This article first appeared in Rugby League Review Magazine in June 2020
It’s 9am on 11 July 2016 in the northern suburbs of Athens, the temperature has already hit 30 degrees and it’s climbing.
The family labradoodle has just arrived from Australia and I am taking her for what would become a familiar stroll to the local shops. We had settled into a routine of sitting at the local ‘kafenaio’ for an iced coffee and a couple of Greek biscuits. I will smile and say ‘yia sas’ to the owner and maybe mention the weather before staring at my phone to pass the time. It’s as much as we can do with my non-existent Greek and his willing but broken English.
The same stilted, abrupt conversations are repeated as I go around to the butcher, fruit and veg shop and mini-supermarkets. People smile and want to make me feel welcome. At the same time I suspect they were wondering why this strange guy is walking around with his dog every day deep in the ‘burbs’ of Greece’s capital city.
Athens, at first glance is a concrete jungle, surrounded by chaos, and a furnace in the summer months of June to August. It has an undeserved reputation for being a ‘one night stand’ before jumping on to an island ferry destined for the bars and beaches.
Taxi drivers ask “when are you leaving for the islands” once the “where are you from?” conversation is out of the way.
I never thought I would miss that morning coffee with the guys in my former job at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra so much. Those gentle jibes that come with familiarity and friendship and the understated humour that is part of the Aussie fabric. Talking about footy and weekends is something that you take for granted until it’s gone. I learned a little bit about what it is like when people emigrate.
The fact that my thoughts veered towards heading back ‘home’ surprised and disappointed me all at once. I knew I had been gifted an exciting and extremely privileged opportunity. I kept telling myself I should be grateful and show some resilience because things would turn for the better.
My wife was posted to the Australian Embassy in Athens. We had been excited about our three year ‘new life’ and immersing ourselves in one of the greatest, most important cultures in history.
While my partner’s job required a solid commitment in terms of hours and focus, I had a free reign to wander when and wherever I liked. My days were filled with sightseeing, coffee and very good food. What more could anyone want?
More than anything it was a chat and a laugh that I missed. Some days I would wander into an expat/ tourist pub in the hope of striking up a conversation in English that went beyond polite greetings.
My youngest daughter was struggling with being away from her sister and her friends. It was hard seeing her unhappy every day. Returning to Australia after a while turned out to be a better option for her.
Without the required Greek language skills, work options consisted of lowly paid call centre shifts. Not exactly what I had envisaged before leaving Australia.
It was a message I received on social media that day after returning from my morning walk that became the catalyst for my change of outlook. So much so that a few years on I was very sad to leave a country I had learned to love and embrace. ‘
As fate would have it George Stilianos, the President of the Greek Rugby League Association, sent me the message after noticing I had liked the Greek Rugby League Association Facebook page. “I noticed you liked our page and look like you might be in Greece? If you are free do you want to come and watch the third State of Origin series decider at a pub in the centre of Athens?”
Did I ever George! My plan up until then was to watch it in the apartment on my own. It turned out to be my entry into the local community and the beginning of my passion for Greek rugby league.
On that day I saw NSW win the Origin series but more significantly (hard to imagine I know) the door into the rugby league community in Athens had been opened and left ajar. I met Greek Aussies who helped initiate and develop the sport in Greece and locals who have adopted rugby league as their lifestyle and are now representing their country.
I felt an immediate rapport and a small sense of belonging even at this stage.
Sport has played a major role in my life from the day I could walk and again it proved to a path to fulfilment in Greece.
Writing began to fill my days in the apartment. Telling stories about sports, food, wine, people and places gave me a sense of purpose and a bit of pocket money to enjoy the food and coffee that enriches the Athens lifestyle.
Beginning with throwing out a few freebies to launch my freelance writing career, it soon transformed into regular paid columns for sporting websites, magazines and a Greek Australian newspaper. My first story for the paper was about local rugby league player Johny Nake who was returning from serious injury for the Attica Rhinos.
Along the way I met sports people, actors, photographers, celebrity chefs, historians and writers. A myriad of famous or not so famous people all with fascinating stories.
Keeping in touch with George, I maintained a keen interest in Greek rugby league, watching any games that I could and accepting an invitation to attend an ‘Eights’ tournament on the island of Rhodes featuring all the Greek clubs, a group of Greek Australian players and a team from Turkey. At that tournament I spent some time with Greek coaches Steve Georgallis and Jim Pizanias as well as the driving force behind Greek international rugby League Terry Liberopoulos. The Greece team played a ‘friendly’ match with Turkey that weekend. I experienced the passion and intensity of European international rugby league on the field and in the dressing room. I was hooked.
Continuing to attend club matches in Athens, I was faced with a conundrum one night. As is often the case, there weren’t enough match officials and George asked if I would consider being a touch judge. The guys that run the line were always my pet hate as a player and now I was joining them! It was the only time I crossed over to the dark side and I enjoyed it to be honest. It felt like I was helping out in a tangible way. I went back to writing articles and profiles around Greek rugby league whenever I could without pushing it too far with editors.
