To go on a holiday as a groundhopper, is a little bit of a quest for new and undiscovered areas and stadiums. Last summer we had the opportunity to do exactly that on Crete and we visited the wonderful Theodoros Vardinogiannis stadium. Occupant: the mighty OFI Crete.
OFI has a very fanatic fanbase, completely in line with the expectation of a South (East?) European club. The graffiti in and around the stadium on itself already proves our point. Combine that with an in the meantime older stadium right in the middle of the city centre and you'll have football cult at its best. Almost a trip down memory lane as we speak.
The stadium was officially opened in 1951. But the team itself already began playing end of 1925 after an initiative of a couple of sportsmen active in the same gym. Omilos Filathlon Irakleiou was born. Initially it was an athletics team and the club grew very slowly. The first few years, the members were mainly the founding fathers themselves. But steadily more people joined and other sports activities were added. The football section, amongst others.
In the first few years, it was very difficult for Crete - and by extension the whole of Greece - to play the beautiful game. Mainly the distance made it more complex and the Cretans played most of their games on the island itself against other Cretan teams. Oddly enough they played an abundance of games on the island. But all of that came to a stop during WWII. No football and a lot of casualties...
After the war everything picked up again. In the first few years national football seemed more of a thing for the clubs of the mainland. The islanders had to go through qualifications and again the travelling made it very difficult to push through to the first division. In 1956, the qualification setup changed and OFI had more opportunities. Finally they made it to first division in 1958, but again due to the distance the results weren't all that great. Up until 1962 - when the official second division was created - OFI tried hard to get back in first division.
The next couple of years OFI kept fighting for their spot in first division. Eventually they achieved their goal in 1968. The strange thing is they had won the second division in 1966 already, but due to some strange rule even the champions had to play playoffs in order to promote. In 1966 they lost, but two years later - despite a second place - OFI promoted. For three years, the Cretans enjoyed first division, with weak away results but a very firm home reputation. Teams arrived the island shaking and shivering, only to leave again with a lot of damage.
In 1976 OFI was back in the Greek first division. And this time the results would follow. All throughout the 80s they more often than not finished in the top regions, with even a beautiful second place in 1986. European football was their reward. OFI would maintain those results up until the start of the new millennium. After 2000, they struggled more and more. After years of flirting with relegation, it finally happened in 2009.
That also meant the end of the Nikos Machlas era. One of the biggest prides of the team. He joined the team in the youth leagues and he stayed with the club for the first six years of his professional career. Later on he showed his skills at Vitesse, Ajax and Sevilla. In 2004 their hero returned, although he ended his career in Cyprus. The team did manage to come back to first division in 2011, but financial problems started to haunt them. In 2015 the club took a drastic decision and gave up their professional status. Relegation to third division was the end result.
After only one year, they were back in second division. Again two years later, OFI promoted to first division again. Ever since they are were they belong. Although the eternal rivalry with Ergotelis - their Cretan neighbours - will always be special. The very first game between the two, a friendly game in 1929, was ended after 35 minutes due to riots. Ever since this was a huge hate-game, but has eventually evolved into a love/hate relationship. The last few years fans of both teams visit each others' games to show support. And when OFI was struggling, Ergotelis gave one of their strikers on loan.
If you want to enjoy our articles in Dutch, you can read them here.