Just as Italian football will always be synonymous with a certain degree of cynicism and Hungary, no matter how far they tumble down the world rankings, will always stir the soul of the romantic, so Greece’s gritty triumph at Euro 2004 means their football will forever be associated with pragmatism and dogged determination.
That this should be the case is something of an injustice in itself, given the creative talents of midfield schemers like Mimis Domazos and Giorgios Karagounis and free-scoring strikers such as Theofanis Gekas, but one man who could confound the preconceptions on his own is Panathinaikos’s young attacking midfielder Sotiris Ninis.
“Ninis is a fantastic player – he’s a real talent,” said French team-mate Djibril Cissé after Ninis’s match-winning turn in the 3-2 Europa League victory at Roma at the end of February. “He’s still young and he showed today why he’s the future of Greek football.”
Leading 3-2 on aggregate from the first leg in Athens, Panathinaikos fell behind to an early John Arne Riise strike at the Stadio Olimpico. But in a six-minute spell before the break Ninis almost single-handedly turned the tie around, scoring with a fine strike from 22 yards and creating two goals for Cissé to send his side into the last 16. It was a performance that announced his arrival on the world stage.
“Of course it was a special occasion and I’m happy to have given a good account of myself,” said Ninis. “I was involved in the moves that brought the three goals but I’m just keeping my feet on the ground at the moment.”
The 19-year-old starlet made his Panathinaikos bow at the age of just 16 and, having rejected the opportunity to play for Albania, the country of his birth, became the youngest player ever to score for his country when he netted on his debut in a friendly against Cyprus in May 2008 at the age of 18 years and 46 days.
Ninis was omitted from Greece’s squad for Euro 2008 and made just one seven-minute substitute appearance in their successful World Cup qualifying campaign but has advanced a beguiling case for inclusion in the World Cup squad thanks to some sparkling performances for both his club and the Greek Under-21 team.
Ninis has contributed to the Under-21s’ strong showing in qualifying for next year’s European Championship in Denmark. In Ninis’s absence, Greece’s 2-1 victory over England in Doncaster on Wednesday evening took the talented group five points clear of Stuart Pearce’s side at the top of Group 9 and to the brink of a place in the play-offs.
It is for Panathinaikos, though, that Ninis has really impressed this season. The club continue to do their best to prevent him burning out and his record of 15 starts and 14 substitute appearances in all competitions this term is testament to how carefully his development is being managed. With Ninis an increasingly influential presence, Panathinaikos have climbed to the summit of the Greek Super League, where they lead Olympiakos by two points with six games remaining in their quest for a first domestic title since 2004.
Ninis’s diminutive stature (he is 5′ 8″), bustling style and eye for a pass make comparisons with clubmate and national team captain Karagounis somewhat inevitable, and with the former Inter star approaching the twilight of his career at the age of 32, Ninis is well placed to take on his mantle as Greek football’s great white hope.
“He’s a very talented young player,” said Panathinaikos’s Brazilian international midfielder Gilberto Silva. “As I’ve said before, I hope people don’t put too much pressure on him. He’s still very young and has a lot to learn but he can improve. He has been more consistent this season and this is what we need.”
Greece stuttered to a lacklustre 2-0 defeat against Senegal in their World Cup warm-up match on Wednesday. Should Otto Rehhagel need a spark to fire his team at what will be just the second World Cup appeareance in their history, he knows precisely where to look.