Euro 2012 Player Spot: Group A: Greece: Kyriakos Papadopoulos
2004 European champions Greece have come some distance from that historic sporting achievement in Portugal eight years back. German coach Otto Rehhagel’s era of suffocating yet effective ultra defensive play has made way for Portuguese tactician Fernando Santos’ free flowing football philosophy based on a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation with a 4-3-3 line up as a probable Plan B.
Clubbed with the likes of Croatia, Israel, Georgia and Latvia in their Euro 2012 qualifying Group F, this young and versatile looking Greek side brushed aside their opponents with a unique brand of passing football that seems to have captivated the minds of the Greek people in the midst of an economic hardship. Unlike Euro 2012 co hosts Poland who rely more on individuals on and off the pitch for motivation the Hellenic kingdom, from the days of Otto Rehhagel, have inculcated a spirit of team effort to nullify the lack of great names in major tournaments. Although since the Herculean effort of winning Euro 2004 Greece have suffered ignominious exits from respective qualifying campaigns and international tournaments, the current success in the Euro 2012 qualifying process has thrown some glorious young talents to the international spotlight and has raised questions over a possible surprise showing by the former champions come June 2012.
The current set of young Greek players has not only underlined the depth of the Greek domestic football but is also being groomed in the mantra of team effort. Since being appointed as the Greek national team head coach in the summer of 2010 the Portuguese Santos has called up 55 different players giving international debuts to sixteen of them. No wonder the Greeks scored fourteen goals from ten different players from all positions throughout the qualifying campaign. The head coach’s experience in Greek football where he had been the coach of PAOK for four years prior to his new appointment has offered the new generation of players to play under familiar surroundings with a similar Greek philosophy.
Names such as Sotiris Ninis(often dubbed the Greek Messi), Ioannis Fetfatzidis, Giannis Maniatis are doing the rounds around top European clubs currently although one player to look out for in the summer is 19 year old Schalke 04 defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos. Already in the record books for being the youngest ever player to appear in the Greek Super League at the age of 15 years and 283 days, young Papadopoulos is already the man that Greece look forward to in bossing the defence when the Euros get underway. The former Olympiakos defender’s vigour and versatility attracted the watchful eyes of German club Schalke 04 and Papadopoulos used the popular stage of the Bundesliga to showcase his immense talent that was never going to avoid the watchful eyes of Fernando Santos. Called up to the national side for the first time in the middle of the qualifying campaign in June 2011 due to injuries in the Greek squad, the six feet tall defender had a dream debut at home scoring his team’s second goal in a 3-1 win over Malta. Both Papadopoulos and two goal hero Ioannis Fetfatzidis earned immense praise from the Greek media after the Malta game as youth power was given the chance to carry a suffering country’s hopes into the sporting arena. Subsequently the player’s maturity and god gifted ability to read the game at the back and at set pieces have made him one of the integral figures of the Greek defensive set up. That the young boy can handle pressure was evident enough when he masterminded a fine defensive show against Israel last September in a tough away qualifier that the Greeks crucially won 1-0 and more importantly found the net in a 1-1 draw against Latvia in Riga four days later.
Immensely hard working and with endless passion for the game, Kyriakos Papadopoulos is a natural leader with an excellent mental set up to add to his on field skills. His time at Schalke playing alongside experienced defenders in the form of Christoph Metzelder and Benedikt Howedes has already made him an accomplished centre back. Reportedly a target of Sir Alex Ferguson, the teenage Greek sensation has proved his versatility by playing as a holding midfielder for both the Greek youth team and Schalke where Ralf Rangnick once used him as a sole holder in the midfield to mark Wesley Sneijder in a Champions League quarter final clash against Inter Milan in 2011. The young no nonsense former Greece U-21 captain defied his age group to stifle the world class Sneijder’s influence in the game and Schalke went to record an incredible 5-2 win over the then defending champions at San Siro that paved the way for the Italian team’s exit from the tournament.
The combination of youth, physical prowess and astute mental qualities has made 19 year old Kyriakos Papadopoulos one of the players to watch out for not just in Euro 2012 but also in the near future if the player shows enough maturity to stay at Schalke until his contracted year of 2014 despite being linked with a host of top European clubs.