Former South Melbourne star Michael Valkanis ascension to the Greek national team as assistant coach alongside head coach John Van’t Schip can only be described as a whirlwind of chaos and excitement.
However Valkanis joy in coaching the team of his parents homeland was short-lived when Ethniki’s Euro 2020 campaign was derailed due to a 1-0 loss to Finland and an inexplicable 1-1 draw at home to Liechtenstein. The draw to the European minnows was described as the worst result in Greece’s history. However what followed was a spirited 2-0 loss to Italy and confidence building inspirational wins over Bosnia Armenia and Finland which has lifted the spirit of Greek football.
Valkanis is adamant that fans should take comfort from those performances and be excited about the future of the Greek national team.
“Not qualifying for the Euro is disappointing,” he told Neos Kosmos. “But it was always going to be difficult. From the beginning our main focus was to build a team for the future. Results are always important in any sport, but we as coaches have to focus on the process. The three consecutive wins though have encouraged, excited and given hope to the whole nation. It has truly been fulfilling as a coach to see and feel and be part of this. Overall we are really happy with the teams progress and the football they are playing.”
While the recent results has lifted the mood around the national team, Valkanis admitted that after the loss to Finland and draw to Liechtenstein that the pressure around the national team began to boil.
“We may have lost to Finland by 1-0 but we knew that we took important steps moving forward,” he said “We conceded a penalty that we should have not conceded. We drew against Liechtenstein with a last minute goal against us. There was a little bit of chaos but we kept working and knew that everything would be okay because the players are grasping the things that we want.”
What polarised media and fans at the beginning Van’t Schip and Valkanis tenure was that they implemented a new strategy which was a change from the previous defensive mindset that characterised Greek football.
“Everyone, the fans and the media knew that when John Van’t Schip and I came here that we wanted to play attacking football and they were negative and they said that Greece don’t have the players to play that way, Valkanis said. “But I don’t believe it.
“Greeks are super passionate about their national team but very critical about how things are done. People here have got a belief that there is only one way of doings things and that is by being super disciplined and very overly defensive like they won the Euro’s in 2004. But football has evolved around the world. So to bring the people back you need big change.”
Despite the critics Valkanis strongly believes that the Greek national team can evolve.
“We have taken the quality of Greece’s ability and their passion to defend and we have added within our philosophy with how we want to play, he said. “We saw a digma (an example) of where we want to be at 12 months and it’s great to see that within three camps they have an idea of it. “After the games against Italy, Bosnia, Armenia and Finland the feedback from fans and media was ‘that we cannot believe that Greece can play this sort of football. That we can’t believe what we saw – that Greece can be an attacking team.’ I believe Greeks can play an attacking based possession game; they don’t have to sit back and rely on counter attacking.
On a personal note Valkanis, who played youth and senior football with South Melbourne Hellas revealed how being part of Greek national anthem has been a profound experience.
“For a kid that is born with a Greek culture and heritage and have got Greek blood in me and grow up from six years of age wearing the South Melbourne badge which is the Hellas badge on my chest that was super important back then,” he said.
“Every time the national then is sung during a game I feel that and I feel emotion and I know I have a huge responsibility now as an assistant coach of our nation to do everything possible to help put us back on the map again and help bring this team up again.”
With three wins under his belt Valkanis is adamant that Greece has a bright future and can certainly qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“I do believe we can get there,” he said. “We want to be there but at the same time we also know the steps we have to take. I get excited by it. That’s what drives me every day. We didn’t qualify for the Euro’s but we are working towards Qatar and that’s what it’s all about. That was always the plan and we believe we are still on track to qualify for Qatar and it would be a huge thing. History has shown what Greeks are capable of when they come together as one … One of my fave quotes is Winston Churchill’s, “Greeks don’t fight like heroes, heroes fight like Greeks.”