INTERVIEW: Stelios Giannakopoulos, A Remarkable Greek And European Champion

INTERVIEW: Stelios Giannakopoulos, A Remarkable Greek And European Champion
 

14 years ago, the Greek national team achieved something akin to a sporting miracle when they won EURO 2004. Recently, AGONAsport had the pleasure of speaking with Stelios Giannakopoulos, one of the main protagonists of that side that defied football logic.

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In a playing career that spanned the better part of two decades, Giannakopoulos rose through the ranks in Greek football. He began his footballing journey as a youth player at local clubs in the Athens area, always connected with Ethnikos Asteras with whom he signed for at a young age. It was with Asteras where he first played at the professional level in 1991-92 as the team was promoted to the third division (Gamma Ethniki). 

In 1992-93 he shot himself onto the radar of bigger clubs with a superb season where he made 32 appearances and scored six times. Paniliakos came calling and Giannakopoulos was off to Pirgos. He played three full seasons for Paniliakos, helping the team to successive promotions, eventually reaching the Alpha Ethniki in 1995. Giannakopoulos and teammate Predrag Djordjevic were attracting serious attention by Greek football’s top clubs by then.

It was no surprise then that Olympiacos swooped in to nab the pair in the summer of 1996. The arrival in Piraeus of Giannakopoulos and Djordjevic coincided with the end of the ‘petrina’ years at the club, which was characterized by a barren run of nine seasons without a league title. Instead, the duo helped begin of period of sustained domestic success by Olympiacos, arguably the greatest period in the history of the club.

Giannakopoulos’ time in Piraeus saw him win seven straight league titles, including a league and cup double in 1998-99. Olympiacos became the dominant team in Greece and began to feature in the UEFA Champions’ League. Giannakopoulos scored the club’s first goal in the competition and eventually played a key role in the team that just missed out on the semi-finals of the competition in 1999. 

His performances for Olympiacos had long seen him attract the interest of clubs from abroad. Finally, in 2003, Giannakopoulos left Greece for England and the Premier League. Bolton was his destination, a club that had narrowly avoided relegation for two seasons in a row. Giannakopoulos’ time at the Reebok Stadium was a massive success. He helped Bolton become a solid midtable side, one that even managed to qualify for Europe in two of his five seasons with the club. 

In 2005, Liverpool were on the verge of signing the player, however Bolton did not want to sell and thus he remained with the club until leaving for Hull City in 2008. The move to Hull did not work out as planned and ‘Stelios’ moved back to Greece in 2009 to play for Larisa. He remained there for one year managing to help the team qualify for Europe before calling quits on his playing career at the beginning of 2009.

His development as a player at Olympiacos saw him called up to the national team for the first time in 1997. He would go on to play for Greece until 2008, amassing 77 caps and 12 goals for his country. 

He participated in every qualifying match for EURO 2004, scoring arguably the biggest goal of his career in June 2003 against Spain in Zaragoza. His strike gave the Ethniki a crucial 1-0 victory and put the team on the road to qualification for the tournament. At EURO 2004, he played in four of the six matches helping Greece pull off one of the biggest shocks the game has ever seen. His vastly successful club career is certainly respected by all true supporters of the Greek game, but it was his appearances in the Galanolefki shirt that have endeared Greeks at home and abroad most.

A player with huge respect across the board due to his respectful demeanor, Giannakopoulos will always be remembered fondly as a player who gave total commitment to his teams. His overall dynamic play and ability to come inside as a winger and score goals was second to none in Greece during his time. Above all, his name will always be synonymous with that EURO 2004 victory and his name will forever be etched with golden letters in the history of the Greek game. 

AGONAsport: Your father played for Panathinaikos. Did you ever believe that you would spend the bulk of your career at Olympiacos?

Stelios Giannakopoulos: Sometimes life brings us things that we don’t expect. You cannot order things in life sometimes the way you would like and that was what happened with my situation. My father played for Panathinaikos. Everybody believed that I would also go there, and many knew I was a step away from going. I had already spoken with Panathinaikos, and the club had already spoken with Paniliakos. 

AS: You and Predrag Djordjevic went to Olympiacos and the club immediately began winning titles. How much joy do you derive thinking about your time in Piraeus?

SG: The joys which I took from Olympiacos cannot be put into words and remains to today. The love which I receive from Olympiacos supporters is so great. When you walk out onto the street and someone says to you ‘A re Stelio!’ and taps you on the shoulder to say something nice about whatever it is, that is the greatest reward any athlete can ever experience. It’s an even bigger joy when you hear it from fans of other teams, not only Olympiacos. That makes you feel so proud as a person to know that I did something small, I played one small part in contributing to the history of football in Greece.  

