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At the age of 20 he was labelled as the Greek Messi, but seven years later, thoughts of retirement started crossing his mind. Sotiris Ninis’ story isn’t one of success, glamour and global recognition. His narrative is one of frustrated ambition, a kid who wanted to play football, while the rest of the world had different and higher expectations of him.
Ninis is the perfect case study on why Greek football has failed to develop extraordinary prodigies, despite an abundance of talents in the last couple of decades. Furthermore, it could well be a case study on how the modern football industry in general can overwhelm an aspiring football player.
Ninis was born in Himara, Albania, on April 3, 1990. Several months after coming into the world, his parents decided to move to Greece along with his elder brother and sister.
Aged 13, he joined Panathinaikos’ academy and instantly started to show off glimpses of his talent.
On January 7, 2007, erstwhile Panathinaikos coach and former Barcelona midfielder, Víctor Muñoz, gave him the nod in a home game against Egaleo. Ninis was his team’s best performer on the pitch and he was named the league’s Matchday MVP.
Journalists, most of whom knew nothing about the youngster at the time, started putting together thousands of words on Greece’s new jewel. In the following months, several records would be broken and further articles would crop up.
With 16 years and nine months, he became the second youngest player to play a league game for Panathinaikos. One month later, he netted his first goal, to become the second youngest to score in the Greek top-flight and the most junior marksman in the club’s history.
At the end of the 2006/7 campaign, he was voted Young Player of the Year – the youngest to have ever won this award.
That summer he travelled to Austria with the Greece U19 side to participate in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship. Ninis led his team all the way to the final, where they were defeated 1-0 to Spain thanks to a goal from the current Valencia captain Dani Parejo.
The Panathinaikos prodigy was named MVP of the tournament and expectations skyrocketed but an injury sidelined him for the longest part of the following season, making just 9 appearances.
However, on May 16, 2008, Otto Rehhagel gave him his unofficial debut with Greece in a 2-0 victory over Cyprus with Ninis netting the first goal and becoming the youngest scorer in the history of the national team with 18 years and 46 days.
The 2008/9 season kickstarted with Ninis being selected as one of Panathinaikos captains, becoming the youngest player to be awarded the Panathinaikos’ armband at the age of 18 years and 125 days.
A decent campaign would be followed by the best course in Ninis’ career. Despite having to compete against players such as Euro 2004 winners Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis, as well as Brazil’s erstwhile captain Gilberto Silva, the youngster produced an extraordinary campaign, capped with one of the best performances of a Greek player in Europe.
Panathinaikos clinched the second spot in their Europa League group, finishing one point shy of Galatasaray and qualified to the Round of 32.
There they would take on Roma, who would end the Serie A season in second place, just two points behind Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter.
Ninis put an exceptional performance in the first leg which ended in a 3-2 win for the Greek side in Athens. Qualification was anything but a certainty when Panathinaikos travelled to the Italian capital for the return leg.
When John Arne Riise opened the scoring 11 minutes into the game, many home fans would have taken the game for granted. Panathinaikos had to respond. And respond they did.
As the game was heading to half time, Ninis entered the opposition box from the left side. Two Roma players tried to take the ball away from him but both failed. Daniele De Rossi committed a penalty, Djibril Cissé stepped up and converted from the spot to equalise for the visitors with five minutes to go until the break.
A couple of minutes had passed, when Ninis collected the ball 30 meters from the goal. He went past an opponent and unleashed a shot which ended into the back of the net.
Travelling fans went into raptures in the away end. Roma players froze, staring at each other unable to believe what had just happened. The home side were in shock and pushed forward in search of a goal before the interval.
However, one minute into stoppage time, Ninis stole the ball off a Roma player a few meters outside his own box and was running towards the midfield when he spotted Cissé’s move from the right. Without second thought, he produced a brilliant assist that cut through the opposition defence to set up the former Liverpool striker for Panathinaikos’ third goal in a matter of six minutes. De Rossi pulled one back in the second half but it wasn’t enough and the Greek side clinched qualification to the Round of 16.
