Farewell to Lefter

Farewell to Lefter

By the time this column is read, the body of the all-time Turkish footballer Lefteris Küçükandoniadis is already resting in the Greek Orthodox Cemetery of his native Prinkipo (Büyükada), one of the Princes' Islands in the Marmara Sea, just a few miles off the coast of Istanbul.

He was 87 years old and his statue outside the football stadium of his beloved team, Fenerbahçe, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, is just a reminder of the importance of the man in the popular football mythology of Turkey for decades. The announcement of his death last Friday, although expected due to his ill health, caused an amazing reaction in his native country Turkey; even the Turkish prime minister, a former footballer himself, expressed his genuine sorrow and pride for a man who for millions of Turks was known just by his Greek Orthodox first name: Lefter

I am the last person who would attempt to analyze the unique skills of Lefter Küçükandoniadis as a sports legend; this has been passed into the hands of experienced sports commentators who are already talking about it.

But I would like to add a footnote in Lefter’s presence in this country not only as a national symbol for Turkish football, but as a member of a small religious minority: the Greek Orthodox community, known as the Rums.

Lefteris Antoniadis – as his real name was – was a native of Prinkipo. The son of a fisherman and a Turkish mother, he was one of 11 children. Born in 1925, he grew up in a period when he must have experienced the shrinkage of his community on the Princess Islands and must have seen the number of children studying in the Greek Orthodox schools on the islands being reduced dramatically, especially after the mass exits of the Rums in 1955 and 1964. However, he did not leave Turkey and was among the 40 or so permanent residents who remain on his beloved island today. 

I met him once, during the traditional Easter celebrations a few years back. Among the crowd of elderly people that Saturday night you could immediately spot him for his brisk pace – he walked as if he did not touch the ground. When I asked who that man was, everybody looked at me with some contempt, pointing out my unforgivable ignorance. 

When I decided to conduct research for my university on the Rums, he was among the first on the list to interview. However, he declined: “He does not like to give interviews,” the messenger I had sent told me, who also informed me that he was a family man. Both his daughters were married to Turks and he lived part time on the island and Athens. I was unhappy about his refusal to open his heart to me. I wanted to ask him how it was to be a member of a minority and a national celebrity at the same time.

I wanted to ask him how he could balance these two seemingly opposite sides of his personality: Does he feel Greek, Christian, Turk? How can he survive trying to balance all these elements? He never gave his answers.

However, a friend of his did. Dimitri Mantaci, born around the same time as Lefter on Prinkipo and lived there all his life, was a feature of the island until his death five years ago. You could not have missed his small office in the archway of the port as you disembarked from the boat. He was there working for the Turkish Municipality guiding tourists and feeding them with interesting information he had accumulated as a local historian. He was happy to be interviewed on tape, and he answered all the questions destined for Lefter.

“Our [the Rums] life resembles a sea: When there is calm you sail with pleasure, and when a storm comes, you are filled with fear. But it seems that the few of us who stayed here and did not leave, whenever things got bad, we used to say that ‘this is a small cloud and will pass.’ The bitterness and pains that one experiences during difficult days – let them resemble the pains of pregnancy that later bring joy. And we who remained here, made sure to tune our life like the sundial clock which shows only the days of sunshine.”

That was the wisdom of Dimitri Mantaci, who lived and died on his beloved island Prinkipo. Although I can never be sure, that must have been the wisdom of the great Lefter Antoniadis.

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