AS: Your next stop was Bolton. Tell us about your experiences in the English Premier League.

SG: In England, I grew and became a complete footballer. I arrived there at a very good and mature football age at 29 after leaving Olympiacos. What people say about the ‘magical world’ of the Premier League is all true. If a fan hasn’t felt this atmosphere, we are not even talking about players, who for them it is something altogether unbelievable, but even for a fan to see this up close is the experience of a lifetime which will always be engraved in the mind. That is simply for a fan, what can I say as someone who played there for five and half years.

AS: You were close at one time to joining Liverpool and Manchester City. Do you wish those moves ever materialized?

SG: Yes, I was extremely close in 2005 to go to Liverpool. Manchester City was not the team it is today. Back then as a club they were probably a half-step up from Bolton, but nothing like the team today with the rich owners and Guardiola.

I was within touching distance of a move to Liverpool. During that time period, Rafa Benitez was calling me virtually every day telling me to be careful in training and not to get injured. It was basically a matter of time before I signed, but unfortunately my club would not give me away as I was under contract with Bolton. Even though I had a fairly small buy-out clause the deal did not happen as Bolton just did not want to sell. 

Bolton eventually signed me to a new deal, with much better terms and as such I stayed with the team. It wasn’t in my hands to go to Liverpool, which if I had worn that historic shirt then what else could I have asked for in my life?

But, I continued at Bolton after signing a new contract and I did very well there. I was perfectly happy at Bolton, it didn’t bother me that I didn’t make the move to Liverpool. In fact, I was playing even better after all that happened. I was even freer and I played the best football of my career at Bolton.  

AS: What does Greek football need in order to improve?

SG: For Greek football to improve, it needs to copy and paste that which the healthy football countries do. We need to do whatever we can here, to implement whatever good they do. What do I mean by that? To ensure that people in important positions know about football. People who understand the game, and if possible to have people involved who have played the game. We also need qualified people who have the proper licenses or who have received the proper education in order to be able to organize and contribute to the sport. That way football in Greece can become more productive. We can produce players, there are always talented youngsters. But, we need to expose these young footballers so they can develop. 

AS: What was your best goal? Your most important?

SG: The goal that most fans remember was the one for Olympiacos against Porto in the Champions’ League (Matchday 1, 1997/98 season) which was certainly a very impressive goal. It was my first game in the competition and Olympiacos’ as well. It also was the first goal we scored and gave us our first victory. All of that combined to make it a very intense goal. I have scored many nice goals in my career, including in my time in England, but that goal was amongst the most beautiful. That one against Porto always sticks out in my head. The most important goal I scored was possibly the one against Spain in the EURO 2004 qualifiers.
 

AS: Who do you rate as the best players you played with?

SG: That is so difficult, where do I begin? My good friend Predrag Djordjevic who we were together at Paniliakos and then Olympiacos. Grigoris Georgatos, Alekos Alexandris are some others. I cannot fail to mention Kyriakos Karataidis who was our emblematic captain at Olympiacos. He was someone who experienced two different time periods at Olympiacos. He suffered through the ‘petrina’ years and then also was there for the period of consecutive championships, I cannot fail to mention ‘Kouli’. Also at Olympiacos were the likes of Giovanni and Christian Karembeu.

In England, where to start and where to finish? I must mention Fernando Hierro, who was the flag-bearer of not only Real Madrid, but also the Spanish national team for so many years, he was a symbolic player. Jay Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka were some others I could mention. I had some wonderful teammates.

AS: Who were your toughest opponents?

SG: The toughest opponents I faced were Roberto Carlos and Gary Neville. Those were the most difficult players I faced in my career, by a great distance from the rest.

AS: Which coaches were the best you had?

SG: I could say so many. If I say one it will be unfair to the others. At Olympiacos, I must say Dusan Bajevic and Takis Lemonis. They are two managers who I have the utmost respect for. Antonis Georgiadis at Paniliakos was the manager who brought me to the fore and gave me my chance. Sam Allardyce in England. He opened the door for me to England when he brought me there. And of course Otto Rehhagel, who together with all of us achieved such a remarkable feat.

AS: Do you have any regrets in your career?

