Arthur Papas has long awaited to return to Australian soil after spending years overseas building his coaching career.
“It’s exciting to be home more than anything, it had been just over three years since I’ve been back on Australian soil. I haven’t seen family and friends for a long time,” he told Neos Kosmos.
Papas will be returning to the A-League’s Newcastle Jets as head coach, 10 years after serving as the club’s assistant.
“The job is something that came about and it’s a bonus to come back and still keep doing what I love, which is coaching and building teams.”
Papas was planning to return home, at the very least for a short trip, earlier than 2021, however he could not have anticipated how quickly the world would change after choosing to head to Greece in 2019 instead.
“Every chance possible I try to get there [Greece]! The reason I was away from Australia in this period for so long was because in 2019 when we won the championship in Yokohama, I flew my family over to Japan to have that moment with them,” he said.
“What I thought was, if I fly them here I get to spend time with them and in my break I’ll go to Greece…I went to Greece thinking that won’t be a problem because the world is such a normal place. It was a bit of a miscalculation I’d say, because I thought I’d be able to come back to Australia the following time I have a break.”
Rumours swirled that Papas might be heading to Scotland instead to rejoin coach Ange Postecoglou, who was recently announced as the Celtic’s new manager.
In 2019, the pair brought the Yokohama F. Marinos its first J-League victory in 15 years.
“I was coming home regardless of an A-League job or not, that’s the truth. I wanted to come back and be close to family, it had been a bit too long,” Papas explained.
“These things, especially with Ange don’t happen overnight. More than anything and most importantly I’m happy for him to have that opportunity. I’ve had a couple of chats with him and I’m sure he’s going to go in there and do what he normally does in a bigger context.”
The 41-year-old himself may have one of Australia’s most colourful and impressive football coaching careers, having started as a VPL head coach at only 30 years of age in 2010.
The real journey and his fascination with the world game had been sparked 23 years prior.
“My father used to play and he coached and he got my brother and I involved from a very young age. It was something that immediately grew on me…I just became so engrossed in watching football and reading about football from as early as I can remember,” Papas said.
“It’s driven by my background, with a father and mother who came from Greece…It’s what allowed people to connect. A lot of the Greeks that had come from overseas connected socially through football.”
Despite having only played up until around the age of 25 due to multiple knee injuries, Papas took far more away from his relationships on the field than he did the play.
“The fondest memories I had from playing were the friendships I made. I’ve still got a core group of friends who I played with or worked with in my mid 20s who I’m still very close with today…When you haven’t played at the top levels, you really appreciate the building of relationships,” he said.
Off the field, it was the relationship with his mother that really had a profound impact on him as an individual.
“I saw someone from a very young age who worked really hard, who did anything for her kids, who really sacrificed a lot. When you see someone like that, you realise how much love and passion can do. That probably shapes a lot of who I am and how I behave,” Papas said.
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The sense of friendship and passion has carried well over into his career back on the field, but learning is a constant process for the Newcastle Jets coach.
“You grow in a lot of different ways, in each country you have different challenges you have to overcome. You grow up a certain way, you work a certain way in an Australian setting but it doesn’t always work exactly the same in other cultures,” Papas said.
“You’re not going the to change them to behave like you, you have to go there and be willing to accept a lot of who they are and what they’re about and why they have certain beliefs, without also compromising your own values.”
Each new adventure on a foreign shore brought new challenges and exciting knowledge to soak up.
“My experiences overseas are really fantastic. I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot through them. People say that India is a difficult place but I probably needed to be in India to develop a bit more patience…With Japan it was about being more humble and respectful, with Saudi Arabia it was about respecting culture and all the different beliefs they have whilst making sure you’re still doing your work,” he said.
Papas hopes he can instill some of the grit and wealth of information into Australia’s football sphere. The coach has been very vocal about his support for a National Second Division [NSL] in Australia and how it will be vital in improving the world game on home soil.
“It’s a lot do with the amount of opportunities they can [NSL] provide. Across three divisions in Japan there are 50 professional teams. If you put that into context, we have 11. So when you have 11 compared to 50, you’ve reduced the pool of opportunity considerably, not just for players, but for coaches, administration, for every single element,” he said.
No matter how much talent can be fostered, the core of the issue lies in resources.
“You’re not going to uncover as many players that can potentially go on and make it to the higher levels because the gap between what’s happening at the professional level and the semi-professional level is quite large,” Papas said.
“We need to go down that path eventually but we need an investment put into the game at the right time as well because it’s got to be sustainable.”
This is not to say that Australia hasn’t produced some incredible talent, but Papas looks the the future generation coaches to change Australia’s reputation internationally.
“It’s nice to see that there’s some coaches coming through the system now and we’re not looking overseas for our first option…We need to provide more opportunities because the more we can provide, the more you’ll find those diamonds in the rough. I’d like to see people who are willing to go overseas and try and improve the perception of Australian coaches as well. The passport is a hindrance if anything,” he said.
While he has already left his own mark in that regard, Papas generally doesn’t think too greatly about the kind of legacy he wants to leave behind. Instead, he focuses all of his energy into giving each and every single day it’s own care and attention.
“I just want to live for the day, that’s my approach. At the start I thought it was all about ‘where do you want to be in 10 years from now?’ and all the things you want to achieve. I think sometimes you get caught up in thinking too far ahead and you don’t appreciate the day,” he said.
“Even if I wasn’t getting paid for this I’d keep doing it as long as I could survive. I’m living a dream in a way that I set up for myself a long time ago. If you just chip away every single day, you find that you achieve quite a lot.”
The future he doesn’t look too far into may be in the hands of the person he chooses to be each day, but still, there is a small part of him that dreams to try his hand at coaching in Europe. His first stop…Holland.
Although the choice of country might be strange to some, Papas has a very close relationship with Dutch football after having being mentored by Dutch Coach Jan Versleijen in his early days.
“I love the whole idea of Dutch football and Dutch people is something that really resonates with me. The experiences I’ve had with certain Dutch people and for me it was refreshing; the bluntness, the ability to just speak with so much logic and not in twists and turns. Some of the relationships I made with people many years ago, I still have today.”
“It would be really special to get there at some stage [Europe]…Watching games at 7:30 at night as opposed to 4:30 in the morning, there’s a whole bunch of reasons, like for my health as to why that would be better,” Papas said laughing.
The Dutch will have to wait for now, or at least until Papas’ three-year contract ends with the Jets. Now his plan is to bring back some much needed TLC to the club after “various struggles with ownership” over the years.
“The challenges are pretty clear after a difficult three years, or even 10 years bar a season or two. It’s disappointing because one thing I know from my time there is that they actually have an amazing level of support from the community and the people around it. They deserve a club they can be proud of,” he said.
“For me it’s about bringing some unity to the whole organisation and a clear and common way of moving forward in terms of how we want to play and the type of team we want to be. I’ve got really clear beliefs on how to play football and how I want teams to look. It’s bringing that identity and getting people to believe in what we’re doing.”