1. The Atlas soccer team
According to Greek mythology, Atlas was the name of the legendary giant who carried the sky on his shoulder to keep it from falling and crashing to the earth. Atlas is also the name of the Greek community of Bloemfontein’s soccer team. Soccer is the most popular sport in Greece, so it was only natural that the Greek community of the city would have a soccer team. The team was established in 1966, on the initiative of Manolis Kordatos and Giannis Tapanlis. In addition, Manolis Kordatos (the first captain of the team) had previously played for AEK, a Greek Premiership club credited with winning many championships and cups. In 1970, Makis Thomas became the team manager, followed by Giannis Kambanis in 1975 and Giannis Kritzas in 1978. In these early years, Hristos and Doros Georgiou, Doukas Geralis, Takis Tsikos and G. Kritzas and Spyros Tsalmas – who were still youngsters at the time – were also involved in the soccer team.
Although training was initially entirely at amateur level, serious practices began under G. Kambanis’s leadership. An earnest man, armed with both great rectitude and a strong will, he had been brought up in an orphanage in Lesvos. As an immigrant in Bloemfontein, he attained great success as a Community member and as an athlete. He taught the young Greeks how to play soccer correctly, and they continued to acknowledge him as a captain and a coach, even when he had reached his fifties.
Atlas played against teams such as the Municipality, Schoeman Park, Ramblers Club and KAY’S, to mention only a few. Matches took place at the Municipality fields after nine p.m. Because almost all the Greek players were shop owners or employees of shop owners, they had to finish work first. Some winter nights they continued playing even when the thermometer on the board had fallen below zero. However, playing against clubs consisting of Afrikaans-speaking people was not always a pleasant experience, since fights would often break out on the field. The games against the English-speaking teams progressed much more smoothly. On the other hand, the Greek players enjoyed playing matches against the “Bemfica”, the Portuguese community’s soccer team. They called one another “patria” (motherland) – perhaps because they both came from South European countries, even if they were situated far apart.
From 1978 until 1985, Atlas participated in both the A and B soccer championships in Bloemfontein, winning three championships and five cups. Before long, however, they abandoned the local championships – the reason being that black teams were also involved and they would have had to play on fields located in the black township, which made them feel unsafe. G. Kritzas was the captain of the team, and was assisted at the time by T. Tsikos, E. Dimitriadis and D. Georgiou. Kritzas, the son of a great Greco-Roman wrestler, emigrated from Lesvos when he was fourteen years old. He started out as a rugby player, even playing for the provincial team of the Orange Free State, but was later drawn to soccer.
From 1985 onwards, Atlas participated in friendly matches against other Greek South African clubs. It was known as the best Greek soccer team in the country at that stage, since it seldom – if ever – lost a game. In view of the small Greek population of Bloemfontein in comparison to other cities, this was a considerable achievement.
1.1 Distinguished players
Although the Atlas players in the initial phase were very good, they remained amateurs; however, in the following years some of them broke out of amateur status.
Stratos Sofianos was considered a player with exceptional talent. He played for the provincial team of the Orange Free State and for the University of South Africa’s team, as well as five years for Celtic of Bloemfontein. He also went to Greece to play for the Egaleo club in Athens, but later turned down an invitation to play for an English team, following his father’s advice to complete his studies instead. Unfortunately, Stratos died unexpectedly of leukaemia at a very young age.
Vasilis Sofiadelis was a great soccer player too. He played for Spurs of Cape Town and for Kalamata in Greece and has been playing for Celtic for three years now, while simultaneously pursuing his studies.
A few more talented young men deserve attention, such as Fotis Sofiadelis, a gifted goalkeeper and qualified doctor who is now committed to the medical profession. Nikos Koupis, Vasilis N Sofiadelis and Stratos Kambanis should also be mentioned.
1.2 Atlas’s social role
The Greek immigrants in Bloemfontein embraced Atlas warmly, and all the young people supported the team. When G. Kritzas called the players to training at Schoeman Park circa 1990, some 40 “children” arrived for practice, ranging in ages from seven or eight years old to G. Kambanis, in his early fifties. Consequently, four to five teams could be coached at the same time. Mothers eagerly ferried their children to and from practice and if a parent was not available because of his/her work, the team captain or another member would give the player concerned a lift. Every possible endeavour was made to keep these teams running well. Apart from all the athletic achievements attained by the players, this had a very positive effect on the social integration amongst Greek children. This was particularly beneficial for the teenagers, who had already ceased attending Greek school. They now had the opportunity to mix with other Greeks, which made them realise that they could be successful as a united group.
Moreover, soccer encounters between young and old have remained unforgettable experiences. Numerous veterans were available to play in the older men’s team, which won quite a few matches, displaying both athletic prowess and sportsmanship. In recent times, a team consisting of Greek girls from Bloemfontein played a few matches against other female Greek clubs in the country.
2. Other sports
Volleyball was another sport the Greeks in Bloemfontein frequently played – in fact, numerous matches took place between Greek teams of the country, as well as between young and old teams. Georgios Vrahimis distinguished himself in this sport by obtaining Springbok colours; i.e. playing for the national volleyball team of South Africa. He owed this success to his father, Antonis, who was captain of the Cyprus volleyball team in 1946.
Aside from the above-mentioned sports, the community members also organised table tennis games, grouping the participants according to their age and gender. The traditional game of backgammon, a board game that originated in ancient Greece, must also be mentioned. It is frequently played in houses and during coffee breaks, or in formal matches. Needless to say, almost all the above-mentioned events culminated in a celebration with food, drinks and dancing, in which both athletes and spectators took part.