SG: I wouldn’t say I had any real regrets. Simply, I would have liked to change the way I ended my career. I would have liked to close out my career wearing the jersey of Olympiacos. I attempted to, but was unable to make it happen. It’s not a regret necessarily, and you sometimes just have to accept that things cannot be exactly how you want them to be or how you plan them out to be. If there was one thing I could change it would be to end my career the way it deserved to be ended, at Olympiacos. 

AS: Portugal. EURO 2004. How did Greece pull off the miracle?

SG: The most important factor was that we were all together, united. We were a team with capital letters. There was no one, absolutely no one, no matter the name, and there were a lot of big names in that team, who considered themselves above the team. We were all united under the Greek flag. We all gave 110%, and we were all in very good condition, because I believe that played a key role. 

We took advantage of even the smallest opportunity that was given to us in matches. I remember in every game we never had too many chances to score. Whatever chance we created we converted it into a goal. If we created only a half chance, we scored. That, combined with our organization in attack and on defense helped us so much. We had very good discipline as a unit on the pitch. At times, good fortune smiled upon us, but I don’t think this was a major issue. It’s just that with this type of achievement, you also need a little luck on your side. The only match we weren’t who we were supposed to be we lost, the group finale against Russia.

Therefore, I believe if you laid everything out and looked at it clearly and critically, we got what we deserved. And what we deserved was to win that cup.  

AS: A massive opportunity was lost for Greek football after winning the EURO 2004. What didn’t happen? Who is to blame?

SG: What did not happen? Well we can say lots of things did not happen. I don’t think it’s the time to say now, or it won’t help now to say who was at fault. It’s very easy to throw down blame and say this person is to blame or this happened, this didn’t. I believe that history shows in the end what happened, who worked, who didn’t work, who produces, and what each person does from the post that they represent, from the position of their work. 

Us players gave everything, we did not only do our job, but we went above and beyond. I believe it wasn’t in our hands to fix Greek football, if it was I believe we would have worked and done something to help the game improve. Unfortunately, we were not able to take advantage of the massive gift which the national team offered to all of Greece. Winning the EURO was the best advertisement for the country ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games in what was the year of Greece in 2004. 

We never built upon that success like basketball did with the Eurobasket win in 1987 with the likes of Galis, Giannakis, and the others. Unfortunately, we were unable to do what they did in that sport.  

AS: You have done some coaching in the last few years. Is this a path you intend to follow?

SG: It’s something I like very much and naturally I am going to continue with it. I am already looking for the next stop in my coaching career. I have already had some experience with two smaller clubs so I can do what I did as a player, to become seasoned and to gain experiences. I did that with my former club Paniliakos for six months and then I spent a year at Kifissia. 

I believe the time has come for me to take a big step in my career and go to a higher level where I can test my capabilities. I believe in myself and I have the thirst, just as I did as a player, to learn and to improve so that I may find success. I would work in Greece or abroad. Wherever there are the conditions in place where you can properly do your job. 

AS: What other football dreams and aspirations do you have?

SG: Even from a youngster, what always mattered to me was successes and how I could make it to the top. Some called me a daydreamer, who was always saying big things. But, if you listen to what people say, I think that can be very bad. I never listened to those people. I worked extremely hard, and just as I did then, now I do the same as I try to find success. 

AS: What advice would you give youngsters who want to become footballers?

SG: The advice I would give first and foremost is to love what they are doing. They must be prepared to sacrifice a lot if their aim is to become footballers at the top level. In order to make it, you need a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of training. 

Difficult times will surely come and the road is not adorned with rose petals. There will be plenty of tough times, perhaps a loss of form, potential injuries, that is all common in our profession. They also must have people close to them that support them in their difficult moments and truly love them. 

Naturally, you also need to have dreams, aspirations, and a focus on big objectives so that way at some stage you can reach the highest point you are able to. 

AS: What would you like to say to all of Greek omogenia living across the world?

SG: I have truly felt like they all have, being someone who has also lived abroad. Those five-and-a-half years in England are not the 20, 30, or 40 years that many compatriots have lived abroad or those who have been born in another country, but it allowed me to feel what they must feel, and I can understand them and I can see it in their eyes. 

We travelled once to Australia with the Ethniki and the way they would look at us and how they looked after us was amazing. They would come up just to touch us, just to see us up close. I understand that emotion because I have also felt it when you are far away from your home country. You miss it so much and your bond with your ‘patrida’ becomes even stronger. 

I send my love, we love them all so much. We love them so much because they have shown us, especially with the Ethniki, how close they are to the team, and they have shown us what it means to love Greece. Truly, I have them in my heart.  
 

 
by George Tsitsonis
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