Antonios Nikopolidis won the European Championships with Greece back in 2004. A national hero and one of the most iconic figures of a squad that stunned the footballing world. He made over 400 appearances for Greece’s two biggest clubs Panathinaikos and Olympiacos and is his nations most capped goalkeeper of all time. He has 11 domestic titles, countless Champions League campaigns behind him and a European Championship winners medal to show for a truly outstanding career and I had the pleasure of talking to him for Sofa Sports News.
Antonios, you had a fantastic career, you and the rest of the Euro 2004 squad. The Greek people will no doubt always regard you as heroes. However, in the lead up to the tournament did you believe that Greece as a nation had a realistic chance of going all the way to the final?
“We were always confident that we had a strong group, a group that managed to qualify for the championships in Portugal perhaps against the odds. But if I am being totally honest we didn’t believe at that stage we were capable of winning the competition. Every time we won a game we gained greater belief and so step by step we managed to achieve what we achieved. But we never in our wildest dreams believed we would return from Portugal with the European crown.”
At what point in the tournament did you start to think ‘hang on a minute, we can actually win this’.
“I cannot speak for the others but I personally started to believe after we defeated France in the quarter finals. Although we had already beaten the hosts Portugal and earned a draw against Spain in the group stages, it was that particular victory over France that sparked the belief within the camp. I remember watching the game back the next day and I said to my team mates we can go all the way and win this thing expecting to be laughed at, but everybody agreed. When you make it into the semi finals you have to believe you can win the competition and as I mentioned earlier with every victory the confidence within the squad grew. Of course football is about ability and talent but it’s truly amazing what you can achieve with a bit of belief and the right approach.”
Having won the final against host nation Portugal you returned to Greece where you were welcomed by the Greek people, there were over 100,000 people around the Panathinaikos Stadium, fans lined the streets and you and the squad received a real heroes welcome. Can you describe how you felt and the atmosphere in Athens that day?
“It was emotional, to see so many of your compatriots lining the streets to celebrate was moving and you could really feel how much this meant to the nation as a whole. I felt proud and thankful that we were able to make Hellenic communities right around the world so happy and we could share this achievement with all of those people rather than just those who had made the trip to Portugal.”
The head coach at the time was the German Otto Rehhagel, there is no doubt he was an outstanding tactician but he was unable to speak the language. Did you face any difficulties in terms of communication and how did the squad overcome this obstacle?
“We had a translator with us the whole time, Yiannis Balidis. He had spent a great deal of time in Germany, spoke both languages excellently and fortunately for us he was able to get the managers points across concisely. My concern was that the small details may be lost in translation and sometimes when you are working through a translator the feeling and passion of what is said can disappear. Thankfully Yiannis Balidis was fantastic at his job and he was able to convey the feelings and every detail of Otto’s instructions. For me, Balidis was just as vital to our success as any player that stepped out onto the pitch.”
Greece were unable to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, unfortunately they were eliminated by Croatia in the play-off stage. What did you feel went wrong?
“It was a difficult draw and unfortunately Greek football is not at its strongest right now. Croatia were most people’s favorites to progress and that is because of the quality of players they have to pick from. Rakitic, Modric, Perisic, just to name a few. However, going into the tie I felt Greece’s chances of progression were 50:50. Unfortunately for us, the damage was done in the first leg and it gave us an almost impossible task to overcome in Athens. Defensive errors cost us dearly and at this level, against opponents like Croatia you cannot afford to make these type of mistakes. It’s as simple as that really.”
Going back to your career now, before the European Championships in 2004 you were playing your club football for Panathinaikos however after the tournament you signed for their fierce rivals Olympiacos. How difficult was it making a move between the two rival clubs?
“Tough. Moving clubs is always a challenge but to move from the Green side of Athens to the Red is a different thing all together. I thought long and hard about it, I knew what I wanted and my mind was made up. I made the choice I felt best for my career and for my personal life. You have to learn quickly how to deal with the abuse and the threats that come your way but I believe all of that made me a stronger person and a better footballer.
I was already playing for a side capable of challenging for Greek titles but I felt a move to Olympiacos would allow me to reach the highest levels of the game. By participating year in year out in the Champions League I was able to play at the highest level and that played a huge part in my decision to make the move.”
Throughout your career who would you say was your toughest opponent?
“I played against some fantastic teams, the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United for example. I faced some of the very best the game had to offer but the ones that stand out for me would be Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo – don’t ask me to choose one of them because it’s impossible!”
Who would you say was the best head coach/manager you played under?
“Again, that’s another tough question but I would probably say Ernesto Valverde. Then you have Michel too, these guys improved me as a player as a person and brought new training methods and ideas to the club. For me, they are two of the worlds very best.”
I know that the English Premier League is widely followed in Greece, who are your favorite English team and why?
“Manchester United. Because they are great football club who suffered some very difficult times before becoming the powerhouse they are now. They were in Liverpool’s shadow for a very long time and emerged from the darkness to dominate the English game. Their history and the way they picked themselves up after the Munich air disaster inspired me as a young kid and I instantly became a fan.”
Since your retirement from the game, what have you been up to?
“I am currently the coach of the Greece U21’s, I have been in this position for a couple of years now and I am really enjoying it. It is a great opportunity to earn my stripes as a coach and give back to the nation that’s given me so much. Prior to that I was Leonardo Jardim’s assistant coach at Olympiacos for two years, Michel’s assistant coach after that and I learnt a great deal from the both of them, fantastic managers. Coaching is the next stage of my career and I hope to give it my best shot and perhaps one day get the chance to manage Olympiacos.”
Antonios, here in the UK many people say you are a spitting image of Hollywood actor George Clooney. Is this something you’ve heard before and what do you think?
“Lots of people tell me that! Especially during the time I was playing in the Champions league and on the television it was something I used to hear often. I get it, we have the same grey hair and I suppose I should take it as a compliment, perhaps George will have something different to say about that ! It’s one of those things we have always laughed about with my family and if it brings laughter I am all for it.”