On 22 June 1984, the New York Cosmos played a fund-raiser against a World All-Stars XI in a match that would define their future. Warner Brothers had withdrawn financial backing from the team and to survive the forthcoming season they needed big names to play in lucrative stadium-filling friendlies. They got Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Kempes. They got Dominique Rocheteau, Kevin Keegan and Johan Neeskens. They got Vassilis Hatzipanagis.

Who was Hatzipanagis? What had he done to make the World XI? In terms of global fame, Hatzipanigis is not in the same sphere as many of his teammates in that friendly. He continues to hover on the edge of football's consciousness, but last summer the Guardian posted footage of 'the Greek Pelé' as part of its weekly round-up of sporting videos. The response was phenomenal. A YouTube trickle of Hatzipanagis tributes became a deluge as clips from Greece, Australia and the States rapidly stitched together an audio-visual testament to a vibrant talent.

In 1997 Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt rehabilitated the career of Reading's Robin Friday, labelling him "the best player you never saw". But it's far more likely (if less rock and roll) that the best player you never saw grew up outside of the citadel of western European football in the middle of the 20th century. If videos posted on the internet tell even half the tale, then Hatzipanagis is a more than worthy challenger for that title.

At a central square in Athens the tourist crowd bustles, the hustlers hustle and hordes of locals cluster around tables trying to make themselves heard above the general din. There is much bragging and bravado, but it takes just a few moments with Hatzipanagis to twig that you are in the presence of a certifiably humble sporting legend. Hatzipanagis does not talk like a typical Greek. He does not talk like a typical ex-footballer. "I believe in talent," he said. "Talent is nothing without hard work but you need talent. My right leg was just for standing but in my left leg I had plenty of talent. And I worked hard." The story he goes on to tell is a stark reminder of the fact that while the 21st century media world may be global, fluid and omniscient, the real world has been — and still is — a much less forgiving place.

Vassilis Hatzipanagis was born in Tashkent on 26 October 1955. His father came from Cyprus, his mother from Istanbul. Pushed out of Asia Minor by war, his parents grew up as refugees in a Greece that lapsed into dictatorship during the 1930s, suffered Nazi occupation during the Second World War and then collapsed into civil war. Exiled to Uzbekistan in the Soviet Union, the experience of Hatzipanagis's parents mirrored that of an entire generation. By the time of Hatzipanagis's birth, the Greek community in Tashkent had grown to around 40,000. The sense of drift that dominates the story of his parents' life, the sense of being a plaything of forces beyond their control, would ultimately seep in to Hatzipanagis's career. This is the story of a Greek footballer, perhaps the Greek footballer, who was unable ever to take the field for Greece.

Instead Hatzipanagis came of age on the fringes of the USSR squad that finished runners-up at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. After that his career fell into the hands of an unscrupulous Armenian mover and shaker. He was repatriated to Greece and became a near contractual slave at Iraklis, who have spent most of their history bobbing around in mid-table. Iraklis's intransigence prevented him taking up offers from Arsenal, Lazio, Porto and Stuttgart. Yet over a 20-year career Hatzipanagis's ability gave him a magnetic appeal – drawing in fans of all stripes. People came from all across Greece to watch him play, wearing scarves that bore his name. Banned from playing for the national side and prevented from moving abroad or to one of Greece's 'big three', his reputation was secured by exhibitions – such as the Cosmos game – and sealed by the Greek public who voted him the nation's greatest ever player for the Uefa jubilee in 2004, despite the fact that he had never played a competitive game for the national side.

It's an epic and bitter inter-generational story of a kind that Theò Angelòpoulos would turn into a cinematic epic — a story of exile and thwarted ambition that encompasses something of the broader history of post-war Greece. We've become accustomed to seeing footballers as ciphers of their nation or national characteristics. As surely as Beckham is Blair's Britain, Hatzipanagis is pre-European Community Greece.

Tashkent in the 1960s proved to be an interesting incubator of Hatzipanagis's talent. The re-siting of factories eastwards during the war had brought large numbers of ethnic Russian and Ukrainians into Uzbekistan. This mini-industrial revolution had blown away much of the city's Silk Road past; an enormous earthquake in 1966 levelled much of the rest. The subsequent rebuilding project saw Uzbeks, Russians, Ukrainians and Cold War refugees attempt to rebuild it as a model high-tech communist city. At the same time, the promising performance of the USSR at the 1966 World Cup prompted considerable investment in grassroots sporting facilities across the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s teams such as Zorya Voroshilovgrad, Ararat Yerevan, Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Tbilisi, as well as Pakhtakor Tashkent, were benefiting from this. Hatzipanagis's talent was to be harnessed by the planned development of Soviet football at the periphery.

"Dinamo Tashkent, then a kind of feeder club of Dinamo Moscow, spotted me playing in the neighbourhood and tried to sign me," Hatzipanagis said, "but the team of Pakhtakor had at the time the best youth football school so I signed for them. VD Saladiov, my footballing mentor, had guided Pakhtakor back into the Soviet Supreme League and he gave me my debut as a 17 year old against Shakhtar Donetsk." Over the next three seasons Saladiov eased Hatzipanagis into the first team as Pakhtakor began to re-establish themselves in the Supreme League. Named the league's second most valuable player (after Oleh Blokhin) in 1974 and 1975, Hatzipanagis was brought into the USSR national set up. His star was on the rise.

