The Euro star

Premiership's sole winner from Portugal is finding that life with the Wanderers will never be the same
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The Independent Football

There was a cake from the other players and the staff at Bolton Wanderers on Friday to welcome back Stelios to the club, the only player in the Premiership to return from Euro 2004 with a winner's medal. "They all called out, 'Speech, speech', so I made a little speech in bad English," smiled Stelios, brown eyes still radiant at the memory of what he and the rest of the unfancied Greek team achieved in Portugal last month.

As Stelios points out, still smiling, he hardly needs a bigger name in the wake of Portugal, since the full moniker is Stylianos Giannakopoulos. "I already have a lot of letters," he said. "But more people know me now, they respect players who have achieved something. So I hope this season I will get more respect from the fans, Bolton's fans as well as the away fans."

That historic victory at Euro 2004, achieved a week before Stelios's 30th birthday, sparked a reaction in Greece which the Athens Olympics will struggle to match. The team were flown home and taken straight to the Panathinaikos stadium, where 80,000 had gathered to hail them. "There were also millions in the streets," said Stelios, "all nationalities, Japanese, Chinese, black people, all curious to see the team. People who did not know whether football is played with feet or hands. They know us now, we are popular with everyone in Greece."

As a former Olympiakos player before joining Bolton a year ago, Stelios was surprised to be greeted by fans from the rival Athens club, Panathinaikos. "Normally, when their fans see you they say bad words, now everyone wants to shake your hand." The handshakes included those of Greece's president and prime minister, who held receptions for the team before they all peeled away to go on holiday. Even then, Stelios's four-week break did not bring respite. "Every day in the street I could not walk two steps without being stopped by people for an autograph, for a photo, for a kiss. It was amazing, unbelievable."

If he thought coming back to Bolton might quieten things down a little, Stelios was mistaken. When he flew into Manchester Airport last Wednesday he signed, by his own estimate, "20 or 30" autographs. "Now I realise that even here in England I am beginning to be recognised." Was he surprised at what Greece achieved? "Of course, everybody all over the planet was surprised. We went [to Euro 2004] determined to make a good impression, but game after game we saw we could do something better. We realised we could match any opponent and then beat them."

Stelios was particularly impressed by the reaction of the host nation's supporters. "When we beat Portugal in the opening match they clapped us. Then, when we beat them again in the final, they did it again. We couldn't believe it. Greek mentality is not like that. If we lose we don't accept the loss, we don't applaud our opponents. This was a great experience, they were very kind to us."

The greatest experience of all, said Stelios, was hoisting the trophy on finals night, followed by spotting his three-and-a-half-year-old son, Alexandros, in the crowd, coincidentally clad in a Bolton shirt. "I took him into my arms to feel the atmosphere. I hope he understood what was happening there. Maybe after five, six, 10 years he will understand."

Greece's football victory was, in his opinion, the best possible advert for the Olympics. "We promoted the name of Greece all over the planet, some people back home even feel what we did was better than the Olympics." Stelios was invited, as one of the three older players permitted in the Olympic football team, to play for his country at the Games but, after consulting the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, he declined. "I think that was the right decision," he said.

"This season I have my commitments with Bolton, the Confederation Cup and the World Cup qualifiers, a very tiring year. I cannot cut myself into three pieces and still be fit and well, which is what is most important to me." Stelios also had to decline an invitation to carry the Olympic torch through his home town near Athens on its final journey to the opening ceremony on Friday, the day before the Premiership season starts. "I am a bit disappointed but I have to put my job above my feelings," he said.

Bolton's season will begin without Stelios in the side, since he is just back in training and well short of match fitness. "I have to catch the others up, so it will be about three weeks before I am ready for selection." Although he appeared in 31 games for Bolton last season, Stelios was not an automatic choice and was hobbled for a while by injury. Now he has that important boost of a trophy-winner's confidence to propel him. "In football the psychological part is very important, and now I see the respect in the eyes of everybody," he said.

He brushes aside any thought that League football in England will be a let-down. "Not at all, the level here is like the Euro, the top. You don't have to come down out of the clouds to play in the Premiership, we are in the clouds here. This is the best league in the world." Even if it does get a bit lonely sometimes being the only Greek in the League now that Nikos Dabizas has been relegated with Leicester. "Perhaps the gaffer will sign one more Greek to keep me company," he said wistfully. "A lot of them deserve to be playing here." Which is something the shrewd Allardyce will not fail to have noted.

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