Aristomenis Charalampopoulos is in his third season playing professional football in Greece and in his first campaign with Larissa who are vying for promotion to Superleague Greece.
Charalampopoulos’ first game for Larissa was against Aris, one of Greece’s biggest clubs. But things got even bigger when soon after he faced one of the country’s powerhouse teams in the Greek Cup.
“One of the biggest highs was stepping onto the pitch as a professional footballer for the first time,” he says.
“But just as big was playing against Olympiakos in the Greek Cup. It was an unforgettable experience. Standing in the tunnel about to walk out onto the pitch, hearing their fans chanting, I was really excited, and my blood was pumping. They were a great team and the level of the match was very high and at a super-fast tempo.”
The Greek second division isn’t one of the glamour competitions in Europe so Charalampopoulos was glad he could get some greater exposure in a game that was televised all over Greece and Australia.
“I was glad to get 90 minutes against top-level opposition,” he says.
“This was the first opportunity to measure myself against a team that was not only the best in Greece but the one that also played regularly in the Champions League. I enjoyed the game and got on the ball and ran at my opposing fullback at every opportunity. I was extremely pleased with my game as I proved to myself that I could match it with the very best. I knew that this was the level that I wanted to play at all the time.”
Olympiakos fans are notorious for their passionate support and with Charalampopoulos’ team playing at the Karaiskakis Stadium the 24-year-old felt the full brunt of the opposition’s ire.
“The atmosphere was fantastic from start to finish,” he says. “The passion and energy from the Olympiakos fans filled the stadium. Hearing the abuse from them as I beat my man and drove into the penalty box inspired me more and more. The fans got worse and worse when I crossed over after half-time and I was playing on their side of the pitch. It amped me up even more and I knew that this is why I became a professional footballer.”
Charalampopoulos grew up in Adelaide and played junior football for Greek-backed side West Adelaide. His father’s side of the family is from the Peloponnese while his mother’s family is from a village called Agios Mamas near Halkidiki.
Many view young footballers playing professionally overseas as living the dream but Charalampopoulos highlighted one of the challenges many Greek Australian footballers face when playing in Greece.
“Living in the country of my parents’ heritage was almost a surreal feeling,” he says.
“I commented to my father that 56 years ago my pappou had come to Australia to start a new life and now I’ve gone back to Greece to start my new life. My heritage forms the basis of my identity and it has shaped my life from my early childhood right up until now. But one of the hardest things that I still have to deal with is feeling like a foreigner in my own country where I was considered an Australian, not a Greek.”
During his mid-teens Charalampopoulos’ speed, stamina, and wide range of passing and crossing skills impressed English club Bolton Wanderers who offered him a spot at their youth academy.
After a year he was then offered a scholarship by Preston North End but needed a Greek passport and even though he applied for it in 2009, Hellenic bureaucracy meant he only received it in 2013.
So Charalampopoulos played with Adelaide Victory and West Adelaide in the South Australian NPL until an opportunity at Superleague Greece club Iraklis came about.
“The experience of trialling with Iraklis was very positive,” he says.
“They were a club that was a typical European first division team with a mixture of internationals and Greek players who played a methodical and patient but high tempo brand of football.”
Unfortunately, the financial crisis that hit Europe impacted greatly on Greek football so when it came to putting pen to paper, Charalampopoulos hesitated.
“As much as I wanted to accept the Iraklis offer and play in Superleague Greece the uncertainty of their financial situation meant that my agent advised against it,” he says.
“So, I rejected Iraklis and instead I accepted an offer from an Athens-based team in the Greek Football League called Acharnaikos. Accepting that I’d be playing in a lower division at a club with lower quality facilities was difficult but the challenge of Greek football and the opportunity of playing professional football in Europe was the driving factor in my decision to stay in Athens.”
While Acharnaikos wasn’t his first choice he was still delighted to have made the move from the semi-professional club in South Australia to the professional environment in Greece.
“Signing my first professional contract was a fantastic feeling and a very proud moment for me,” he says.
“In fact, I was so excited and eager to get started I caught a taxi to the club’s stadium to walk onto the ground for the first time as a professional footballer.”
Charalampopoulos says his first season in Greece was challenging and taught him a lot about what it takes to play at such a level.
“I feel I developed a lot as a player and as a person and helped the team achieve its target of remaining in the second division for that season,” he says.
“I was happy with my performances when I played, and it showed that the work I was doing was helping me. From February I ended up being in the match day squad 15 times and I played five games in my first season.”
During his second season with Acharnaikos FC, Charalampopoulos’ performances caught the eye of Apollon Larissa and accepting their offer of moving to a bigger club proved an easy decision.
“The se-up at Apollon Larissa is very different from that at Acharnaikos,” he says. “The club has two separate training facilities and plays in the Larissa Municipal Stadium – a 20,000 seater called Alkazar. They are well-organised with staff on and off the park, and they look after all aspects of the game and players’ welfare. The club has a much larger profile in Larissa than Acharnaikos did in Athens, as in Athens there were eight professional clubs compared to Larissa’s two.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Charalampopoulos is confident his performances will see him be able to finally secure that Super League contract he missed out on three seasons ago.
“My short-term goals are to accumulate as many goals and assists as I can and help the team to achieve as high a finish as possible,” he says.
“I’m hoping that this summer will bring a move to a Super League club. After playing against Olympiakos in the Greek Cup I am confident of my ability to do very well at that level. One day I want to play at the highest level possible and that means playing as an international either for Greece or Australia. In club football I want to play at the very highest level, and that is for a successful club in the UEFA Champions’ League.”