From Cyprus with love
Could Jacob Eliopoulos be the next Aussie to make the big time in Europe?
In the space of a year, Jacob Eliopoulos has gone from the relative obscurity of the Victorian National Premier League to being on the verge of playing in the big time with Cypriot giants APOEL.
It's been a remarkable rise for Eliopoulos, who was strutting his stuff with Port Melbourne and winning the club's best and fairest award in 2015, to signing with Cyprus' biggest club in June 2016.
Eliopoulos revealed that before he signed a 12-month contract with the youth team there was interest from other leagues.
"I was playing at Port Melbourne and then my agent got an offer to go to Greece but I didn't take it, and then APOEL came asking for me," he says. "I went over and they liked me and they told me to stay. I had to get my Greek passport and all that ready. It's a big club to be at, it's very professional, I've never really been part of something like that."
On 15 January this year, Eliopoulos made the first team squad in a league game against Doxa and four days later in a cup game against Nea Salamis. While he didn't get on the field in either of those games, the young defender is still stunned at his rapid progress.
"It's a surprise it's happened really quickly," he says. "I've been playing in the second team and now it's halfway through the year. It was good to get noticed by the assistant coach and to sit on the bench and it's a good start. It's a big buzz coming from where I was. It's pretty crazy, I didn't expect it. It's a surprise, but hard work pays off."
Eliopoulos is a versatile footballer who can play as centre back, right fullback or in midfield, but the 20-year-old's main focus is on the art of modern defending.
"I'm a ball-playing defender," he says. "I like playing out from the back. I'm very composed on the ball and that is where I see my traits as a defender. I like starting attacks from the backline and breaking the lines with my passing range. That is what I really pride myself on."
His former coach at Port Melbourne, Eric Vassiliadis, says that while Eliopoulos has great technical abilities, it's the youngster's mental capabilities that impress him the most.
"The thing that grabbed us as a football club and me as a coach from the outset was his resilience throughout the season," Vassiliadis says. "Just his sheer determination and desire to want to play at the highest possible level. He was very composed and mature beyond his years. At the age of 19, to be a leader at a new club and new dressing room not only on the park but off it, and to able to have the respect of his teammates and the club as a whole."
APOEL famously made the quarter-finals of the European Champions League in the 2011-12 season, and Eliopoulos hopes to be involved in an important European fixture next month.
"They played Champions League last year and this year they got the Europa League and will play Athletic Bilbao in a couple of weeks," he said.
"To be so close to be playing for such a big team, I really have to pinch myself sometimes when I think about where I am.
"I've got to keep working hard because this opportunity could just go away, so I need to keep focused and just keep training hard."
APOEL's first team squad feature several local and international national team players, and initially Eliopoulos found training with the senior men's squad a challenge.
"I'm doing well with the sessions that I've had training with the first team," he said. "I haven't really felt out of place. So I've just got to keep it up. It's professional. It's a lot quicker and a lot more intense. You've got to be on your toes, you've got to be expecting everything. You have to think ahead. You've got players that have been in a professional environment all their lives.
"It's a big step for me, especially playing in the Australian NPL with Port Melbourne last year − it's another level to this. I have to be ready and I have to take my chance."
While Eliopoulos is of Greek descent, the 20-year-old admits that he initially struggled with the Cypriot vernacular.
"I'm Greek background but Cyprus is different," he said. "My Greek is good but at times it isn't the best. The first team coach isn't Cypriot so we talk in English. The youth team coach is Cypriot and the language is a bit different, their dialect ... you get used to it eventually but at the start it was hard to understand. I'm used to it now."
With not long left until the end of the season, Eliopoulos hopes he can land a first team contract for APOEL's 2016-17 campaign.
"We have another 15 games left and I just want to keep doing well in the youth league and keep getting noticed," he says. "I need to keep playing well and being consistent, and hopefully by the end of the year get a first team deal and go from there. If not, maybe get loaned out, but hopefully if it all goes well I get to stay here and work my way up."
Eliopoulos has yet to represent his country at youth team level, but the defender hopes his progress in Cyprus means he will start to get noticed by national team coaches and that his story can be an inspiration.
"It's never over," he says. "I've never really been contacted by A-League teams or even really been picked up by any Australian youth squads, and it just shows that anything can happen.
"I'm at a big club so hopefully I will be on the radar. That is a goal for me now definitely in the next year or two, to get a call up in the national team would be an honour," he continues.
"This opportunity brought me a lot of confidence. I feel like I'm on top of the world. Being able to train with the first team, with really high quality players, it really makes you think that if you are doing this now then you wonder where you could end up.
"It's just the start and the sky is the limit, really."
Eric Vassiliadis is in no doubt that his former protégé can forge a successful career and believes that the 20-year-old can play for the Socceroos in the future.
"One hundred per cent," he says. "You look at the way Ange Postecoglou wants our players coming through to be like, in terms of that tenacity, that calmness on the ball and that real Australian culture and spirit of not being afraid − Jacob ticks all those boxes.
"There is no limit to what he can achieve. It's going to come down to being healthy and if he can navigate through the practicalities of European life and football. He's close with his family, so if all those off the park things work in his favour then I know with his attitude and his application and his core quality he could be anything, he could play at the highest level."
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