Sunday 9 June 2019

Eight Times Keeper of the Year: The Man Who Was The Greek Goalkeeping God

Who is the only Greek footballer to have won three consecutive League and Cup doubles with two different clubs? The answer it turns out is Antonios Nikopolidis, remember him? The goalkeeper who had a more than striking resemblance to Hollywood actor George Clooney. Yes, you know who I mean, Antonios Nikopolidis.

Antonios Nikopolidis is the most capped Greek goalkeeper of all-time, and the story of his footballing career is also the story of one of the most successful periods in Greek football history. Nikopolidis made his international debut for Greece in 1999 and went on to be an influential member of a Greek national team that as rank outsiders won 2004 European Championships defeating hosts Portugal in the final. At club level, Nikopolidis was a regular starter in the Greek Superleague for Panathinaikos and then later rivals Olympiacos. Whilst playing for the country's two most successful clubs he regularly participated in European club competitions, and in 2002 was part of Panathinaikos side that reached the quarter-finals of Champions League where they lost 3-2 on aggregate to FC Barcelona, further than Greek teams usually progress amongst Europe's elite. During what was obviously an extremely successful club career with Athens' two biggest clubs Nikopolidis was voted Goalkeeper of the season in the Greek Superleague a record eight times during the 10 campaigns from 1999-00 to 2008-09.

After joining from Anagennisi Artas aged 18 in 1989 Nikopolidis made his debut for Panathinaikos in 1991 but it was 6 years later when he actually became a first time regular in goal, and he eventually went on to have a big impact. With Nikopolidis between the posts, each season between 2000-01 and 2003-04 saw Panathinaikos concede the fewest goals of any team in the league, although they only won the league championship once during that period, winning the title in 2004.

In the 2001-02 Champions League played under the old format with a second group phase, Nikopolidis conceded 11 goals in 12 group games, with 5 of those goals having been conceded against the might of Real Madrid and only 6 coming in those other 11 matches. After passing through both group stages, Panathinaikos were in the Quarter Finals where they faced another Spanish footballing giant in the form of Barcelona. A famous 1-0 home victory was, however, sadly followed by a 3-1 away defeat.

In 2004 after contract negotiations broke down, Nikopolidis left Panathinaikos to join arch rivals Olympiacos much to the dismay of the Panathinaikos supporters who booed him when he lifted the league trophy at the end of the season knowing he had agreed to join their enemy. Having played 189 games for Panathinaikos, he would go on to wear the goalkeeper's jersey a further 180 times for Olympiacos. Having helped Panathinaikos to a league and cup double in his final season, he then completed the same feat in his first two seasons with Olympiacos whilst wearing the number 71 shirt, the year of his birth. Whilst at Olympiacos he also developed a reputation for saving penalties. In the 2007-08 season, Nikopolidis saved four penalties during the Greek Superleague season, equaling a league record. He also saved all three of the penalties he faced in the Champions League for the club. Nikopolidis played at Olympiacos for 7 seasons before retiring, winning 6 league titles in that period whilst most seasons conceding fewer goals than every other keeper in the league and making vital saves when it really mattered. 

After a successful club career, Nikopolidis retired in 2011, but aside from his exploits for Greece's two biggest clubs, he was also a hit on the international stage and his and his country's biggest moment came in 2004. Unfancied Greece, seemingly devoid of big name superstars, shocked the world when they beat hosts Portugal in the opening game of the 2004 European Championships, then unexpectedly made their way to the final where they once more stunned the world! Although Nikopolidis conceded four goals in the three group games, he had kept six clean sheets during qualification matches, and kept three clean sheets in the knockout rounds including a 1-0 victory in the final over Portugal again where Nikopolidis made several important saves. Greece had won a tournament that Nikopolidis and the rest of the squad had never in their wildest dreams thought they'd win! Nikopolidis was also named in the Euro 2004 team of the tournament, I very much doubt he'd seen that coming when the tournament kicked off either, but those clean sheets against France, Czech Republic and Portugal certainly helped!

