At just 34, Arthur Papas’ coaching resume already looks rather impressive. He was the youngest ever manager in the Victorian Premier League, an assistant to the Newcastle Jets not long after, and is currently in charge of much-improved Indian I-League club Dempo.
Add to that his recent appointment as second in command to Brazilian legend Zico at Indian Super League (ISL) side FC Goa, and it is hard not to envisage a veritable coaching wonder kid on an inevitable progression to the top.
Yet speaking with Papas, the impression is less self-assured or arrogant and more that of a humble coach determined to succeed in the maelstrom that is modern football management. Take, for example, his first coaching job at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), where he was forced to moonlight as a cleaner.
“At the time I was the AIS scholarship coach, and the wage wasn’t something that you could live off very easily,” Papas tells Neos Kosmos.
“At the beginning [former Young Socceroos coach] Jan Versleijen wasn’t even aware of it, and he used to see me in the morning and I’m sure he was thinking ‘this guy looks so tired’. I’d been up until midnight cleaning an office, and then I was awake again at 5.00 am editing matches for the young players to view. I love my profession, it’s what I always wanted to do, and at the end of the day those experiences make you stronger.”
Fast forward five years and Papas’ hard work has paid off in spades. The Melburnian was appointed as assistant to Zico in the newly-formed ISL, which kicked off last month, where he is coaching former Arsenal star Robert Pirès against the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka.
This new position, alongside the head coach role at Dempo that Papas will return to after the ISL wraps up in December, are both far cries from his initial job in India – managing the nation’s Olympic team.
“It wasn’t something that was expected when I first came here, but I was really excited for the opportunity to work with someone of Zico’s calibre,” says Papas. “As an Australian coach there are not many chances for something like that to happen during your career, so I plan on making the most of this opportunity.”
Inspired to enter coaching by developmental failings in Australia after his promising playing career was cut short by chronic knee injuries, Papas appears the perfect fit as Indian football strives to improve from the grassroots up. This initial motivation, alongside a high-level university education, gives Papas an atypical coaching background that he hopes will give him the edge.
“It all stemmed from the fact that when I was in Australia I didn’t feel the education of a footballer was thorough enough,” Papas explains. “I always had a really inquisitive mind, so I went and did my first coaching course at 16. Injury or not I didn’t make it as a footballer in the end, but instead I completely committed to being a coach.”
While he is intent on staying the course and unlocking the potential of football in India, Papas recognises that he will not be on the subcontinent forever. He once told a journalist of his ambition to win the A-League by 35, and while that goal may have lapsed, he still harbours broader aspirations.
“My immediate future is in India and I have a lot of things I want to achieve here before I embark on the next journey,” he says. “Whether that is back in Australia or elsewhere I’m not sure. I just know that every day I have to attack my profession in the same manner that I do currently, and hopefully I’ll be successful in whatever role I take.”
An established manager at the same age most footballers are starting to consider their playing retirement, Papas could feasibly have 30 years of coaching ahead. Having gone from cleaner to Zico’s assistant in such a short space of time, the possibilities seem endless.
“Where the road takes me I’m not exactly sure, but I just know I want to be the best coach I can possibly be.”