The curious case of Apostolos Giannou

by Damir Kulas 0

Last weekend saw controversial Australian striker Kerem Bulut open his account in Greek football with the winner in Iraklis’ 2-1 away victory over Asteras Tripoli. In true Kerem Bulut fashion, the former Western Sydney Wanderers striker celebrated his landmark goal by taking off his shirt, earning a yellow card, before seeing red minutes later for a second booking.

While the whole episode did not escape the attention of Australia’s football media, the presence of another Australian – who has been quietly going about his business in Greece seemingly without much fanfare – on the pitch completely flew under the radar. Apostolos Giannou – known as Paul back in Melbourne – is the current in-form striker of the Greek Superliga, netting nine times in 12 league games to propel Asteras Tripoli to sixth on the ladder. His maiden Europa League goal also helped the club to a 2-0 victory over Cypriot giants APOEL Nicosia last month.

Consequently, the former South Melbourne junior has been rewarded with a debut for the Greek national team in last month’s friendly against Turkey. His appearance in the clash brought an end to a decade long battle for his national allegiance, with the VIS graduate being eligible for both Australia and Greece after representing both countries at youth level.

Although born in Greece, Giannou moved with his family to Melbourne at a young age and featured in junior sides for both South Melbourne and Oakleigh Cannons. State representative honors followed at an Under 14 and 15 level. He was one of Ernie Merrick’s last additions at the VIS before the Scotsman was appointed as head coach of Melbourne Victory.

Giannou impressed at the VIS under Ian Greener and was promptly reported with a call up to the Joeys squad in 2006, where he was coached by Ange Postecoglou as one of three Victorian players in the squad alongside Milos Lujic and Andy Jerez.

“Paul was a fantastic player who had an abundance of quality and was a greater striker of the ball who had sound technique and awareness,” Greener says. “He had the ability no matter what position he was asked to play in and was very coachable in that he’d listen to instructions and always sought to improve his performance.

“He had a determined attitude and I’m pleased for him as he had the ability and always wanted to be a professional footballer.”

Despite missing out on qualification for the 2007 Under 20 World Cup, Giannou’s two goals in eight appearances for Australia and a number of pre-season games for Melbourne Victory earned him a trial with Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven’s reserve team. An unsuccessful spell in the Netherlands saw Giannou back at Victory, where he seemed all but certain to sign his first professional contract with the reigning A-League champions ahead of the 2007-08 A-League season. In order to maintain some much-needed match fitness during the long A-League off-season, the 17-year-old returned to Jack Edwards Reserve by signing for the Cannons, where he featured under Stuart Munro during the 2007 VPL Season.

With clubs back in his homeland alerted of his potential, Giannou returned to Greece midway through 2007 to sign for second division side Apollon Kalamarias. “His father wanted him to go overseas as the Victory wanted to retain him as a train-on player given his young age and the fact that he still needed to develop his game in certain areas,” Greener says. “You’ve got to remember that at the time, not much faith was placed in young players given the small squad sizes of A-League clubs and the amount of pressure Ernie was under at Victory.”

A breakthrough season in 2008-09 saw the former Joeys representative earn a call up to the Greek Under 19 squad, where he featured alongside current Western Sydney Wanders goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis, before sealing a five year deal with newly promoted outfit Kavala. “Ange invited him to the 20s squad but Giannou was in Greece at time trying to settle into life there and declined at the time,” Greener says.

Life in the Greek top flight could not have started better for the teenager, who netted a winner on his league debut against AEK Athens. Over the course of the campaign he was joined at the club by former Socceroos Craig Moore, Zeljko Kalac and fellow youngsters Robert Stambolziev – now at Sydney FC – and Heidelberg United’s Andreas Govas.

Giannou was invited for a Socceroos training camp alongside his fellow European based players ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup under Pim Verbeek. Despite the national team being in short supply of strikers following the tournament in South Africa, the striker was ignored by Verbeek’s successor Holger Osieck. The lack of interest sparked the Greek FA into action, capping him at an Under 21 level.

