Football

What happened to Sotiris Ninis, the hope of Greek football?

In Depth

Shortly after his 18th birthday, Sotiris Ninis became the youngest goalscorer in the history of the Greek national team and was later linked with a move to Manchester United. A decade on, he is virtually untraceable.

The 2000s were an incredible time for the Greek football. In 2004, the unfancied Greek national team battled its way to victory in the European Championships, making history with one of the biggest upsets in international tournament history.

Jaws dropped as the well-oiled Greek machine dispatched the likes of France, the Czech Republic and hosts Portugal… twice.

With all due respect to Greece, however, the team that delivered that historical upset was not an entertaining one.

Its success was built on defensive solidity, set pieces and a working understanding of the silver goal rule. Not even the singular talents of Bolton’s Stelios Giannakopoulos could make it watchable.

“Nobody will remember after 20 years that this side was boring,” said a euphoric Nikos Dabizas some 14 years ago.

We remember, Nikos. We all remember.

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READ: Where are they now? The Greece XI that shocked Europe to win Euro 2004

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Greece’s Euro 2004 success earned the national side a reputation for tactics, teamwork and defensive pragmatism.

So it was a surprise to all when, just two and a half years later, one of the world’s hottest footballing prospects — a creative and skilful winger, to boot — emerged not from Rio or Barcelona, but from Athens.

That youngster was Sotiris Ninis, who had made his debut for Panathinaikos in January 2007 at the age of just 16, appeared in his first European match just a month later and had been crowned Greece’s Young Player of the Year by December.

This was, by all accounts, a player worth keeping an eye on.

In May 2008, aged just 18, Ninis earned his first  senior cap for Greece, netting a goal on his debut and becoming the country’s youngest ever goalscorer in the process.

And the records kept coming: a few months later, the winger became Panathinaikos’ youngest ever captain.

Over six seasons at Panathinaikos, Ninis became the great hope of Greek football — a new type of attacking player for the next generation of the national side.

During the 2009-10 season, the winger helped Panathinaikos to a league and cup Double, earning himself a second Young Player of the Year award in the process.

That successful year prompted rumours of a move to Manchester United, with the Manchester Evening News reporting that a “Greek spy” had been sent to track the youngster. These were exciting times, for Ninis and for Greek football.

To some extent, however, the hype wasn’t translating into tangible developments.

The midfielder stayed at Panathinaikos until 2012 — two years after the Manchester United rumours began — and, despite being selected in Greece’s 2010 World Cup squad, he struggled to break into a side that frequently played without wingers.

It was only by the summer of 2012 that things appeared to be moving forward.

Ninis, then 22, agreed a high-profile transfer to Italian side Parma, where he was expected to replace the departing Sebastian Giovinco. President Tommaso Ghirardi was excited, calling his new signing “one of the best young players in Europe”.

With that deal in place, the imminent Euro 2012 tournament seemed to promise greater opportunities than had been available at the 2010 World Cup.

But those opportunities were neither fully presented nor fully grasped.

Although Greece manager Fernando Santos favoured a more attacking system than had been seen under Otto Rehhagel, Ninis was the victim of a Sokratis Papastathopoulos red card in Greece’s opening match. With the team a man down, the attacking-minded Ninis was sacrificed at half-time.

The winger was dropped to the bench for the next two group games, and Greece’s last appearance at the tournament — a 4-2 quarter-final loss to Germany — saw Ninis again substituted after 45 minutes.

Had Parma really landed one of Europe’s hottest talents, or had their new wunderkind been flattering to deceive?

Entirely by accident, Ninis’ own comments on the transfer went some way to answering that question.

“In the Greek league the level is very low, while abroad you learn how to play soccer,” he said. “Greek players should go abroad if they can.”

Intended as encouragement to his peers, the comparison of Greek football with Italian football actually conveyed a different meaning: perhaps Ninis was not so much a genuine diamond in the rough, but simply an above-average winger in a league containing few others.

The subsequent season at Parma suggested as much.

Despite being in the matchday squad for all but one game of the Serie A campaign, Ninis made just five starts, finding himself behind Jonathan Biabiany and Marco Marchionni in the pecking order.

He was returned to Greece, on a one-year loan to PAOK, in the summer of 2013.

From that point on, Nini’s career nosedived. The midfielder missed out on Greece’s 2014 World Cup squad and had his Parma contract terminated in August 2014.

He returned to Panathinaikos a few months later, but the much-hyped return was to prove a false dawn.

Despite being named man of the match after a goalscoring second debut for the club, Ninis — still only 24 years old — could rarely make the starting XI at his former side.

He left for a new challenge in Belgium in January 2016.

But a year and a half with RSC Charleroi and then KV Mechelen did little to get his career back on track, and by the summer of 2017 Ninis had moved to the Israeli league with Maccabi Petah Tikva.

Although the winger displayed the occasional flash of brilliance, the new arrangement lasted just one unsuccessful season, and the 28-year-old is now playing in Israel’s second tier with Hapoel Ashkelon.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of that transfer can be found on Wikipedia, which still lists Ninis as a ‘Free Agent’.

Ninis’ early promise could not have been a mirage, because for six seasons the midfielder impressed greatly at Panathinaikos. Even at a young age, that can’t be described as flash-in-the-pan success.

Neither was his talent solely due to the low quality of Greek football.

Djibril Cissé, a striker who had played in France and England before joining the Athens-based club, called Ninis the most talented player he had ever played with.

Hyperbole, maybe, but Cissé had recently been in the company of players like Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso.

The steep decline of the Greek sensation is therefore hard to fathom.

After all, Greece is a country that generally ekes out long careers for its most talented stars: Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis both played for the national team into their late 30s; keeper Antonios Nikopolidis retired from Olympiacos duties at 40.

Ninis — mysterious, lost Sotiris Ninis — earned his last cap in 2015, at the age of just 25. The way things are going, it’s unlikely he will get another.

By Benedict O’Neill


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