Cretan hop

I picked up a cheap replica of the Phaistos disc in a tourist shop outside the Minoan palace of Knossos. The Phaistos disc, an inscribed clay circle housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, has never been translated. I pulled the tiny ancient text close to my eyes. “I can read it”, I proclaimed to the shop owner. “It says that Greece will win the European Championships in 2004!” The vendor laughed and tried to sell me something else.

Greece’s cultural history has always outweighed its footballing contribution. And, although I scrolled through Flashscore fruitlessly looking for a fixture, my week-long break in Crete was no groundhop. But a football curiosity caught my eye in Chania, the atmospheric second city of the island, as I walked along a pedestrianised street near the covered market. The Greek National Football Museum looked rather underwhelming from the outside, with two small window displays of football shirts. A passerby may mistake it for a sports shop.

It held treasures inside. Nothing quite as antique as the Phaistos disc, but a fabulous array of original footballing artefacts including worn shirts, tickets and photographs. Dmitrios Flekkas showed me and two amazed Fortuna Dusseldorf fans around with pride. He explained that that the collection was founded by his father Nikos, an ardent follower of the national team, in 2007 with just one shirt. The museum opened in 2011 and was now over-spilling with blue and white memorabilia. Dmitrios pointed out that the Greek flag was being recreated in the first room with shirts worn by national team players. The small cross in the top left corner of the flag was proving difficult to replicate, and the bright goalkeeper shirts were sensibly annexed to one side.

The adjacent room housed a history of national team strips and, its crowning glory, the official replica of the European Championship trophy presented to Greece. This was the ultimate photo opportunity, albeit a weighty one. Other mementos from 2004 included a clump of dead grass from the Estádio da Luz pitch that Nikos had grabbed after the final whistle, and the match football, nabbed and donated by goalscorer Charisteas and apparently coveted by the big Athens clubs.

Dmitrios had a party trick. He asked your club and then whisked out a football shirt with a Greek player’s name printed on the back. Ajax and Arsenal fans were wowed by memories of Machlas and Sokratis. Karagounis, who had visited the museum six times, was a Fulham dynamo in the twilight of his career, and out came the natty 2012/13 third shirt from that Martin Jol season. However, there was no Mitroglou shirt from the following year, a real rarity as the £12 million forward played only three times before departing. “He ate too many sweets after joining Fulham” quipped Dmitrios.

Dmitrios explained that around seventy percent of shirts were gifts. The rest were purchased using donations from the legions of visitors who had pushed this to the number one Chania attraction on TripAdvisor. This included an outlay of several thousand Euros for a Ronaldinho original and, presumably, slightly less for Gary McAllister’s Scotland shirt. The most famous shirt to an English football fan was Beckham’s from that World Cup qualifier in 2001. A present from Karagounis.

I left my card in the visitors’ book. Several hours later Nikos, absent during my earlier visit, called to say that he would love to meet me. I retraced my steps to the museum, and Nikos gifted me a calendar, and more stories from his travels watching Greece. Chania, the forty-first largest city in Greece, is an unlikely location for a national football museum. But it reflects the passion of a man and his son who have followed a footballing underweight from obscurity to the European title. And back again.

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