Now retired from playing, Nikopolidis has been head coach of the Greek u21 national team since 2015, whilst in 2016 it turned out he was also coaching a team of refugees and migrants in his spare time. The team is made up of players from countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, most of which have been torn apart by war. Many of these people are stuck in camps waiting for asylum applications to be processed and Nikopolidis says he is trying to "give them a few hours of happiness". 

A 2018 study conducted by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics listed Nikopolidis as the 23rd best goalkeeper in the world between 2001 and 2010 out of a list of 76 goalkeepers and I certainly wouldn't argue against the idea that he was one of the world's top goalkeepers during that decade. I don't know if Nikopolidis ever received any offers to play abroad, but a keeper of his stature would have surely been at home in any of Europe's top leagues and might have made an even bigger name for himself too, their loss, however, was the Greek league's gain. Greece's very own George Clooney of the football field will be remembered throughout Europe for the saves in the Champions League with those two historic Athens clubs, and of course, those three knock-out round clean sheets when Greece stunned everyone to win the European Championships! A real goalkeeping mastermind in a country where the beautiful game has not always produced too many high calibre players.

Saturday 1 June 2019

East Berlin's Team From The Forest Finally Get The Promotion They've Been Craving.

Supporters of 1. FC Union Berlin have probably never before celebrated a 0-0 draw as wildly as they did last Monday night. After a 2-2 draw away at VfB Stuttgart four nights previously, a 0-0 home stalemate saw Union win a promotion/relegation play-off that saw them secure promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history. All hail the away goals rule.

Union Berlin, a team from the German capital's south eastern suburbs had once upon a time been regulars in the DDR Oberliga, what had been the top tier of football in the former state of East Germany, but their post unification story until now has not included top flight football, consisting of years of toughing it out in not just the second tier 2. Bundesliga, but at one point a stint at level four of the German football system.

Nearly thirty years of lower division struggles have now, however, finally been ended with the promotion to the top flight that they've been craving for, and a promotion that also means a derby with city neighbours Hertha BSC will now be on the cards. Whereas once upon a time former East Geman titans turned Regionalliga minnows Dynamo Berlin were the clubs fierce rivals, now they will next season face off against the capitals number one side, bringing together two clubs who since unification have only played each other four times in competitive fixtures when Hertha spent two separate seasons in the second tier some six years ago and eight years ago.

Head out of the centre of Berlin through Alexanderplatz and about 9 miles to the south east you will eventually find the suburb of Köpenick, home to Union Berlin's Stadion An der Alten Försterei where this season the regulars on the terraces have seen their club lose only once in 17 home league games. Situated in the middle of a forest and dating back 1920, much of the stadium was redeveloped during the 2008-09 season and it was the fans who helped complete most of the work with some 2,300 supporters putting in an estimated 140,000 man hours. Crumbling terraces were replaced and new roofs installed as the stadium was modernised to create a suitable venue for second tier football. Further expansion took place in 2013 to leave a 22,012 capacity mostly terraced stadium with only 3,617 seats in place, giving a rather unique experience in the modern day world of professional football. 

In these East Berlin suburbs, the locals have been revelling in the success of their team this season. Under the guidance of manager Urs Fischer, a solid defence has seen Union concede fewer league goals than anyone else in the division, and this is in part down to the clubs formidable centre back pairing of Marvin Friedrich and Florian Hübner. Union were unbeaten in their opening 17 league games, conceding only 12 goals in the process. However, drawing 10 of those 17 games left them in third place and a 3-0 defeat away at Erzgebirge Aue in their final match before the winter break saw them drop to fourth. One other moment of note in that first half of the season was goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz' last gasp equaliser against Heidenheim when he headed the ball home from a free-kick in the dying moments. 

A 3-2 win away at MSV Duisburg on 16 February saw the club move up to second place, but as the season headed towards the final straight, however, the club never really looked like finishing in one of the two automatic places, and 17 points from a possible 36 in their final 12 games saw them finish in third to claim that place in the promotion/relegation play-off, two points ahead of Heidenheim in fifth.

