After years of oppression and having their players arrested by police, Greeks are finally free to play rugby league.
In a major boost for the code leading up to the World Cup, the Greek government has lifted a ban on playing league and officially recognized it as a sport in its own right.
Much of the thanks for the landmark decision goes to a Sydney journalist and league tragic, Terry Liberopoulos.
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Liberopoulos, who pays his own way from Sydney to Greece at least once a year to keep the game alive, takes up the story of how the drama began and finally ended.
“We started a small local competition in Greece back in 2002,” he said.
Then in 2012, we formed a formal domestic competition with five teams.
“But there were problems with one of the teams, Rhodes Knights – there were discrepancies in their accounts and the other four teams signed a vote of no confidence in their president.
“The teams formed their own rebel breakaway league but were barred from playing because under Greek law, you need at least 20 clubs to be classed as a federation sport.”
Rhodes formed their own federation, putting it under modern pentathlon to get the required number of teams.
“We applied to the European Federation and they accepted us, but the Greek government didn’t,” he said.
“We couldn’t advertise or promote our games and had to play them in secret.
“More than once the police would raid the grounds we were playing at, stop the games and take us all to the police station.
“We played a World Cup qualifier against Malta in 2018 and I got on a bus for seven hours to a regional town, took a photo of myself and posted it on Facebook with the caption ‘pitch inspection’.
“It was a decoy to throw the cops off and it worked.
“But we still had to be careful – we didn’t let Malta know where the game was and only told their bus driver at the last minute where to take the team.
“That’s the kind of subterfuge we had to use – it was ridiculous.
“But last week, the Greek government finally officially recognized The Greek Rugby League Association, much to the joy of players and officials.
The country has already qualified for the World Cup later this year and can now play under the national flag.
“It’s a proud day for the Greek game,” Liberopoulos said.
“We couldn’t have done it without the support of (Roosters chairman) Nick Politis who has donated around $100,000 to fund the team.
“We are now forming a women’s competition and trying to get the game played in schools – we are growing the game.”
Included in the Greek team for the World Cup will be several NRL players, including Souths half Lachlan Ilias and Cronulla utility Billy Magoulias.
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