Alketas Panagoulias has coached the national teams of the United States and Greece in the Olympics, the World Cup, and the European Championships. But these days, his favorite team is the Vienna Patriots.
“My 10 year-old granddaughter, Zoe, plays on their traveling team, and she told her coaches about me,” he said, beaming with pride. “She told them I was the best coach in the world.”
Panagoulias, a longtime Vienna resident, still recalls the upset stomach that launched his soccer career, which spanned several decades, three league titles with the storied Greek club Olympiacos and induction into D.C. United’s Hall of Fame.
“The right fullback of our local club, Aris, ate a really big meal, too close before game time and I was sitting in the stands. And they knew me as a very good player, and someone from the team yelled up to me, ‘Alketas where are you, come down quickly, get dressed because Sotiris Somas’s stomach hurts and he cannot play.’”
Alketas was given Somas’s uniform and cleats, which were “almost” the right size, and proceeded to play so well that he ended up taking Somas’s job. He evolved into an accomplished player, but in Greece in the 1950s, soccer wasn’t the lucrative career field that it can be today.
“They paid him, sure,” joked his wife of 45 years, Vanna, a Vienna real estate agent. “He got paid in coca-colas and movie tickets. That’s why he played soccer, so he could go to the cinema.”
When Panagoulias wasn’t playing soccer, he was at the movies, dreaming of America.
“When I decided to study in the States, my friends asked why would I leave my soccer career in Greece,” he remembered. “I told them I wanted to live in the country of Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor and James Cagney.”
With a little help from a Greek-American foundation, he obtained a degree in political science from Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey. He eventually put the degree to good use, serving as a city councilman in his hometown of Thessaloniki. But after graduation, soccer was his priority and he got his first coaching gig with a semi-pro team called the Greek American Atlas.
He led them to three consecutive U.S. Open Cup titles in 1967, 1968 and 1969, in the process attracting the attention of the Greek Soccer Federation, which offered him that assistant coach position in 1972. Success with the Greek National team, and later with Olympiacos, led him to receive the phone call that would change his life.
“Curt Lann (from the American Federation) called me in Greece and asked me how I’d like to coach my adopted country’s national team,” he said. “I was excited, because I always wanted to coach the U.S. team, because I believed in the team and I believe in this country. I said at the time, ‘the U.S. is the sleeping giant of soccer, and when he wakes up, we’ll be the team to beat’ and I still believe that.”
After securing the job, they moved to the home in Vienna they still live in today. Vanna, ever the real estate agent, recalls vividly how affordable the area was in 1983, the year they bought their home.
“It was only $135, 000,” she said. “It was the smartest decision we ever made- Vienna is the best place on earth- we’re close to the city, but it’s a beautiful small town atmosphere.”
Alketas coached the national team for two years, leading them to a respectable 1-1-1 finish at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The team beat Costa Rica, narrowly lost to Italy, 1-0, and was beating Egypt 1-0, before Emad Soliman scored a late goal to tie the game, sending Egypt through to the next game and the U.S. team out of the tournament, based on goal differential.
“What a heartbreaker, I’ll never forget that goal,” Panagoulias said.
In 1985, he returned to Greece and coached Olympiacos once more, before shifting to the boyhood club that he still loves, Aris, in 1987. Over the next dozen years he earned a reputation as a skilled motivator and an inspirational leader, but despite his on-the-field success, he missed his wife, and his two children, Debbie and John, who remained in Vienna.
Panagoulias returned to Vienna in 1999 because he wanted to enjoy his retirement near his two children, and his two granddaughter’s, Zoe and Michaela. But his country came calling again in 2004, and he was proud to help Greece organize the Olympic soccer competition.
“Everybody was worried that Greece wouldn’t be able to pull it off, and up until the last minute, some of the venues were a mess, but we did it, and it turned out to be one of the best Olympics ever,” he said.
These days Panagoulias still roots for the U.S. team and is certain that it will be a serious contender for the World Cup very soon.
“It will happen for sure,” he said. “If not in 2014, then definitely in 2018.”
But for now, he’s thrilled to pass the soccer knowledge that he got from his father down to Zoe, one of the stars of the Vienna Patriots.
“She’s going to be the next Mia Hamm, I’m telling you,” he said. “Soccer. It’s in her blood.”