A lack of firepower up front is arguably one reason why Union missed out on automatic promotion. Sebastian Andersson, a Swedish number 10 signed from Kaiserslautern last summer has played in every single league game during the campaign, but in those 34 league games has only scored 12 goals. Regularly featuring alongside Andersson up front has been Sebastian Polter who Queens Park Rangers fans will know well from a two year spell with the club which ended in 2017 after he'd featured 51 times for the West London outfit. Polter has scored 9 goals this season. Solid statistics from the pair I suppose, but not quite championship winning form.

Despite a few slight failings, a third placed finish in the second tier was still, however, a fantastic achievement, and the club's highest finish since unification and what has been a 28 year period of at times toil and trouble in Germany's lower league hinterlands. Union Berlin's story is one that can be put into two parts, the first part is the tale of an Easter German team who found life difficult in the shadows of their regime backed city rivals, whilst the second is one of that lower league struggle post reunification.

Despite a few cup triumphs and regularly appearing in the East German top flight before the Berlin wall came down, Union Berlin never actually won a league championship and were overshadowed by city rivals Dynamo, the team of the Stasi (secret police) who between 1979 and 1988 won ten consecutive Oberliga titles, albeit with arguably a little helping hand from the state. Union may not have had the success of their city rivals, but because of Dynamo's obvious association with hated Stasi, it was actually Union who were the people's team in East Berlin. Although appearing regularly in the East German top flight Union did, however, have spells in the second tier, including the final two seasons of East German football before reunification. This came after a last place Oberliga finish in the 1988-89 season and meant lower league football after reunification. Losing out in a play-off competition to determine which division they would play in post unification saw them miss out on a place in the second division and have to start life in a unified Germany as a third tier side.

Ten straight seasons in the third tier after reunification included a spell of financial trouble and near extinction, but the club fought back to reach the 2. Bundesliga in 2001, the 2000-01 promotion season also included a fantastic cup run which saw the club reach final of the DFB Pokal where they lost 2-0 to Bundesliga side Schalke after a run that had seen them beat another Bundesliga side in VfL Bochum en route to that final. That final place saw them qualify for the following season's UEFA Cup where they lost in the second round. Although Union's stint in the second tier only lasted three seasons, ending with two consecutive relegations, five years later and they were back in the second division, sitting their for ten long seasons before this week's historic play-off victory and the ensuing promotion it brought. 

When Christian Gentner put VfB Stuttgart 1-0 up in the first leg of this seasons Bundesliga Promotion/Relegation Play-Off, most probably thought the inevitable would happen. Since the Promotion/Relegation Play-Offs had been reintroduced for the 2008-09 season, only twice had the second tier side won the tie and after all, why should this time be any different? But if those watching had come to see a comfortable Stuttgart victory then they were to be sorely disappointed!

Gentner finished off a superb run down the right by Anastasios Donis to put the home side in front on 43 minutes but the visitors were level 2 minutes later when Suleiman Abdullahi beat the keeper after latching onto a Sebastian Andersson flick on. Ex German international Mario Gomez came on at half-time and quickly put the home side back in front when he ran from inside his own half before firing a shot that took a heavy deflection off Marvin Friedrich's foot and then his face to wrong foot the keeper. Stuttgart could not hold on however as Friedrich made it 2-2 in the 68th minute when he smashed home a downward header from a corner.

2-2 was the final score in the first leg and Union took two vital away goals back to East Berlin with them. Needing a goal in the second leg Stuttgart had an effort disallowed for offside early on but try as they might they could not find a way in front during the first half and once again had to turn to Gomez at half time. Union looked the better side in the second half, however, with Abdullahi twice hitting the post, but no one found the net and the game finished 0-0. A goalless draw which meant the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate and Union winning on the away goals rule to secure promotion to the Bundesliga for the very first time in their history. 

Wild celebrations followed and the beer was flowing, 28 long years since unification and 1. FC Union have finally hit the big time. After spending years in the East German shadows of their Stasi ran neighbours, and then many years in the footballing backwaters of a unified Germany, this time in the shadows of West Berlin's Hertha BSC, Union can now stand tall in their own right with a seat at Germany's top table.

This piece has been published on Pundit Feed and can be viewed here