"Valentin Nikolayev called me into the Under-21 side when I was 18," he said, "and I played in qualifying for the U-23 European championships before helping the Olympic team qualify for Montreal. From there I played for the national side. In 1975 I played in a tournament in Poland staged to celebrate liberation from the Germans. USSR won. And I got to play alongside Blokhin."

What was the high point of being involved in the Soviet side? "George Best! I was a young man playing for the U-21s and we were taken to Moscow to see this match between the USSR and Northern Ireland. And I saw him there." Here Hatzipanagis smiled. "Look, talking about football it was a mistake to return to Greece. I prefer Greece for living but the level of club football was much lower than the Soviet Union. I played one exhibition game for the Greek national team against Poland and then I was banned from playing for Greece. The population of Russia was 300 million and only 16 clubs were in the Supreme League. Uzbekistan has a population of 18 million and had only one club in the Supreme League. It was a strong championship."

Hatzipanagis decided to return to Greece in 1975. It was a sentimental decision. The fall of the military junta had opened the door for his ageing parents to return home and Hatzipanagis's footballing ability made it possible if not exactly straightforward.

In the Soviet Union of the 1970s professional footballers did not exist (Hatzipanagis was a 'worker-footballer' supposedly employed elsewhere). Instead players applied for a move to the Sporting Technical Committee of the Football Federation whose job was to transfer talent through the lower leagues into the Supreme League for the benefit of the national team. The catch for a homesick Hatzipanagis was that as he had no contract to speak of, and Pahktakor Tashkent had no rights over him, no foreign team could buy him. When Olympiakos made an approach to sign Hatzipanagis, for example, the deal was rejected on the grounds that Soviet players were not property and could not be traded. Instead, Hatzipanagis was told to resign his Soviet citizenship and apply for repatriation. But even this was problematic. The tumultuous events of the early 20th century had shunted his family around the Near East in such a way as to leave a grandparent in Salonika as familial connection to modern Greece. If he was to return his ancestral homeland, he needed to strike a deal with a team from Salonika. At the age of 20, what seemed like an escape route to his second and final club, Iraklis, was about to open up.

"My move was organised by an Armenian in Moscow, Makatetsian, who turned out to be as devious as he sounds," Hatzipanagis sighed. "He organised everything beautifully. First he told me to let go of the Soviet nationality [in the Soviet league you couldn't play without taking the nationality]. Then I signed for two years. In Greek legislation then there was a small 'window' in the law that meant they could, unilaterally and without even asking me about it, renew my contract every year for the next 10 years."

Hatzipanagis was trapped. 'With Uefa I couldn't do anything. If I'd still had Soviet nationality, the Soviet embassy could have interfered. But the Armenian had me abandon it so all I could do was take Iraklis to court. And that's how I spent 1977 – in the courts. I was like [Jean-Marc] Bosman, except unlike Bosman I continued to play for the first team even as their lawyers were fighting against me."

Like Bosman, Hatzipanagis won; like Bosman, his victory did him little good personally. "The district court ruled that you couldn't keep any labourer or athlete for over five years," he said. "But as you can imagine, Iraklis pulled strings and won at the Court of Appeal. I could do nothing else. The only positive was that the Greek Association of Professional Footballers, which was founded in 1979, saw the injustice of my ruling and pursued it. By the mid-1980s the law had changed. So at least I fought for my colleagues."

In 1977, a troublesome knee saw Hatzipanagis sent to London for treatment. "My godfather had emigrated to London in 1961," Hatzipanagis explained. "He was a Cypriot and an Arsenal fan as all Cypriots are. He introduced me to Fred Street, the physio at Arsenal. As part of my rehabilitation I got to train alongside [Pat] Jennings, [Graeme] Rix, [Liam] Brady, [Malcolm] MacDonald and [Alan] Hudson. They gave me the nickname Aristotle. Then they found out I had played in the USSR and they got interested. But Iraklis wouldn't even listen to their approach. What's frustrating is my dad tried to move to London in 1963 but my mum didn't want to go. Imagine what things would have been like if I had got there as a nine year old? Who can imagine what my career would have been like if I had grown up in England?"

Iraklis had good reasons for resisting Arsenal's approach. They were as much a one-man band as Diego Maradona's Napoli. Like Maradona, Hatzipanagis was a small but stout midfielder; the style of both players had developed out of their physical build. They shared a low centre of gravity that encouraged and exacerbated the impact of their feints, twists and shimmies. Like all great athletes, their performances appeared unnervingly effortless. Of course, Maradona was a more complete player. Hatzipanagis, as he freely admits, was even more one-footed than the Argentinian, albeit one who could craft discrete passages of play in a way that is all but impossible today. An artisan as much as an athlete, his performances for Iraklis channelled the same sort of spirit as Matt Le Tissier, Kevin Sheedy and Zinédine Zidane.

