Hard work, good genes behind Papa rise
© AFP

Kyriakos Papadopoulos was just 15 years and 283 days old when he made his debut for Olympiacos on 2 December 2007, becoming the youngest player of all time to appear in the Greek Super League. Now, some five years later, the uncompromising defender rates as one of the most promising talents in Europe.

“Playing in the Greek first division at the age of 15 and setting this record was a fantastic feeling," the 20-year-old exclusively told FIFA.com as he reviewed his stellar career to date. "I'm even more delighted that I didn't just tread water, but continued developing as a footballer." 

Rapid progress
The baby-faced defensive specialist has certainly come a very long way in a short space of time. In three seasons with the most successful club in Greece, the man nicknamed 'Papa' by his team-mates helped Olympiacos claim back-to-back league and cup doubles in 2008 and 2009. Following his switch to German Bundesliga giants Schalke in 2010, the robust defender added a German cup winner's medal at the end of his first season.

As the son of a footballer and a former Greek 100-metre hurdles champion, the player was clearly born with the potential to succeed in the sporting world. Standing at 1.83m (6ft) and weighing in at 85kg (187lbs), his physique is close to ideal for football. However, genetic good fortune is by no means the only reason for his rapid success.

“I think a blend of talent and hard work has got me where I am today," Papadopoulos said. “My parents were very sporty and I guess I was born with talent. But you need a huge amount of work to make the most of it."

Outstanding appearance record
The versatile defender, equally at home at centre-back or in midfield, has become a dependable regular for Schalke in his second season with the Gelsenkirchen club. The aerial powerhouse has made 41 appearances so far this term, besting the likes of international superstar Raul and potent Dutchman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

The modest Papadopoulos, the second-youngest player in Huub Stevens’ squad after teen sensation Julian Draxler, is determined to keep his feet on the ground and not get carried away by his current form. On the contrary, he is a model of humility when asked about his role within the team.

“Obviously, it's a very special feeling to be one of the youngest players at Schalke,” he told us. “I'm just delighted at the chance to represent such a huge and successful club. It feels really special and a privilege to play alongside the likes of Raul and Huntelaar."

After the result in the first leg, we're rank outsiders in Bilbao. But there's no way we'll resign ourselves to our fate without a fight.
Kyriakos Papadopoulos

On Thursday evening, Papa will again line up alongside the stars when the Royal Blues travel to Athletic Bilbao for their UEFA Europa League quarter-final second leg, attempting the monumental task of overcoming a 4-2 defeat from the first meeting.

“Obviously, the situation is anything but good for us. After the result in the first leg, we’re rank outsiders in Bilbao," Papadopoulos defiantly stated. "But there's no way we'll resign ourselves to our fate without a fight. Often enough this season, we've shown we’re capable of scoring plenty of goals."

Aside from the battle for a place in the Europa League semi-finals, the priority for the side lying third in the Bundesliga is a direct qualifying berth for next term's UEFA Champions League. The man capped seven times by his country also has one eye on this summer's UEFA EURO 2012.

“I'm incredibly proud and happy to be part of the national team at such a young age," he said. "The EURO will be my first major tournament, so I'm obviously really, really looking forward to it."

The continental showdown in Poland and Ukraine offers the Greeks another opportunity to replicate the greatest success in their footballing history, the shock triumph at EURO 2004 in Portugal. However, there is some catching up to do, as their performances at subsequent major tournaments have left a lot to be desired.

One frequently cited explanation was an ageing squad, but that is set to change, as Papadopoulos is only one of a hugely promising younger generation knocking on the door of the team coached by Fernando Santos. The Schalke defender feels the developments are exceptionally positive.

The change of generations in the national team is doing us a lot of good, as we saw in qualifying for the EURO.
Kyriakos Papadopoulos

“The change of generations in the national team is doing us a lot of good, as we saw in qualifying for the EURO,” he reasoned. “I think we now have a large pool of talented young players, and I'm convinced this will guarantee progress for the Greek national team."

It is nigh on impossible to predict what this might mean when push comes to shove in June, but Papa is not ruling out a sensational repeat of the triumph from eight years ago. “Our minimum target at the EURO is the quarter-finals,” he said, as the conversation concluded.

“Anything can happen in our group with Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic, because the teams are evenly matched.  Personally, I obviously want us to go as far as we can. Provided we make it to the knockout stages in the first place, anything can happen."