Stylianos Giannakopoulos: an English odyssey

From Olympiakos to the Reebok, via victory in Euro 2004 with Greece, ambition has driven the Bolton midfielder to cross frontiers. He tells Andy Hunter how he found a home from home
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The Independent Online

Stylianos Giannakopoulos did not meet the criteria for a "Sam special" when he arrived at the Reebok Stadium. A fading force in desperate need of one of Allardyce's famed career revivals? Hardly. Here was a man who had recently hoisted aloft his seventh successive league championship with Olympiakos Piraeus and was the object of several English and Spanish clubs' affections upon joining the legion of the Bosman free transfers in the summer of 2003.

Nevertheless, when Bolton landed the Greece international more commonly known as Stelios they signed a player with baggage that would turn an already complicated transfer of cultures into an inauspicious start to life in England.

The baggage belonged to two expectant parents, both proud patriots torn by the decision over whether to have their impending second child on native soil or in a country they had just discovered and where they knew hardly a soul.

"In the end my wife gave birth here, but it was a very tough beginning," recalls the Reebok's adventurous midfielder. "The other big problem was the weather. We had lived our whole lives in a warm country and arrived in a place with no sun. It is psychological, it is like a depression when you don't see the sun but, when I do, my whole body smiles."

Sunshine remains only an occasional visitor to Lancashire and yet it underlines the depth of Bolton's support structure for their many imports that, 12 months later, a Giannakopoulos family now boasting the addition of a second son had no hesitation in sharing the finest moments in their homeland's football history with their adopted club.

Greece's astonishing triumph under Otto Rehhagel at the 2004 European Championship represents, not surprisingly, the pinnacle of Stelios' professional career and is a subject that still has the capacity to leave an engaging and intense character at his most animated. It also saw the 59-times capped international at his most benevolent too. Ahead of the semi-final encounter with an in-form Czech Republic team in Oporto, the Giannakopoulos family dressed their eldest son in a white football shirt that stood out against a joyous blue mass once Traianos Dellas' headed silver goal beat Petr Cech during extra time.

When the final, unexpected victory was secured against the host nation Portugal at the Estadio da Luz, Stelios' thoughts remained with the Reebok. "I didn't need any help at Olympiakos because I had grown up in Athens and there were no problems in my life," explains the 31-year-old. "Here, I needed and I received so much help to settle in that I dedicated part of Greece's victory in the European Championship to Bolton.

"After the semi-final against the Czech Republic my son came running on to the pitch wearing the Bolton kit. I love Bolton, so I dedicated one part of the victory to them. The rest I dedicated to Greece, myself, my family and to every Greek on the planet."

Stelios almost repaid Bolton with a place in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals on Thursday, but the Fabien Barthez fumble that produced his opening goal proved the highlight of a painful night when the attacking midfielder's willingness to defend backfired for both Marseilles' goals. Not that he will be held responsible for a campaign he did so much to achieve and extend.

Arguably the most successful export from Greece's European Championship side - unquestionably so in England where Dellas and the influential captain Theo Zagorakis made little impression at Sheffield United and Leicester City respectively -Stelios is now so confidently integrated that he admits to thinking in English on the occasional return home, which must be a worrying development for someone who only left the country on the cusp of his 29th birthday.

The midfielder, now a veteran of 109 appearances and 21 goals for Bolton, has other reasons for embracing the club than their assistance during his wife's pregnancy and those bewildering early days in a strange land, so that he pledged his allegiance by signing a new three-year contract last summer despite persistent interest from European champions Liverpool and Manchester City to lure him away.

He had elected to join a club more accustomed to relegation struggles than European adventure as part of a personal bet: "To prove myself to people who didn't know me. If a player can play in the Premiership, he can play anywhere in the world."

The increasing success of the past three years are dividends that he insists equal the unparalleled triumphs he enjoyed in Greece. Seven league titles and unrelenting adoration would be the envy of most footballers, but Stelios grew tired of the comfort zone in Olympiakos and, as his tireless performance at Stade Vélodrome reinforced, he is a man who relishes the Bolton modus operandi of challenging and upsetting the established order.

