Not many players take the path that Haris Stamboulidis has to become a professional footballer. After playing with Melbourne City’s youth team under Greek Australian coach Joe Palatsides, the highly rated youth prospect decided to attend school in the US.

For the past three years, Stamboulidis has been studying for an economics degree at the prestigious Ivy League Columbia University in New York while also playing college soccer.

During the off-season with Columbia University, Stamboulidis was also part of Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids Under 23’s team which last year saw the midfielder play against the United States and Trinidad and Tobago national teams.

With only a few classes left before he graduated from Columbia, Stamboulidis decided to postpone his studies and pursue a professional football career. During the European off-season, he was sought after from both MLS and European scouts but the 22-year-old chose to play in the country of his parent’s heritage.
The club he chose to sign his first senior team contract with, Aris, is based in Thessaloniki which is just 30 minutes from Krythea, where his mother’s family’s village is.

Signing with Aris and knowing its rich and passionate history is a tremendous honour. Each day I learn more about how big this club really is, both the organisation but also our fans which provide us with an explosion of support on and off the field.

Speaking to Neos Kosmos from his base in Greece, Stamboulidis excitedly explained that signing his first European professional contract was a thrilling experience.

“It’s very sweet,” he says. “Signing with Aris and knowing its rich and passionate history is a tremendous honour. Each day I learn more about how big this club really is, both the organisation but also our fans which provide us with an explosion of support on and off the field.”

Upon his arrival in Greece, Stamboulidis got a taste of the gruelling life he will face as a professional footballer in Europe – the dreaded football off-season. But even though it was challenging at first, the former Heidelberg junior feels he adapted to his new surroundings quite well.

“The first week comprised of several double sessions and gym work, whilst getting to know the initial group which gathered in Naousa in the mountains at high altitude,” he says.

“The standard of football is very high and played at fast tempo in comparison to my previous experiences. I must thank all my teammates for embracing me from the first moment, who made me feel comfortable within the group, on and off the field.”

Stamboulidis’ boss at Aris, Paco Herera has previously coached in England and Spain. In 2004 he was at English Premier League giants Liverpool alongside countryman Rafael Benítez where he worked as both assistant manager and chief scout for two years. During his time in Spain he took charge of several La Liga clubs. This is Herera’s first season in Greece and after spending some time with the club’s new manager, Stamboulidis was full of praise for Aris’s new head coach.

“Paco Herera is a great and experienced coach, who is willing to invest in every player to get the most out of everyone,” he says.

“Our pre-season in Holland was a great experience and it gave me the opportunity for our team to gel and continue the work we had done earlier in pre-season. I featured in the friendly matches in Holland in midfield both as number six and number eight which was great and I have also played some minutes at centre and left back.”

The beginning of the Greek Super League season has seen Aris win their opening two matches with their international imports from France (Nicolas Diguiny), Spain (Bruno Gama) and Argentina (Mateo García) shining.

Ahead of his first season in Europe, the former Greek youth international was excited to be amongst such talented players.

“The quality of our team is unquestionable with past and present internationals as well as two ex A-league players, Nico Colazo and Nico Martinez,” Stamboulidis says.

“Learning and replicating from my fellow players such as Migjen Basha who is currently with the Albanian National team and our captain Georgios Delizisis is also important to the development piece.
“My teammates are great, we have a very diverse group which in some manner mirrors the multicultural environment I experienced whilst living in New York. It certainly helps to speak Greek but also French and some Spanish so that communication is not so difficult.”

And in terms of the facilities at Aris, Stamboulidis was in awe at the professional set up of the club.

“Thanks to our president Theodoris Karipidis all our facilities including our stadium have been upgraded,” he says.

“For example, our new training facilities are top class and it is a privilege to have such resources to use before and after training. The individual programs that are designed for injury prevention and strength and conditioning is of the highest quality thanks to all of our staff who make sure we are prepared for each session whilst working on individual areas to develop speed, power and agility for example.”

Stamboulidis plans to finish his final subjects at Columbia next year either during the summer break or part-time and the Melbourne raised youngster believes his education won’t go to waste, even though he is taking up an athletic pursuit.

“In the last three years I have studied a lot of philosophy and literature,” he says. “In times of needing discipline Aristotle does talk about the human body and how it can be fine-tuned through training and how excellence can be achieved.
“‘Excellence is not an act, it’s a habit’ is one of my favourite quotes that Aristotle teaches in his works, especially in terms of commitment, discipline and believing in yourself. Even though many people refer to football as modern warfare, for me it goes back to those ancient times and a lot of the writings like Homer. I picture my journey as an odyssey, purely because there are so many obstacles that I have to overcome to achieve something that many people don’t believe or see that I can attain.”

While playing football at Columbia was a key factor in his move to Greece, Stamboulidis feels it would not have happened without being in the professional environment of the Colorado Rapids.

“This stage in my footballing career helped me the most to make the step towards becoming a professional,” he says.

“While at the Rapids I played on average two matches per week, which was game time at a high level and it helped me find a groove and continuity which mimics the everyday life of a professional footballer.

“Even though my time with the Columbia Lions and coach Kevin Anderson was my stepping stone, the introduction to the Rapids definitely played a significant role in keeping the fire going from within me. Chris Martinez provided the opportunity to earn my position with the Rapids and is a key person, similarly, the current Rapids U23 coach Erik Busheh, both are people who I will always cherish and remember.”

Even though he is in his debut campaign as a professional in Europe, Stamboulidis is hopeful of making an impression and getting some first team action during the regular season.

“It’s about being consistent in training and pushing mentally and physically,” he says.

“That plays a big role in how you can help the team first and then be considered as a contributor on match day.”