The rise of Giannou’s international career came in complete contrast to his club career, as the financially embattled Kavala were relegated at the end of the 2010-11 season following a match-fixing scandal.

Giannou would remain in the Greek top flight the following season, securing a move to the Thessaloniki-based PAOK, one of the traditional big clubs in Greek football. While his first-team football was limited predominantly to substitute appearances, Giannou earnt vital experience playing alongside the likes of Greek international Dimitri Salpingidis, Portuguese international Vieirinha and Chilean Pablo Contreras, under the stewardship of Romanian Laszlo Boloni, who had a decade earlier given a young Cristiano Ronaldo his senior debut at Sporting Lisbon.

Socceroos manager Osieck was once more alerted by Giannou at this point, and with the national team continuing to rely heavily on veterans Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson for goals, scouts were sent to Greece to watch the striker in action for PAOK in 2012. Much to the displeasure of both parties, the young striker did not feature in either of the two games attended by Australian national team representatives.

A lack of senior football saw Giannou loaned out to fellow first division club Platanias in early 2013. His return to Greece’s second largest city was short-lived, as PAOK’s new Dutch manager Huub Stevens did not see Giannou as part of his plans and released him in the European summer of 2013. The then 23-year-old then joined Panionios – one of the more stable clubs in the Greek Superliga – where he enjoyed his most consistent spell, making 61 league appearances over the space of two seasons and once more triggering a race between the Socceroos and the Pirate Ships for his services.

By this point Giannou’s former coach, Ange Postecoglou, had taken over the reins at the Socceroos and led the side to a credible 2014 World Cup appearance, before winning the 2015 Asian Cup in January on home soil. He had stated early in his tenure that the door was open to players previously overlooked by former managers, with Giannou’s chances of a national team call up boosted by the manager’s Greek background and appreciation of the quality of the Superliga in Greece.

However, earlier in 2015 Postecoglou’s hopes of luring Giannou into Socceroos fold were hit when the 25-year-old was called up to the Greek national team ahead of their Euro 2016 qualifier against Hungary. A failure to appear off the bench instilled hope that the striker may yet pledge his alliance towards Australia, but that was extinguished upon his second call up to the Greek squad and subsequent debut appearance against Turkey.

Giannou’s international trajectory is comparable to that of Melbourne-born Ersan Gulum, who despite previously representing the Olyroos, was capped by Turkey at a senior international level. Having crafted his trade in Turkey’s second division, the former Hume City left back earned a lucrative move to Istanbul giants Besiktas, where he has been ever since. Despite interest by Osieck to cap him ahead of the 2011 Asian Cup, Gulum chose to represent Turkey with his decision swayed by his father.

Similar factors would have played into the mind of Giannou, who is in the form of his career at the moment with Asteras Tripoli, making him one of the top goalscorers in the Greek league at the moment. He would also be considered a vital component of the national team’s desire to re-build from a disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, where the 2004 Champions finished bottom of their group, suffering an embarrassing home defeat at the hands of minnows the Faroe Islands along the way.

While many have lauded the Socceroos team of late for their impressive results, as well as Postecoglou for tying down the likes of Brad Smith and Chris Ikonomidis to Australia, the same cannot be said about Giannou’s case, especially given the national team’s reliance of the aging Cahill for goals. The side’s struggles to find another prolific striker has led to calls for 30-year-old Brazilian-born Brisbane Roar striker Henrique – never capped at any level for his home country – to be called up after becoming an Australian citizen.

Time will tell if Giannou is another one who got away from Australia, with unfavourable circumstances resulting in Giannou representing the blue and white of Greece instead of the green and gold of the Socceroos, despite numerous opportunities to cap him at senior level. Next year may prove a bittersweet reunion for both parties, as Greece are rumoured to face Australia in an international friendly.

Feature Image: FIA Sports