In flawless English, he recalls: "Every year at Olympiakos was the same for me. We knew that whether a game was hard or easy we were going to win the title because we were by far the best team in the country. But there was something missing from my career. I knew I had to try the Premiership or La Liga and I took my chances. It was hard to leave the champions, it was like a player here wanting to leave Manchester United or Chelsea to try something new abroad.

"In Greece I was like a king but I came here to start from the beginning, from zero, because nobody knew me. In Athens every door was open to me. Here, I had to convince everybody about my value as a player. It was a risk, but one I have never regretted.

"On my first day at Bolton I liked the fact that no one knew who I was because it meant there would be some peaceful days. In Greece I was never relaxed, I was recognised everywhere I went and was always giving photographs and autographs. You never had peace.

"Here it was nice and quiet. I am recognised more now but, to be honest, I prefer to stay at home. That is why I bought a house close to the training ground, because I wanted more time to relax, to play with my kids and prepare for the next game."

While it is the unpredictable nature of English football that holds great appeal for the midfielder, it is a structured society that Stelios cites as the most charming aspect of British culture. He explains: "I like the organisation of England. Everything is in order. You have rules and you follow them. It is not like in Greece, where we have rules but we don't follow them.

"For example, in Greece you would drive through a red light if nobody was watching you, here I wouldn't even think about it. Small things. You have discipline; we don't. We need to be threatened to have discipline; you have grown up with a different mentality and I like this because I like organisation and discipline."

It will come as no surprise to discover that Stelios, who fixes you with piercing brown eyes whenever he stresses a salient point, has been offered a career as a football pundit in Greece when his playing career is over. That, however, can wait.

The midfielder takes pride in his dedicated professionalism and claims he has acted this way from the age of seven thanks to the guidance of a father who forged his own successful career with Panathinaikos. The commitment to his career includes such meticulous detail as eating pre-match meals one hour ahead of his Bolton team-mates, a consequence of the one attempt at English tradition where he did not succeed.

"I was used to eating four hours before a match and in England it is three hours," he reveals. "I wanted to do it like the English do, but I found I hadn't digested my food in time for the game so I stuck to my plan."

His sacrifices should produce a Premiership career that endures until the age of 34, though whether the manager who has taken Bolton so far will still be at the helm in 2008 is in doubt, with the FA and Newcastle among Allardyce's admirers. "It is very important we keep the gaffer here," says Stelios. "Before I came here nobody could have imagined there would be European football at the Reebok Stadium. This season it was a reality, but we were not satisfied with the Uefa Cup. We want the Champions' League. It would be the ultimate pleasure for me because I came here when the club was fighting for survival and I would leave with the ultimate glory of the Champions' League."

One argument that has been presented against Allardyce's appointment to the England job he craves is that, despite consistent achievement on meagre resources, it has been acquired without native talent.

However, that theory not only airbrushes the immense contribution of Kevin Davies, Joey O'Brien and Kevin Nolan out of the story, with the 23-year-old captain a strong candidate for promotion to the World Cup should injury befall any of the established members of Sven Goran Eriksson's midfield, it also ignores the manager's ability to fashion unity from players of disparate backgrounds and personalities. Even if Eriksson's squad share the same passport, surely that is a prerequisite of any candidate?

Of all the executive boxes in all of the Reebok Stadium, Stelios happens to be sat in one sponsored by a company named Prolific Management for this interview and he argues: "The gaffer deserves so much credit for bringing so many nationalities together and putting them together under the Bolton Wanderers shirt. It is great thing. We try to speak English but we have English, French, Greek, Mexican, Nigerian, a real mixture, and yet we are all fighting for the good of Bolton. There is a great spirit here and having so many nationalities has something to do with that.

