Sotiris Ninis 22 Midfielder Panathinaikos
It was never going to be easy, it really wasn’t. When you pick up a tag such as ‘The Future of Greek Football’, you’re pretty much ruined long before you’ve even started (the Greek/ruins thing wasn’t even deliberate there by the way).
Under intense pressure from a young age, Sotiris Ninis was liberally dubbed Panathinaikos’ bundled equivalent to Maradona and Pelé well in advance of any base touching with Trifylli’s first team. A standout player at junior level with the famous Apollon Smyrnis academy in Athens, Ninis was regarded as a hot prospect throughout European football circles from his early teens. Signing professional terms, and a five year contract, with Panathinaikos in December 2006, he made his first team debut for the club within a fortnight, aged just 16.
While some players at this age would, quite understandably, freeze when confronted with ‘the big stage’, Ninis excelled. All that talk of imminent superstardom? Completely justified. Pana had found a robust but tricky kid that often looked ten times better than the players around him. Quick, nimble and clever; if this was the future, it looked good.
While a gradual introduction to the rigors of top flight football is often sensible, Ninis rapidly became so important to his club that it was virtually impossible to leave him out of the team. Not yet 17 but playing regularly, and playing well, scouts from across Europe would fill large sections of the Olympic and Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadiums to catch a glimpse of Greece’s ascending starlet. Offers would soon follow.
First to show their hand were Manchester United, and discussions were believed to have been ongoing for a lengthy period during the late noughties. For their part, Panathinaikos could see that Ninis’ stock was on the rise and the choice between selling now for a good price, as opposed to selling later for an exorbitant one, pretty much made itself.
The burden of expectation at such a young age invariably took its toll on young Ninis and much of the 2007-08 season was lost to injury. A spate of muscle tears offered conclusive proof of too much too soon.
It took almost a year for Ninis to return to first team action in Greece, but a lot less to show how useful he was. Selection for the national team became a given, even if injuries continued to hamper progress. By 2010, with a good run of games behind him and the shared captaincy of Panathinaikos in place, Ninis was playing the best football of his career as he led his team to a League and Cup double. Another good season followed, but the most significant month of Sotiris Ninis’ career - so far - came in September 2011. Having scored the goal which virtually assured Greece a place at Euro 2012, Ninis was badly injured playing for his club during the same month.
The crushing blow of a serious knee injury cast doubt over Ninis’ chances of making his mark in Poland in Ukraine in what would be his first major international tournament. Euro 2012 could have been an opportunity for Ninis to show what he could do as the focal point of the Greek national team, but despite recovering fitness and returning for Panathinaikos in the spring of this year, Ninis was clearly not the same player.
On the 16 May, 2012, Ninis scored the only goal of the game for Panathinaikos in a 1-0 victory at Atromitos in the league. Four days later, he made his final appearance at the Athens Olympic Stadium, leaving the field for the final time as a Pana player in the 71st minute of a 1-0 win over AEK. Ahead of Euro 2012, a move to Italy with Parma had been agreed.
On reflection, there is little doubt that Sotiris Ninis has been extremely unlucky to suffer the injuries that he has, especially the significant knee trauma which occurred in September 2011. The injuries have made an impact and it is going to take time for Ninis to get back to the levels he was at previously, if he is to recapture that form at all. Confidence has obviously taken quite a dent and his eventual departure from Greece saw Ninis leave with barely a whimper, rather than the bang many had predicted two years earlier.
As his transfer to Parma was declared a ‘free’ move (Ninis was out of contract), Panathinaikos might well have lamented their decision not to permit the sale of Ninis some years earlier, when significant amounts of cash were available in exchange for the young midfielder.
Has Sotiris Ninis failed? It’s difficult to tell. Parma would not have been a likely destination for the player in 2010, but his stock has fallen sharply. Time spent on the pitch for I crociati has been limited so far, but perhaps this is more to gradually ease the Greek midfielder back into football. Considering the amount of pressure he has had to endure, it’s a reasonable bet to suggest that psychological issues could be as prevalent as physical ones.
If Roberto Donadoni’s outfit have done their homework correctly, they have a very good player on their hands. Someone intelligent enough to link play right across the pitch, that – fully fit – could really excel in Serie A.
It’s been a very traumatic, and ultimately disappointing twelve months, but Ninis has enough talent to make the grade once more. We wish him the very best of luck.
"In a perfect world he'd be one of the best in Europe at this point, but shit happens and it has certainly happened to Ninis. Looked amazing at 17, but a little on the burnt out side now" - Jeff Livingstone (IBWM)
E Euro 2012 came too soon. The move to Parma might just turn out to be perfect