the WRL are a timely reminder why the RLIF needs to take a genuine role in supporting, guiding and communicating these two G20 nations through to full member status” (Full disclosure, Rob is an occasional contributor to this website).
At the risk of adding more words to an already long piece, the situation in Greece is a timely reminder for those of us watching and playing the game we love in other countries to not take things for granted and appreciate each Rugby League spectacle we watch or participate in. It is hoped that this piece sheds light on an incredible bizarre but high stakes situation currently playing out in Greece.