"We understand how difficult it can be for a foreign player. We have the help of so many people behind the scenes, they play a massive part because if we don't live well we cannot produce. But we have no problems, the club sorts everything. Olympiakos looked after everybody too, but I never realised how a stranger feels in a different country. Now I do."

The prototype Allardyce footballer, relentless and productive, Stelios is also a leading advocate of the uncompromising style of play that has more detractors than admirers beyond Bolton. Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benitez have led the criticism of Wanderers this season, coincidentally after both Arsenal and Liverpool endured disappointing results at the Reebok.

The Stelios stare is switched back on the second the subject arises. "This is a good opportunity for me now to talk about our glory in 2004," he states. "Everybody said that we didn't play beautiful football but the only thing I know is that we took the trophy back to our country.

"Sometimes you have to sacrifice beautiful football for the result. For me it is not very important that people come up to me after a match and congratulate me on the way we played when we have taken nothing. I'm not saying every team should do that but here, for example, the football we play at Bolton is effective. We take victories, big victories, against big opponents, so we don't have to change the way we play to satisfy others and disappoint ourselves. You have to take advantage of every small detail that can win you the match. This is exactly what we do here.

"If we didn't win, would people be talking about the gaffer for England? It would be, 'Oh, they play nice football but they are in the relegation zone'. Now we are up and they want the gaffer for the national team and you want to interview me. If we were fighting relegation I wouldn't be here now and the gaffer wouldn't be all over the newspapers. It is football. Success brings publicity. It is a chain."

Wherever the future takes Stelios - and it will be connected to football, with management, television and even the possibilities of becoming an agent or a club director under consideration - his primary concern are his two boys and the tradition begun by his own father.

"It is my dream that one or perhaps both of my sons will become a footballer," he says. "I'm not sure what the British law is but maybe my son who was born here will one day have the chance to play for England ... but I would advise him to play for Greece."

The pause provides enough evidence of his divided affection.

Greece's unlikely lads: Whatever happened to the Euro 2004 winners?

* Antonios Nikopolidis (gk)

Then: Panathinaikos

Now: After a contract dispute it is still unclear when exactly the deal was agreed but he moved to arch rivals Olympiakos right after the 2004 tournament

* Georgios Seitaridis (right-back)

Then: Panathinaikos

Now: Joined Champions' League winners Porto after the Euro 2004 final. Signed for Dynamo Moscow in May 2005 for £7m

* Traianos Dellas (centre-back)

Then: Roma

Now: Released by Roma in June 2005 to rejoin AEK Athens

* Mihalis Kapsis (centre-back)

Then: AEK Athens

Now: In the aftermath of Greece's victory Kapsis joined the French Ligue 1 club, Bordeaux. However, after only one season he moved to Olympiakos

* Panagiotis Fyssas (left-back)

Then: Benfica

Now: Joined Hearts on a free transfer in August 2005

* Konstantinos Katsouranis (central midfield)

Then: and Now: AEK Athens

* Angelos Basinas (central midfield)

Then: Panathinaikos

Now: Released in September 2005 and signed for La Liga side Real Mallorca in January 2006

* Theo Zagorakis (right midfield)

Then: AEK Athens

Now: Moved to Serie A side Bologna on a free transfer after the tournament but failed to settle (and Bologna's financial troubles meant they could not afford his wages) and returned to Greece with PAOK in the summer of 2005

* Stelios Giannakopoulos (left midfield)

Then and Now: Bolton

* Zisis Vryzas (striker)

Then: Fiorentina

Now: Spent 2004-05 season on loan at Celta Vigo in Spain's Second Division and after returning to Fiorentina signed for Serie B side Torino in January 2006

* Angelos Charisteas (striker)

Then: Werder Bremen

Now: Joined Ajax in December 2004 for a figure believed to be in the region of £3.5m after not establishing himself at Bremen

Substitutes used

* Dimitrios Papadopoulos (for Vryzas, 81)

Then and Now: Panathinaikos

* Stylianos Venetidis (for Stelios, 76)

Then and Now: Olympiakos

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