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.

No comments:

Post a Comment