In many countries around the world, the last few years have seen a plethora of up-and-coming youngsters touted as ‘the next Lionel Messi’. It has been no different in Greece, where several players have been tipped to be something akin to the current Barcelona star and reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. Panathinaikos’ 20-year-old midfielder Sotiris Ninis was one of the first to be labelled as Greece’s new Messi. Others passed by too, perhaps most notably Vasilis Koutsianikoulis, who impressed so much for Ergotelis that he was eventually snapped up by Greek Super League heavyweights PAOK Salonika.
Comparisons to a wonderkid like Messi can be a giant burden for any young player though; Koutsianikoulis for instance has struggled to make an impact for PAOK and has found playing time extremely hard to come by.
A Star Emerging
The newest youngster to be given ‘the Greek Messi’ tag however, may just end up coming closest to any Greek player of this generation to matching the exploits of the Argentine superstar. Olympiacos’ Ioannis Fetfatzidis is perhaps the brightest talent to emerge from Greece for some time and his performances since breaking into the Thrylos first team squad in the last year have been extremely promising. Though not yet the complete player, “Fetfa” as he is known, does possess superb ball control, an ability to evade defenders with skillful dribbling, and an eye for the killer pass.
The 19-year-old has seemingly gained the trust of Olympiacos boss Ernesto Valverde, who has had no second thoughts about putting his faith in such a young player. Against Iraklis in the opening match of the Greek Super League season, Olympiacos lost 2-1, however many were focused on the exploits of Fetfatzidis who produced a solid display. His recent showings have been just as good, whether as a starter or a substitute.
Zico’s short-lived stint as Olympiacos boss may not hold a special place in the memory of most of the club’s supporters, but the Brazilian is credited with giving Fetfatzidis his first taste of action at the top level in Greece; throwing him into the mix in a Super League match against Atromitos at the end of October 2009, as Olympiacos were facing an injury crisis of sorts. Fetfatzidis played well and was then rewarded with his first appearance in the Champions League just days later against Standard Liege, coming on as a substitute. Though he only played sporadically for the rest of the campaign, all involved with Olympiacos knew they had something special on their hands.
During this summer’s pre-season, newly appointed boss, Ewald Lienen had nothing but good things to say about the player born in Drama, Greece. The German manager praised his hard work and it was apparent that Fetfatzidis would be seeing more first team action. Lienen was shown the door after an exit to Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the Europa League qualifiers, however he did have a chance in his short time to show he believed in Fetfatzidis and the player duly responded, scoring against Albanian side Besa in a 15-minute cameo in an earlier Europa League encounter.
Clauses, Santos, Critics
Fetfatzidis’ early season showings have been so impressive, attracting interest from across Europe, that Olympiacos officials felt the need to change his buyout clause, raising the price from a mere €2M to €12.5M, a club record for a Greek player.
The 19-year-old’s abilities have not gone unnoticed at international level either. Just a month after making his first appearance for the Greek Under-21 side, the player was called up by coach Fernando Santos to the full national team this month. In Greece’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Latvia, Santos had no hesitation in giving Fetfatzidis a role on the right side of midfield for the last ten minutes of the match which served as the youngster’s first international cap.
The few fans present at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium were brought to their feet immediately as Fetfatzidis used a super pull-back to evade a defender and win a corner. In fact, it is these type of skillful moves, reminiscent of his Zidane-like pirouette against Asteras Tripolis a few weeks before in the Greek Super League, that has given rise to the frequent standing ovations the player has received. Fetfatzidis’ cameo against Latvia was only a sign of things to come though. In a crucial qualifier against Israel soon afterwards, he produced a man-of-the-match performance in Greece’s 2-1 win, coming on for an injured Sotiris Ninis after just 15 minutes. He provided the Greek side with a burst of creativity and imagination, holding the ball well and also setting up team-mates on a number of occasions.
For all the excitement he has brought to the Greek game and the promise he offers, the attacking midfielder has his detractors. Some suggest that he has done very little in the game thus far, citing the stat that he has yet to score for Olympiacos in the league. His slight frame could also be detrimental in the eyes of some observers who claim that at 5’5" (1.65m) he will have difficulty when coming up against more physical players.
“Not Messi, something different”
Though comparisons to a player who has reached such lofty heights as Messi can be dangerous and even damaging, the similarities cannot be ignored.
For starters, Fetfatzidis had to also undergo treatment for growth hormone deficiency just as Messi did. Like his more illustrious counterpart at Barcelona, ‘Fetfa’ joined Olympiacos at the tender age of 13 and has a real connection to the club because of the trust they showed in him back in 2004. On the pitch, the close control of the Greek youngster’s dribbling as well as the speed at which he is able to run with the ball reminds one of the little Argentine.
Greek football has had a long history of turning the flavour of the month into the next big thing all too often. At times, all it takes is a goal for expectations to inflate at an alarming rate. Some talents have gone on to have good careers; others have either believed the hype or have been swallowed up by it and were never able to transfer potential into greatness.
It remains to be seen what category Ioannis Fetfatzidis will fall into. For now, the diminutive playmaker, who can play behind the strikers or even on the wing, is enjoying a fantastic start to a career that promises so much. He has earned the praise of fellow players, the respect of opposing coaches, and the adulation of Greek supporters who have been brought to their feet by his skills. But perhaps the greatest show of support has come from former Greek footballing great Vasilis Hatzipanagis.
Regarded as the best Greek player of all-time, Hatzipanagis said of Fetfatzidis, “He is a great talent and has all the tools to reach the top if he works hard”. He also suggested that he didn’t like comparing the young player to Messi. “No, Fetfatzidis is different. This kid is something else; he doesn’t remind me of anyone else. What I like most is that he is grounded.”
Perhaps this is the best advice that Ioannis Fetfatzidis can receive as he tries to live up to the expectations placed on him by all those who follow Greek football.