Although they were subsequently eliminated at the hands of Standard Liège, they went on to win their first domestic league title in seven years and what was meant to be their last league trophy to date.
Ninis ended the season with six goals and eight assists in 42 games across all competitions, helping Panathinaikos to lift the Greek cup and secure a domestic double.
At not even 20 years old, he was regarded as one of the best playmakers in the league, having already featured in 88 games with the first team. His playing style, pace and ability to break opposition lines with an individual move led fans and media to draw parallels between him and Messi.
The Greek-Messi label sounded funny to him in the beginning. He would joke over it along with his teammates without knowing that it would come to annoy him and consume him from the inside out.
No one needed to help him keep his feet on the ground. Instead of showing arrogance, he started feeling uncomfortable. The whole situation was anything but what he wanted to get from football.
His only concern was to train and prove himself on the pitch. Pressure would mount on Ninis. Media would report that he was seen drunk at a night club although he doesn’t consume alcohol. Not many academy players have debuted in the last two decades for one of Greek football giants and certainly even fewer were given the Greek-Messi label.
Following the most successful season in his career, several European clubs took notice and Manchester United came knocking.
Their interest didn’t materialise, though and Ninis stayed at Panathinaikos, who didn’t manage to build on the previous year’s success and finished second to league winners Olympiacos. In a troublesome season for his team, Ninis mustered four goals and five assists in 30 games.
The 2011/12 course started with a ruinous elimination from the Champions League qualifiers at the hands of Odense BK. The club’s instability would lead to Panathinaikos’ downfall and a subsequent three-year ban from European competition in 2018 and their debacle would coincide with Ninis’ collapse.
In a Europa League qualifier against Maccabi Tel Aviv in August, Ninis ruptured his cruciate ligament and didn’t play again until March. With his contract coming to an end in June, he announced his decision to depart Panathinaikos and ply his trade abroad.
In the summer of 2012, he joined Parma, who saw him as Sebastian Giovinco’s ideal successor.
“We really wanted him, he is an idol in Greek football, an extraordinary player and played over 100 games in the Greek league,” said Parma technical director Antonello Preiti in the player’s presentation.
“With Ninis we have found an important project and I’m sure the good things he did in Greece he can replicate with us.”
However, Ninis found it hard to adapt to the highly demanding Italian football and ended the season with 15 games and two assists. Although he was just 22 years old, he sought for more playing time and was certain that he wouldn’t get this chance at Parma.
A series of wrong decisions followed and his career gradually fell to mediocrity. After a loan spell at PAOK, an unsuccessful return to Panathinaikos, a disastrous period in Belgium and an even more catastrophic spell in Israel, he was left without a team for the 2019/20 season.
“[In 2017] I’m starting to think I should stop playing football, give up” he revealed through a first-person article.
“I think I don’t even have the luck with me. Wherever I go, something happens and I leave.
“I wonder if I have to blame myself, if I have talked back to a coach or given such a right.
“In addition, I trusted in the wrong people. What happened wasn’t what I expected.”
At the moment, his objective is to be called up again for the Greek national team, with whom he participated in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2012 European Championship, although his last official appearance dates back to June 13, 2015 and a 2-1 defeat to the Faroe Islands.
“Only then will I say that I have succeeded, after what I have gone through the last few years,” he noted.
“And for me, it’s going to be like I’ve won 10 championships all these years.
“Even if the next step is bad again or things do not come my way, I will not give up. I won’t stop.”
In a matter of seven years, Ninis went from being one of the most promising European talents to failing to find a team he is willing to play for. His extraordinary displays at the age of 20 brought him into the spotlight and paved a path that could lead to immense glory. However, that’s not what he longed for. All he’s ever wanted is to kick around a ball. Playing football is all that has ever mattered to him.
“Right now, I’m just waiting for an opportunity to play,” he confessed.
“To be happy, be motivated, be able to find myself through the workouts, to get my rhythm through matches.
“That’s what matters.”