It’s an unusually warm and sunny February afternoon in downtown Thessaloniki and I’m having coffee with two Australian footballers who now call the Macedonian capital home.
At one of the city’s ultra-hip cafés, the childhood friends are discussing this Sunday’s big Thessaloniki derby.
PAOK midfielder Terry Antonis is quietly confident his side has what it takes to win this all-important game.
Iraklis forward Kerem Bulut, fresh off a man of the match performance in his team’s 1-nil win last Sunday against Giannina, believes Iraklis has the momentum to upset PAOK in front of its fanatical home support.
It’s a game they both want to win, and neither of them is giving much away, at least not in front of each other.
“It’s a big derby in this city, it’ll be a tough game, as derbies always are, and we expect the atmosphere that our home crowd creates will be the catalyst for an important win,” Terry tells me.
“The fact that another Aussie is involved makes it all the more interesting for me,” he adds.
Kerem is also looking forward to the charged atmosphere that PAOK fans are renowned for.
“Obviously I would prefer if our supporters were there too as they are very vocal and help the team a lot. Given they can’t come because of the Greek laws then I hope PAOK fans fill the stadium, I would rather play in front of a full house of passionate fans than a small, silent crowd,” says Kerem.
The two Australians are having their first seasons in Greece.
For Kerem, playing away from home is nothing new. He made his debut for Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic when he was just 17. He followed that up with a stint in Turkey, where he played alongside Greek international Fanis Gekas.
“Gekas is a good friend of mine, a good guy who helped me a lot during our time together in Turkey,” Kerem fondly recalls.
He spent the first half of 2015 playing with the Western Wanderers in the A-League, scoring five goals in nine appearances before joining Iraklis in July.
A talented striker who is used to playing as a number nine, he initially found it difficult adjusting to a new role playing on the wing.
“I’m not playing in my position but I am helping the team and that’s what I am here to do. I’ll do my job wherever the coach decides to play me,” Kerem explains.
His passionate style of play and his fiery personality is making Kerem a cult favourite with many of Iraklis’ younger fans, who will often stop him on the streets of Thessaloniki seeking a selfie with the player.
His performance last week against Giannina, when he won the penalty that led to the game’s only goal, was a well-timed confidence boost for the young player.
“I felt I played well and helping your side to victory is always important, especially in the lead up to the big derby on Sunday,” says Kerem.
Across town at PAOK, Terry Antonis has not been given much playing time so far this season, but the Australian values the opportunity of training alongside good players and feels the experience will only help him mature as a player.
“Obviously I would love to be playing more, however, I am training hard and when the coach thinks I am ready I will take my opportunity. For the time being, though, I am happy to be training on a daily basis alongside the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Alexandros Tziolis and many other great players. I’m learning every day, my physical condition has improved and I am becoming a better player,” says Terry about his first seven months at PAOK.
For now he is enjoying his time at the club. “It’s a huge club, with amazing facilities and passionate supporters, including many Greek Australian supporters. There have been a number of times that I have seen Melbourne Club PAOK shirts in the stands at Toumba and I know the club in Melbourne is very active and vocal,” Terry explains.
As we lead into the final stretch of the Greek Super League season, PAOK, currently fourth, still has its sights on finishing second and earning a spot in the Champions League qualifiers.
Iraklis, meanwhile, will need a very strong finish if it is to make the play-offs, as the club currently sits in eighth spot, nine points off fifth-placed Panionios.
Although both players are focused on their clubs for now, they are also keen on earning a call up to the Socceroos. Kerem’s recent performances should at least put him on Ange Postecoglou’s radar, while Terry also has ambitions of wearing the green and gold.