In 1979, Greek football turned professional. Twenty years later its superclub, Panathinaikos, was not only building on its reputation for success in European competition but moving back into its Athens home, refurbished to the tune of €7m.
Also in 1999, a highly promising local player was lighting up the Panathinaikos youth team.
Ioannis Tourlidas was addicted to football—it was his life.
He was also becoming addicted to drugs—that became his life.
“When I was young I played for Atromitos in Athens in the Greek Super League,” he says, ”as well as in the youth team of Panathinaikos. Life was exciting.
“In the beginning I couldn’t understand what was going on with the drugs. It was just for fun. Then the people I knew who were involved with drugs were taking me away from my friends and slowly, slowly drugs won the game.
“I felt that I was living dead, that I didn’t want to be a trouble to society. All those years growing up with my family were lost. It was just what I was doing with drugs. I didn’t feel I was Ioannis. I felt I was someone else.
“I was addicted to drugs and I was at the bottom of my life. Then I heard about a rehabilitation programme. I went there and they allowed to me to stay in the shelter.”
A year ago and living in the shelter, Ioannis heard word that there was a homeless football team being put together for Greece and that he could take part in the training sessions.
“So I went, every Sunday, to the training. I was giving 100% of my abilities. When I started training with the Homeless World Cup team I was immediately taken back to training 20 years ago and I felt very comfortable,” he smiles. “I was training now for something good.
From rock bottom to wearing his national team’s top the last few years have brought Ioannis, now aged 36, back to life.
“I was living with passion before drugs and tried to live every moment. I loved football before drugs but for the 20 years I was using drugs I was out of football. So now I’m trying to take back the lost 20 years.
“Now I’m two years clean from drugs and I’ve graduated from the rehabilitation programme and I’m fighting for my life.”
Pulling on the blue and white jersey with the Greek crest, in his first game for his national side earlier this week in Cardiff, he admitted had him bursting with pride.
“It was my dream to play football and now I’m living my dream because I’m playing for Greece, my country, in a World Cup. Many professional players have not been in a World Cup. I’m so excited I cannot put into words my feelings.
“I have goals in my life to achieve things and one goal was this. The team also has small goals. We say, as a team, let’s score one goal. It’s OK if we lose, but if we score one goal we achieve it and we are happy.
“My other personal goals are to continue to attend the training sessions. It doesn’t matter that I can only take part in the Homeless World Cup once, I will still come to the training. I want to find a better job. This is difficult in Greece because we have a lot of unemployed people. And my family to have good moments and bond with them more.
“Small goals, little steps, but great achievements.”
Words: Isobel Irvine
Images: Daniel Lipinski / Soda-Visual