Imagine you are a young soccer player with aspirations of turning professional. You live and breathe soccer. You are a talented 14-year-old boy that has just been called up to the senior squad. The coach picks you for the starting lineup and at the end of the game you become a hero. You have scored all your team’s 3 goals! What a dream debut! The door to the world of soccer has just opened for you. And it’s wide open.
Now imagine you are a 14-year-old goalscoring sensation with an incredible proficiency in leading the line. You have become the talk of the town, stealing the show in the youth games. Several top clubs are tracking your progress. Soon, you sign a major league professional contract and a few weeks later you score your first goal! Your dream of becoming a pro has just come true. For good.
Let’s draw parallels between these two ”fairy tale” stories. They both sound like they came out of a dream. A sweet dream that you don’t want to wake up from. But when you do, it feels like a nightmare. It has actually turned into a nightmare.
Rewind to 1996
Let’s rewind the clock back to 1996. In April, the first MLS season just began with Eric Wynalda writing history by scoring for San Jose Clash in their victory over D.C. United, in the first ever game of the league. In August, Atlanta hosted the long-anticipated summer Olympics. Underdogs Nigeria led by Kanu, Okocha and Amocachi stunned the soccer world by beating almighty Brazil in the semifinal and Argentina in the final to win the gold medal.
Maradona still played for Boca Juniors, Alan Shearer became the most expensive player in history by signing for Newcastle United and Barcelona’s Brazilian Ronaldo was branded as the next big thing in soccer. Freddy Adu was 7 years old, still living in Ghana and 15-year-old Gus Kartes (of Greek origin) became the highest-paid American teenage player after signing a five year contract worth of $2 million with Olympiacos, in sunny Greece. The country where Frank Klopas had previously enjoyed a lengthy and trophy-laden career and an unknown youngster’s soccer miracle was about to take place.
”O Jogo Bonito”
The 1996-97 soccer season had already started throughout the world. While 15-year old American striker Gus Karter was part of the youth team of powerful Olympiakos, in another part of the country 14-year-old forward Ntinos Pontikas was hoping that one day he would be able to make it himself to the top flight. But, he had a long way to go. He was part of a minor side which was playing in the Greek fifth division.
However, his club Haravgi Larissa (founded in 1982, the year of his birth!) was not completely unknown to the Greek soccer world. The previous year it had sold two of its best players to first division sides. And the process of producing more talents seemed inevitably ongoing.
Ntinos was one of them. He had started his youth career from another local club, Toxotis Larissa, where Theofanis Gekas was also playing. Theofanis would later star in Bundesliga and become the third all-time goalscorer in the history of the Greece national team. Internationals like Vassilis Karapialis, goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias and Giorgos Agorogiannis also came out of the youth ranks of the club.
However, Ntinos Pontikas’ spell there was brief. He subsequently moved to Haravgi Larissa where he got his big break. A hell of a break!
It was the 21st of September, 1996. Promotion favorites Ampelokipoi hosted Haravgi Larissa in the fifth tier of the Greek championship. The hosts would laboriously beat their guests by 4-3 in a thrilling match at the Ampelokipoi ground. On that day, soccer met its youngest hat-trick scorer. A half volley, a header, and a nutmeg! ”Absolutely stunning”, as a commentator across the pond would say.
It was almost a ”perfect” hat-trick. An old term to describe a special hat-trick consists of one goal with the head, one with the left foot and one with the right foot. Pontikas was at just 14 years and 198 days. And this is exactly the magic of the ”beautiful game” -O Jogo Bonito- as the Brazilians call it, to adopt Pele’s famous catchphrase.
The Freddy Adu ”effect”
In 1997, Freddy Adu moved to the United States at the age of eight, after his mother won the Green Card Lottery! At the time, media drew comparisons between Ronaldo and Pelé, after the former’s ”out of this world” performances with Barcelona in the Spanish league. And in Greece, American youngster Gus Kartes was trying to make it to the first team of giants Olympiacos, while 15 year old Ntinos Pontikas was considered a local youth starlet.
The Greek teenager was also one of the fastest youth soccer players at the time, being able to run 100 metres in less than 11 seconds. The world record held then by American sprinter Maurice Green was a bit below 10 seconds. A move to a bigger club for the talented youngster seemed to be only a matter of time.
American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz established the theory of the butterfly effect in 1969. The flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado elsewhere several weeks later. Wait a second. Did Freddy Adu’s relocation to the land of opportunity cause a disaster to Ntinos’ future career? Oh no, definitely not. That would be an extreme metaphysical interpretation. But, unfortunately his career that took off so early and so emphatically (like Adu’s) turned disastrous and ended up in shambles pretty fast (like Adu’s).
Athinaikos Athens is one of oldest Greek soccer clubs. Founded in 1917, Athinaikos reached the pinnacle of its history when they faced Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1991-92 Cup Winners’ Cup, fighting hard and getting eliminated after extra time at Old Trafford. United with players like goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince were the defending champions of the Cup Winners’ Cup, after beating Barcelona in the 1991 final. The same year that Athinaikos ended up on the losing side of the Greek Cup final against giants Panathinaikos.
