Picture this. You’re a 16-year old boy from the inner west of Sydney with a dream to play football overseas. Born with a Greek father and a Chilean mother you decide to move to Chile due to limited opportunities in Australia. After trialling in South America, one of the biggest teams in Chile offers you a contract. A year later you find yourself in one of the top leagues in Europe. Meet Tom Petsianis, the youth team goalkeeper for Spanish La Liga side CD Leganés.
Speaking from his base in Madrid, Petsianis told Neos Kosmos that when he signed for the Spanish top-flight club it felt like an out of body experience.
“It was a surreal moment,” the 18-year-old says.
“Even though I was here and living it, when the moment came that they signed me, I went blank. I wasn’t expecting too much when I first arrived. I didn’t expect things to move so quickly. I trialled for a few weeks and then they signed me. It was a bit of a shock, I couldn’t believe it. I was training and after training my agent came in and said ‘here is your contract, sign it.'”
In Spain the youth league is structured by region so with Petsianis team CD Leganés located in the centre of the country, it means they play against powerhouse clubs such as Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid.
The teenager says that even at youth level the week leading up to playing the biggest clubs in Madrid is one of the most significant events of the season’s calendar.
“During those weeks, training and being in the change rooms, there is just something in the air,” he says.
“If you play well your performance will be remembered. We beat Real Madrid in the second round 3-2 and we’re still talking about it a month later. It’s a big thing – you’re playing against Real Madrid. When you play against Real Madrid, it’s not just your team, the whole club comes and watches and we go and watch every other team. The atmosphere is massive and you can tell that you’re playing a different kind of game and you’re not just playing all those other teams.”
The Greek Australian goalkeeper was born and bred in Sydney’s inner west and played youth football for former National Soccer League club Sydney Olympic up to the age of 15. Petsianis’ father was born in a village outside of Xanthi and moved to Australia with his parents when he was three. After Sydney Olympic, Petsianis moved to Sutherland Sharks in the NSW Premier League and soon after he had ambitions to play at a higher level.
With his mother being from Chile, he was able to secure a Chilean passport and so he left his family and friends behind and tried his luck overseas. After a short period, Petsianis was spotted by Universidad Católica scouts, who, along with Colo-Colo, are one of the biggest clubs in Chile and the Greek Australian was offered a youth team contract.
Petsianis says his experience playing in Chile has been invaluable for his development on and off the field.
“It matured me,” he says.
“Being 16 and leaving my family, it’s hard living without them. Learning how to do things on your own also does help. Football-wise when I went to Chile all these 13-year-old kids were kicking the ball so far, I was in shock. It took me a while to get used to it. I used to stay back with the coach and just go over it again and again and again. That was a big thing for me.”
Before Petsianis signed his youth team contact in Chile he also spent time trialling in Greece and he revealed that his Greek roots have been a big factor growing up.
“I spent a lot of time with my yiayia and pappou,” he says.
“When I was growing my parents were working and my mum’s parents were in Chile, so I didn’t spend as much time with them. So, for me my Greek background has a huge impact on my life.”
Petsianis added, “In football terms it’s been a huge asset, having that Greek passport. I had a few trials in Greece when I was younger with Xanthi and Larissa. In the end, it didn’t work out but then Chile and Spain ended up coming through.”
When Petsianis arrived in Chile he began playing with Universidad Católica U17 team, but after six months the teenager started spending time with the first team which meant he was mixing it with Chile’s elite.
“Six months into my contract I started training with the first team on and off,” he says, “Some of those guys would play for the Chilean national team. So, it was really good learning from them and getting experience from them. They were a big help in my development.”
After spending just over a year in Chile, Petsianis’ impressive performances caught the eye of Spanish scouts and that was when he signed with CD Leganés.
The 2015-16 La Liga season is when Leganés were promoted to the Spanish top flight for the first time in their history. Petsianis joined this term and he says that being involved at a top flight European club has taken his game to a new level.
“Being in Spain they taught me to play with the ball at my feet,” he says. “You probably touch the ball 10 times more with your feet than with your hands. That was a big thing for me. Now I would say that’s one of my best attributes.”
The professionalism in Spain was also an eye opener for the young goalkeeper.
“The coaching here is unbelievable,” Petsianis says.
“[Along with] the tactics, there is also more money here in football, which helps with analysis and diet and all that kind of stuff. That’s why Europe is that top level. There are also more clubs in Spain, so the better players find their way up to the higher level, there are plenty of opportunities.”
Even though he is at the early stage of his career, Petsianis harbours hopes of playing national team football and taking the next step to the senior team.
“Honestly, I just want to stay in Europe,” he says.
“I’ve had a really good year, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve gotten used to being in Spain now and if I can stay here at Leganés it would be great. One day I want to play professionally. That’s the dream of every young kid. Playing in a top division in a first team anywhere in Europe. That’s the dream, that’s the goal.
“I’d also like to get a call-up to the Australian youth national team, even the Greek or Chilean sides as that would be a big experience. Experience is everything. The more different people see you, the more different techniques you learn from different coaches. It’s always a big thing and so national team football is one of my long-term goals.”