My love affair with coaching began after being approached by Aris Eagles club leader, Aris Dardamanis, to help before their first ever match in the Balkan Super League against Partizan in Belgrade. It was a tough match and a great experience for both me and the players to work out where we need to focus and improve.
Coaching led to some fantastic trips and further opportunities with the Combined Athens side and the first Greece women’s national team.
The joy of taking young men and women from little knowledge of a sport to accomplished players is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. The honour of coaching the first ever Greek women’s rugby league team in an international match against Turkey is a life memory that fills me with happiness.
The long bus journey from Athens to Edirne, the joyous faces of our players when they received their first Greek jersey and then the emotion in the dressing room after realising we had played our first women’s international match are priceless memories. Working as a coaching group with my assistants Jim Minadakis and Christos Mouzakitis was a learning experience in utilising the traits of others for the benefit of the team.
Being appointed head coach of the first women’s national team was beyond my wildest dreams. It is hard to explain the honour and pride I felt coaching my adopted temporary homeland. The way the players and other coaches welcomed me into the fold and embraced my philosophy and instructions ensured it was a special time in my life.
Sport provides a sense of purpose and identity for Greeks in an economic environment where youth unemployment is around 45 per cent and players are out of work, underemployed or under pressure to achieve exceptional results at university.
Coaching teams granted me a place in a small but strong community. I could at the very least pass on the knowledge I have gained in Australia playing and watching over many years.
The social connection that sport provides was clearly evident before my first coaching assignment. After traveling from Athens to Larissa for a tournament we stepped off the bus and into a lively conversation with the organisers. We had taken a couple of misguided turns on our journey and arrived late so I assumed that the animated discussion was about getting the draw sorted and commencing the competition as soon as possible. During a slight pause in the conversation I enquired as to what the story was and whether we needed to get changed into our uniforms straight away? “Just sorting the souvlaki and salads afterwards,”our captain replied without a hint of a smile.
Training sessions are just the beginning of the night time itinerary for the players in Athens. When we finished training around 10pm, I was ready to go home to bed while the night was still young for a nation of people that seem to survive on minimal sleep.
Communication with the team was interesting at times. Regrettably my Greek language skills are at a low level. My advice and instructions were often conveyed to the team by the captain acting as an interpreter.
The respect and inclusion offered to me as coach and someone who was older by the young players was remarkable. The insistence that I take the front passenger seat on car trips and the invitations to join them at nightclubs, bars and parties were humbling and refreshing.
Before I left Australia to come to Greece I knew that I wanted to be a part of the community and be involved with something worthwhile and sport/rugby league is the perfect vehicle.
From coaching the Aris Eagles men’s team, the Athens representative teams and finally as head coach of the first Greek women’s national rugby league side I have seen nothing but enthusiasm, passion and a willingness to play the game in the right spirit for all the best reasons.
The family style community that exists in Greece should be bottled and sent around the world.
I feel I left so much unfinished business with the Aris Eagles and the Greek women’s national side but I am secure in the knowledge that the teams are in good hands.
The coaching trips to Belgrade, Sofia and Edirne will remain sweet memories for life.
Aside from the rugby league, I developed into a travel addict, embracing any opportunity that came my way to explore the islands and mainland Greece. The country is beautiful and people are welcoming. My location meant I could visit multiple European destinations cheaply and easily. Trips to Belgrade and a London to watch Greece play were just some of the many highlights.
Watching the Greece team play for the first time with all domestic players against Serbia in Belgrade in 2017 was a stand out moment. In the dressing room afterwards despite a loss, coach Steve Georgallis went around shook each players hand and said “welcome to international rugby league.” You could see the boys chests swell visibly after previously being deflated by the loss.
We moved to an apartment closer to the centre of Athens within six months of living there. The chaotic and sometimes crazy city captured my heart. Lift the lid and immerse yourself and you will find a metropolis that comes alive at night, where locals live each day to the max. Greeks prioritise their social circles above all else. If you are brought into the ‘family’ you will find yourself immersed in a community characterised by kindness and generosity.
There are way too many people to thank for their help, support and friendship during my time in Greece but they know who they are. We have maintained regular contact from a distance. I have gained friends for life both in Greece and the Greek/Aussie community back here.
When the world returns to some sort of order, and international travel is an option again, I would love to return to the place that gave me so many good memories. I look forward to having a beer again with men and women that made my time in Greece so enjoyable.
While I am Australian, Greece has become my ‘other team’ and I feel like the ‘family’ has welcomed me with open arms. I look forward to being with the boys when they participate in their first World Cup in 2021 in my role as team media manager. I have started coaching a new Greek Australian women’s squad reaching the final of the Sydney 9s earlier this year. We have big ambitions to take the team to the World Cup in 2025.
The Facebook message was a turning point that day. I am just glad I stuck it out in the end.