The top-tier club from Athens was watching Ntinos’ development closely after his hat-trick. His youth coach and teammate in the first squad of Haravgi Larissa, Pakis Avramoulis, had previously played as a striker for Athinaikos in the 1980s. Pontikas’ transfer came close but it eventually fell through, with his parents opposing the teenager’s relocation from his hometown to Athens hoping that another offer from a local professional club would come on course.
And that was the turning point in his career. A year later, Pontikas would suffer a Van Basten-style injury at the tender age of 16, leaving him out on the sidelines for 2,5 years. When he was fit enough to return to action, his club Haravgi Larissa had just dissolved. He was now a free agent but there was a big difference. He was not the same explosive player. The ship to the harbor of the soccer world had already sailed. Things in life had moved on. No professional club was willing to sign him. He briefly joined a local amateur team, before taking the heartbreaking decision to quit soccer.
Freddy and Ntinos: the curse of early success
Too good, too soon? Free-scoring Adu would play with ease with boys several years older than him. He scored 25 goals in 16 matches for his school in 2002, aged 12, and he even featured in the 2003 FIFA-17 World Cup at the age of 14, scoring 4 times! In 2000, Adu played in a tournament in Italy, and despite being just 11 and several years younger than the other players, he was the highest scorer and most valuable player. A $125,000 offer to his family by Inter Milan was then rejected by Freddy’s mother.
It was reported that Pontikas scored 13 goals (!) in a friendly youth game while being 13 years old and also the youngest player on the pitch. In another youth game at the age of 15, he bagged 10 goals. To take it further than these two, 13-year old Ronaldinho had scored all his team’s 23 goals in a single match -playing futsal- for Gremio, in 1993. But, of course the Brazilian wizard went on to dominate the soccer world and go down in history as an all-time great.
In 2004, the year that Greece won the European Championship beating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the final, Freddy Adu turned professional in the MLS with a $500,000 annual salary. Three years later, 18 year-old Adu took the biggest step in his career by moving to Portuguese giants Benfica. The ”Eagles” forked out $2 million for his signature. Since then, all went wrong for Freddy who after a few months in Lisbon, ended up a lower-league journeyman playing for 11 clubs until 2016. He then went on a 2-year hiatus before joining Las Vegas Lights in the 2018 season. Once again, Adu stayed 2 more years off soccer until he signed for Swedish third division side, Österlen, in 2020. Only to be released by the club within just four months.
Interestingly enough, in 2010, Freddy Adu had a short spell with Aris Thessaloniki, the team that Pontikas supported as a boy. The latter, surprisingly enough, came out of retirement to play in the Greek fifth division after being offered a contract by a local club in 2019, at the age of 37! Apparently his (faded) reputation had not faded thoroughly away. That was the first time he took the field after a 10-year hiatus from soccer. It was back in 2009 when he had laced his soccer boots once more, joining another minor side.
The golden generation of Greek soccer
Soccer fans in Greece go ecstatic when their team win. The country loves soccer, but it never appeared to be that good at it. Well, at least until 2004 and the European triumph.
The national team’s greatest achievement prior to 2004 was the gold medal in the 1991 Mediterranean Games. And Greece’s only World Cup appearance was in the ’94 tournament under former USA national team coach Alketas Panagoulias. The performances were disheartening, the results were disastrous: zero wins, zero draws, zero goals. But 10 goals conceded.
The Greek league was not the strongest either. There was no comparison to La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga. Frank Klopas played in the league for eight years and Ted Chronopoulos for three in the 1990s. And that was when everything seemed to be changing.
The 1996 Bosman rule helped the league attract first-class European players. But overall, big names, internationals joined the Greek league. Brazilian Giovanni and Serbian Dragan Ćirić signed from Barcelona, Russian Omari Tetradze from Roma, Julio Cesar from Borussia Dortmund, Slovenian Zahović from Porto, Soviet Oleh Protasov from Dynamo Kyiv. Alongside famous coaches like Everton’s legend Howard Kendall, Soviet soccer icon Oleh Blokhin, experienced Bulgarian Hristo Bonev, 1970 World Cup winner Jairzinho, Dutch Ari Haan, Romanian Angel Iordanescu (he led Romania to the quarterfinals in the USA ’94 tournament) and others.
All that influx of foreign talent, the coaching expertise and the relentless hard work in the youth leagues proved instrumental in the national team’s development and success. Greece’s victory in the 2004 European championship shocked the world. But, probably it was less surprising for their veteran German coach, Otto Rehhagel who as an insider knew better. He was coaching a squad of winners.
It was the golden generation of Greek soccer. Giourkas Seitaridis, Angelos Charisteas, Dimitrios Papadopoulos, Vangelis Moras (member of the Ampelokipoi roster in the hat-trick match!), Kostas Katsouranis were crowned European champions in 2004. All were of a similar age as Pontikas. Had he not got that seriously injured and quit soccer, he could have been one of them. But, all this is just speculation. And life is full of endless ”what ifs”.
For the record, his peer Gus Kartes never really made it with Olympiacos, featuring in just 3 games. And failing to hit the net. He returned to the States in 2001 having rather mediocre spells with Colorado Rapids Rapids and Tampa Bay Mutiny, before retiring at 21. As for the Brazilian superstar Ronaldo? If his career was not ravaged by that horrific 2000 knee injury, the debate about the best player of all time would have been much less complicated now.