Hatzipanagis scored twice and helped set up the other two as Iraklis beat Olympiakos in the 1976 Greek Cup final, a remarkable game that finished 4-4 before being settled on penalties. He inspired them to a best ever third-place league finish in 1983 and helped them secure the Balkan Cup in 1985. Among his countless assists he also set the record for goals scored directly from corners – six. The club understood perfectly well that their golden age would last only as long as Hatzipanagis played. The lopsided contractual situation in Greece enabled them to hold on to their star player until the end of his career and the lengths to which they were prepared to stretch to keep hold of Hatzipanagis were extraordinary.

In 1981, Iraklis were relegated following accusations that they had bribed opponents. Hatzipanagis refused to play in the second tier of Greek football and spent the next 18 months on unpaid leave, training with VfB Stuttgart in Germany. Stuttgart tried to sign him but, like Olympiakos, AEK, Arsenal, Lazio, Porto and Dinamo Moscow, they were knocked back. Iraklis refused to transfer his registration and so in order to resume playing he had to return to Greece. In this instance the phrase, "there's no point in keeping a player who doesn't want to be here", takes on an almost cosmic level of glibness. When Iraklis rejected a 90 million drachma [£1.85million, an unthinkable sum in the Greece of the 1980s] offer for Hatzipanagis from Yiorgos Vardinogiannis, the shipping magnate and then owner of Panathinaikos, Hatzipanagis resigned himself to finishing his career in Salonika. Hatzipanagis had grown up ignorant of Western contracts and he paid a heavy price for it.

In his best-selling book, The Misfortune of Being Greek, Nikos Dimou argued that while Greek society had modernised technologically since gaining independence in the 19th Century, a corresponding civic transformation had never taken place. As a result modern Greece developed into a chaotic mixture of modern capitalism and neo-feudalism. This is an insight that helps explain some of the particularities of Greek football. While some of the drawbacks (and advantages) of England's deep-rooted economic liberalism are dramatically illustrated by the foreign ownership of the nation's leading sides, the contours of Greece's economic fiefdoms reveal themselves in the governance of the nation's football teams. Even to this day, it's not unusual to see the post-match interview conducted by the owner of a club, or the chairman, rather than the manager. Last season Panathinaikos won the double and reached the last 16 of the Europa League but they changed their manager three times. In the 1980s, before the partial 'Europeanisation' of the Greek league, the refusal of Iraklis to sell Hatzipanagis was as much a statement about the standing of Nikolaos Atmatzidis, the club's powerful owner, as it was about what happened on the football field.

"When I stopped playing in 1991, all the laws started," Hatzipanagis said. "I wish I'd been born 15 years later. With the freedom of contract that players have now, I wouldn't even be in Greece."

He would have left Greece despite the steady progress made by the league? "Look, the contracts have changed, the facilities are better but the level is still the same," he said. "And now we have too many second-rate foreign players coming here. I believe every team should have five or six Greek players otherwise we won't have a national team in the future.[Ioannis] Fetfatzidis, [Sotiris] Ninis, [Kostas] Mitroglou, [Kostas] Manolas and that guy from AEK who's at Milan [Sokratis Papastathopoulos] have quality but it's a thin basis for a successful national side. This goes for other countries too by the way. Today in Arsenal they have many foreigners, and that's partly why the national team of England is not that good."

What continually comes over is that, for all his peripatetic upbringing, Hatzipanagis defines himself by his ethnicity. Hatzipanagis had a difficult career. He was unable fully to develop his talent. He was not as materially successful as he might have been. He has every reason to be bitter. He is right to be bitter. But it's his lack of Greek caps that demonstrably moves him most.

"The greatest injustice was that I didn't play for the national team," he said. "That was the biggest injustice and everybody and every Greek says that. Even the Greeks abroad. The biggest injustice of all. Fifa banned me because I had played for the USSR and there was a law back then that if you played for one national team you could not play for another. I personally think that I could have played but the Hellenic Football Federation didn't handle it well. When I spoke to Valentin Granatkin, the Russian vice-president of Fifa, he told me that it was not their fault and that they would support an appeal, but the appeal never happened. What could I do?"

Now, for the first time, there comes across, more modestly expressed than can be translated into English, a tangible outpouring of sadness. British journalists have long bemoaned the absence of the likes of George Best and Ryan Giggs from the World Cup. Hatzipanagis simply wishes he could have been as unfortunate as them.

"My big complaint is that I am entirely Greek (καθαρός έλληνας) and it's the biggest injustice and bitterness that I haven't played for the national team. It's like they cut off my career. I wanted very much to play for the national team of Greece, but Greece didn't do anything about it. And that's why every Greek says that Hatzipanagis is the most wronged player. That's how I'd like you to end the interview. We should clarify that as a Greek I wanted very much to play for Greece. I'm grateful to the USSR and to the people of Tashkent, but I am a patriot. I have Greek blood in my veins. I am Greek and I wanted to play for the national team and I didn't."

This article could not have been written without the assistance of Andreas Skafidas of Athens 98.4FM. Many thanks also to Nadi Kapou and Evy Noula. Rob Smyth, Luke Heeley and Dr Mark Smith read and helped improve an earlier draft.