Amazing goal earns Greek kids ticket to Barcelona
From a patchy field in northern Greece to Barcelona’s famed
football academy, this youth team is about to make it big.
AO Giannina captivated the football world’s attention a few
months ago when a video of the 11- and 12-year-old players in
bright orange uniforms scoring from kickoff went viral. Right from
the opening whistle, the players exchanged 20 passes and scored in
less than a minute.
”All 11 players touched the ball, but no one from the other
team did,” AO Giannina club director Vasileios Kitsis told The
Associated Press. ”No one realized what had actually happened
until we watched the video after the match.
”It got a lot of attention. It was on television in
It was also seen in Spain, where Barcelona has become the
dominant team in club football. Playing a passing-based game
nicknamed ”tiki-taka,” Barcelona has won four Spanish league
titles and three Champions League titles since 2006.
On Sunday, the little team from Greece – dubbed ”Baby
Barcelona” by the Greek media – will play against a Barcelona
youth team at the club’s academy.
”We like the passing game,” AO striker Diogenis Eleftheriou
said, referring to his team’s plans for the match in Spain. ”We
pay attention to all parts of the pitch – that’s the best way I can
explain it – to the defense, midfield and attack.”
On a recent day at AO Giannina’s training ground, players ran
past a vinyl cut-out of Barcelona star Lionel Messi before starting
Barcelona’s youth team, goalkeeper Elefterios Papadopoulos
joked, will have to be in top form to beat the Greeks.
”For them to score a goal, they’ll have to get past our
strikers, our midfield, our defenders, and then me. That will be
difficult,” Papadopoulos said.
Ioannina is a lakeside city of 110,000 residents in northwest
Greece famous for its silverware and long bouts of rainfall. The
city’s top men’s team, known as PAS, earned the nickname ”Ajax of
Epirus” in Greece in the 1970s after drawing comparisons to the
great Dutch team of Johan Cruyff.
AO Giannina plays at the nearby village of Kranoula, an unlikely
place to make football history.
At the foot of a mountain, the small municipal stadium is
reached by a country road that winds past tiny farms and menacing
sheepdogs. It’s where the team routed rival Atromitos – Greek for
”Fearless” – 6-1 on Dec. 23.
The damage was done in the first 59 seconds on Kranoula’s
torn-up playing field. AO players passed with surprising authority,
chased haplessly by their opponents, back, left, back again, right,
forward, and left again before Ardit Zigaj slid the ball under the
goalkeeper and into the net.
The invitation from Barcelona was quickly followed by the
realization that there wasn’t enough money to make the trip from a
region of Greece among the worst hit by the country’s financial
crisis, where one in every four are people out of work.
”I hardly slept for 10 days as we looked for a sponsor,” said
Kitsis, a wiry and animated former footballer.
”Some of the parents hardly have enough money to put food on
the table. But there was no way their kids weren’t coming,” he
said. ”Finally we got a backer, a cable TV company. It was great
news … because we do everything together as a team. We’re not
Papadopoulos, the youth team’s goalkeeper, looks up to Greece
national team goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis and Italy veteran
Gianluigi Buffon. But like the rest of the players, school and
training keep him distracted from thinking about his own team’s
”We didn’t even know we were being filmed. It was a surprise,”
he said. ”People were calling us up and telling us things were
crazy. So put the video up on Facebook. I got 2,000 likes.”
As parents watch through a canteen window, the boys go through
the same ball-control drills they rigorously repeat four times a
week. Two of the players are driven by their parents about 100
kilometers (60 miles) from neighboring Albania to make each
Playmaker Costis Papadopoulos says the team gets its composure
from endless hours of practice.
”It’s the passing. That’s what we work on in training. It’s
better to score a goal after many passes, instead on one player
trying to take the ball past the defense on his own,” he said,
taking a brief break from practice. ”It’s harder for one player to
do the work. If you pass the ball a lot, it tires the other team
Every few seconds, coach Costas Michailidis blows the whistle
and AO Giannina players change tricks.
”The scissors,” he shouts. ”Now the flick.”
He keeps the team philosophy simple: ”Kids are like sponges at
this age, so it’s all about skills training at this point. Tactics
and other considerations in the game come later. It’s the skill we
work on every day.”
It seems to be working. The team has conceded only two goals in
their last 14 matches and scored 74 times.
In Barcelona, Michailidis said he will tell players what he does
before every match – to enjoy the game, think about how you play
and not the score.
”I don’t think you see this kind of commitment and
concentration from kids that age very often,” he said. ”It’s a
pleasure to train these kids. I’m so very proud of them.”