EURO Blast from the Past: Stelios Giannakopoulos
When Bolton Wanderers came calling for Stylianos Giannakopoulos in the summer of 2003, it was the perfect opportunity for one last payday. At 29 years old, and having spent the whole of his career playing in the Greek league, he deserved a bit of Premier League pampering in his twilight years. He’d just picked up seven consecutive Greek championship titles for Olympiakos, so it didn’t really matter if he won anything else. A couple of years of mid-table obscurity at Bolton with an English wage going into his bank account would do just nicely.
That might have been his plan, anyway. But things were destined to be very different.
For one thing, Bolton in 2003 wasn’t the kind of place where players ended their careers quietly. After a couple of years battling relegation, the Trotters were about to enter a golden period, and Stelios (as he helpfully dubbed himself on arrival) had joined a star-studded line-up of wizened old pros including Jay Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo and Youri Djorkaeff.
“Sam Allardyce had a knack for getting the best out of the players that everyone else thought were over the hill. At 29, Stelios should have been past his peak but it was obvious straight away that he still had plenty left in the tank,” said one Bolton fan.
Quickly finding his feet in an attacking midfield role, Stelios helped the Whites into the league cup final (which they lost to Middlesbrough) and to eighth in the Premiership - their best top-flight finish since 1960. It was an exemplary season for club and player, but it was about to get a lot better.
Stelios travelled to Portugal that summer as part of a Greece Euro 2004 squad of which very little was expected - the nation had never won a game at a major tournament in its history. But after they broke that particular duck with a shock opening-match win against Portugal, things - in the words of Seal - started to get a little crazy.
Another shock win against Spain sent Greece into the quarter-finals, where they claimed an even bigger shock win against defending champions France, before despatching a highly fancied Czech Republic side in the semis to set up another meeting with Portugal in the final. The rest - not in the words of Seal - is history.
“In a defence-minded team with no stars, Stelios was considered one of the flair players. That’s why he didn’t start in every game, but he returned to the side for the semi-final and the final and he was outstanding. Every player in that squad is a national hero, and Stelios is one of the biggest,” said Greece fan Dionysios Tsimpoula.
In case you needed reminding, Angelos Charisteas’ goal gave Greece a 1-0 win in the final in Lisbon and made Cristiano Ronaldo cry. It was considered the biggest ever football shock until Leicester City came along.
“He also endeared himself to Bolton fans when his little boy wore a Wanderers shirt during his dad’s post match interview after Greece won,” recalled a Trotters fan on the Wanderer forum.
But if this again seemed like the ideal time for Stelios to start winding down his career, nothing could have been further from his mind. Aged 30, he started to play the best football of his life as Bolton set about shocking some big boys of their own.
Stelios scored eight goals in his second season as Bolton gate-crashed the Premiership top six for the first time. The following year, after snubbing Liverpool and Manchester City to sign a new Wanderers contract, he bagged 12 goals as Allardyce steered the side to 8th and cemented their status as a top-half side.
“Stelios is one of my favourites from that era. He was such a great all-round player in that he had an eye for goal, created for others, worked bloody hard and always had a smile on his face. Every team needs a Stelios,” gushed one Bolton fan.
“He scored brilliant goals and also some vital ones, such as a late equaliser against Aris in the Uefa Cup and a late winner in a terrible match against Derby in 07/08,” pointed out another.
By that point, however, Allardyce had left and the club was being managed by Gary Megson, a man so unpopular with the fans that he was booed when he was unveiled in his first home match.
After the club narrowly avoided the drop in a season of turgid football, Stelios didn’t hang around. Following a short spell at Hull, he moved to Greek side Larissa before eventually deciding it was time to hang up his boots aged 36. He’s still not one for an easy life though - nowadays Stelios works as a firefighter.
Neither Bolton nor Greece have fared well in Stelios’ absence, with both reaching their nadirs in the past year - Bolton dropping down to League One and Greece being beaten home and away to the Faroe Islands in European Championship qualifying.
Exactly 12 years on from the Greeks’ finest hour, the only man left standing is Ronaldo. When France aim to nullify Portugal’s galactico in Paris on Sunday night, they could do worse than invoke the spirit of Stelios.
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