The names Ange Postecoglou, Paul Trimboli, Joe Palatsides, and Kimon Taliadoros are widely known as the more prominent members of the Puskas-coached 1991 NSL Grand Final winning team. But in winning the Optus My Business Award, Nikolakopoulos is now part of the ever-growing list of former South Melbourne players coached by Puskas who have gone on to forge successful careers post-football.

Nikolakopoulos started the Football Star Academy (FSA) in 2006 with the aim of developing elite football players through weekly clinics and specialised one-on-one and semi-private training sessions. Five years ago, there was a single coaching academy, today there are 30 franchises and Nikolakopoulos says having FSA recognised for Franchise Business of the Year is very satisfying.

“It’s obviously very exciting,” he says.

“When I first started telling people that I was going to franchise my business some years ago they told me I was crazy. They told me, ‘What are you doing?’ They said, ‘it was impossible’, that I was ‘just a coach’ and that I ‘only had a bag of balls’. But I said, ‘that’s not my vision, it’s more than that’. And I stuck to my vision and I stuck to my beliefs and receiving an award like this many years later is very satisfying for me.
“Being Franchise Business of the Year in Australia adds a lot of credibility for our brand. It’s recognition for all the hard work. It hasn’t happened overnight, it has been a long journey. We’ve been very, very persistent in following our dreams. It’s a good thing to be acknowledged by one of the most prestigious business awards in the country.”

Football Star Academy coaches over 5000 girls and boys a week and Nikolakopoulos revealed that having former international greats at the academy was a key ingredient in delivering their high-level coaching program.

“Jasper Olsen is our director of coaching and has experience at the highest level as a former Manchester United and Ajax player and International for Denmark at a World Cup,” he says.

“He heads up the team in the football department and he not only gives us credibility, but also an abundance of experience that we transfer to the kids. Former Belgium international Geoffrey Claeys is also a recent addition to the team. He played in Holland and Belgium and he’s a big believer in development.
“The good thing about FSA is that we can make a difference with the youngsters. At the senior level, it’s pretty much win at all costs and that’s fantastic, we need that mentality. But what we do at FSA is more about how can we give a positive influence to youngsters and give them a really good opportunity to have a long-lasting career – whether that be in the A-League, internationally, or whether they become coaches. Our number one mantra is to have good people. That’s what we pride ourselves on: having really good athletes, but making sure they’re really good, respectful human beings.”

Nikolakopoulos started playing football at the age of seven for South Melbourne Hellas and progressed through the junior ranks to the seniors where he was coached by Ferenc Puskas.

“My highlight was our Thursday night intraclub game where we had the first 11 versus the second 11,” he recalled. “Ferenc Puskas was in the middle of the park taking the game and you had probably eight Socceroos in South’s starting 11 and then the second 11 was also a quality side. So, being a youngster in that squad was a real highlight. It was a pretty amazing time to be part of South Melbourne and it also set me up with what I’ve done with my life.”

Nikolakopoulos was 19 at the time and he says the environment that South provided during that period became a breeding ground that created successful players and future coaches.

“There was a high the level of professionalism expected from the players,” he says.

“So, you end up with high calibre people with high expectations and big goals. That’s why you get people like Ange Postecoglou and others – you can keep naming people that have done amazing things. Us former players always catch up and see what we are doing today, everyone has done really well with their life and their journey after football. I just believe it has a lot to do with who was a part of that and what we achieved at the time.”

Even though Puskas gave him his senior debut, Nikolakopoulos decided he wanted to pursue education rather than focus simply on playing football.

However, he still sought a career in the round ball game and was offered an opportunity in the United States that allowed him to pursue his goals.

“I was fortunate enough to be offered a four-year scholarship at the University of South Carolina,” he says.

“In those days it was very limited about what you could do in football. But I definitely wanted to do something overseas. Luckily enough when I was with South Melbourne I was top goal scorer for the youth team and runner-up Youth player of the Year. I also was in the senior squad and got a reference from none other than Ferenc Puskas. So, my CV was pretty spot-on and I accompanied that with some video footage of me playing and I ended up having 18 offers from different schools, which was pretty amazing at the time. I chose the University of South Carolina to continue my football and studies.”

After completing his studies in 1995, Nikolakopoulos came back to Australia and played in the Victorian Premier League with Oakleigh and Port Melbourne.

He also pursued a career in hospitality, and for 12 years owned the Station Hotel in Prahran. Then, in 2002, he started to look for a seachange and that is when he caught the coaching bug. Four years later he started the Football Star Academy and he hasn’t looked back.

Over the years several young footballers who have gone through Football Star Academy have become professional footballers. While Nikolakopoulos is happy to see players advance their careers at an elite level, seeing how his business has made a difference in the lives of regular youngsters is also something that makes him proud.

“There’s so many kids that have come through Football Star Academy that are currently playing at Victory and Melbourne City youth,” he says.

“But we have also been doing some wonderful things with all types of kids. A lot of them are not active; obesity has gone through the roof and many are spending hours in front of a screen. I believe that our business model has helped to get kids active and by providing them with a weekly program that they love and have fun with, it has also helped to combat those problems within our community.
“By bringing franchise partners on we have been very, very successful in helping to alleviate certain health issues that kids are dealing with. A lot of people have had some amazing achievements through Football Star Academy, that is just one of the reasons why we have been successful and why we achieved this award from Optus.”