Stylianos Giannakopoulos: taking chances and upsetting the odds

Alex Caple

In the summer of 2003, Stelios Giannakopoulos was an Olympiacos player. Life was comfortable for him – regular league champions, loved by the fans, relaxed in his home country. But hings were about to change.

Stylianos Giannakopoulos, thankfully known as Stelios, began his career in Greece’s third tier. The son of a footballer, Stelios shone for Ethnikos Asteros, before getting a move to second tier Paniliakos after his first season. Three years there earned him a move to legendary Greek side Olympiacos in 1996.

Olympiacos were historically the biggest side in Greece, but had fallen behind Panathinaikos and AEK Athens in the Greek Superleauge – they hadn’t lifted the title for a decade.

To say that things changed for the Piraeus side is something of an understatement. Stelios joined in 1996 and left in 2003, winning the Superleague every single year – an unprecedented seven in a row (a streak matched at the moment, as Olympiacos aim to break their record next season. In fact, the side has only failed to win the title twice since 1996: in 2004 and 2010, both won by Panathinaikos). It was a dramatic change of fortune for Olympiacos, who were suddenly firmly at the top of the Greek game.

Stelios made some personal history, too; Olympiakos featured in the Champions Leaugue group stage for the first time in 97/98, with their first game against Portuguese Champions FC Porto. The game took place at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, with Stelios scoring the only goal (one so good that it was named goal of the competition after the tournament finished), therefore scoring the first ever Olympiacos Champions League goal, as well as giving the club its first win in the competition.

The 98/99 Champions League season would be even better for the Greeks; Stelios scored twice in the group stages as his team pushed all the way to the quarter-finals, Juventus only knocking them out 3-2 thanks to an 85th-minute Antonio Conte strike in the second-leg.

That would be as far as Olympiacos went in the Champions League with Stelios, but domestic titles flowed. In his final season with the team, Olympiacos went into the penultimate game of the season hosting arch-rivals Panathinaikos, who were three points clear of them at the top of the table. The Reds needed to win by two clear goals to overhaul their rivals and give them a chance of being champions. Stelios would score twice in a 3-0 win, going on to secure the title on the final day. It was an unforgettable way to end his time there.

His contract at an end, Stelios was at a crossroads. He wanted something new, but his wife was also pregnant with their first son, and the couple were unsure about having the child abroad. Eventually, it was decided that he would move.

“Every year at Olympiakos was the same for me. We knew that whether a game was hard or easy we were going to win the title because we were by far the best team in the country.

“But there was something missing from my career. I knew I had to try the Premiership or La Liga and I took my chances. It was hard to leave the champions, it was like a player wanting to leave Manchester United or Chelsea to try something new abroad.”

The choice was Bolton Wanderers.

Bolton had barely escaped relegation the previous year, finishing 17th, two points above West Ham. Managed by Sam Allardyce, they offered a completely new scene for Stelios to try – from style, to status, to weather.

“We had lived our whole lives in a warm country and arrived in a place with no sun. It is psychological, it is like a depression when you don’t see the sun but, when I do, my whole body smiles.”

The Greek slotted in brilliantly for Bolton, who performed far above expectations with an eight place finish and as runners up in the League Cup. The great season, however, would become something of a footnote in Stelios’ career. The summer of 2004 had arrived, and it was time for the EUROs.

Stelios’ impact on EURO 2004 really started before the tournament. He played in every single one of Greece’s qualifiers for the tournament, and scored the only goal against Spain in a win that secured automatic qualification. No one on earth could have predicted how vital that goal would prove to be.

Greece were put into a group featuring their qualification rivals Spain, Russia, and tournament hosts Portugal, against whom Greece would kick off the tournament. That first game was a sign of things to come as they beat Portugal 2-1, but they could only draw with Spain before a disappointing defeat to Russia.

Into the knockout stages they went, where Greece proceeded to defeat the tournament favourites in each round, all with 1-0 victories. First they knocked out a France side featuring Zidane & Henry among others. Next they got the only ‘Silver Goal’ in history to knock out the Nedved-inspired Czech Republic. Finally, they met tournament hosts Portugal once again, Angelos Charisteas scoring the most important goal in the history of Greek football in the 57th-minute.

It would prove to be the undoubted high point of Stelios’ career, unsurprisingly. He played in four of the six games, including the final, operating from the left of midfield. In the semi-final against the Czech’s Stelios’ love of his adopted Bolton would shine through – his son was wearing a Bolton shirt.

“I didn’t need any help at Olympiakos because I had grown up in Athens and there were no problems in my life. [At Bolton], I needed and I received so much help to settle in that I dedicated part of Greece’s victory in the European Championship to Bolton.

“After the semi-final against the Czech Republic my son came running on to the pitch wearing the Bolton kit. I love Bolton, so I dedicated one part of the victory to them. The rest I dedicated to Greece, myself, my family and to every Greek on the planet.”

The following season was a remarkable one for Bolton. They improved even further, eventually finishing sixth – level on points with European Champions Liverpool, and three points off the Champions League spots – they qualified for Europe for the very first time.

Stelios’ form earned him suitors, and both Manchester City and Liverpool were public about their desire to sign the Greek midfielder. Seemingly on the verge of moving to Merseyside, Stelios instead signed a new contract with Bolton.

05/06 was another successful one individually for Stelios as he scored 12 goals from midfield, including one in the UEFA Cup quarter-final against Marseille. Come March of that year, however, Stelios appeared to regret his decision to stay at Bolton. In an interview with Greek press, he only stated his desire to move.

“I have become more stubborn since last season when I didn’t go to Liverpool – although their official proposal gave me moral satisfaction. That’s my dream – not only to go to Liverpool but, in general, to go to a bigger team.

“Then I would say that I have reached the peak of my career. That’s my vision and I am working very hard every week to make Liverpool or any big team chase my signature.”

That season would prove to be the peak of his individual status in the game though. Injuries began to take their toll, and Stelios failed to score at all in the 06/07 season, before making only 15 league appearances the year after. His contract up with Bolton, he decided to stay in England with newly promoted Hull City. It would prove to be a disaster for him, as he made only three appearances for the Tigers by January before mutually agreeing to end his contract.

He joined Greek side AEL mid-way through the season, instantly proving vital with three goals in his first four games. His first six months there was enough to propel AEL to a top five place, qualifying them for Europe for the very first time. Injuries again took over though, and Stelios was forced to retire before 2009 was out.

Since retiring, Stelios has been the President of the Greek PFA, as well as managing small Greek side Kifisia F.C. Rumours of being part of a consortium to purchase Bolton circled, but never amounted to anything.

Stelios’ career brought him trophies and international recognition. His medal collection includes seven league titles and, of course, a European Championship. He’s a player who sampled both sides of success, playing in a dominant side where winning was expected, but also taking underdogs to heights they’d never experienced before. A player who took chance after chance and just kept on winning.

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