For someone still only 19, the list of achievements of Sotiris Ninis are impressive to say the least: designated Greek Young Footballer of the Year in 2007 – the youngest player to have won the award – and named in the team of the tournament at the UEFA U-19 European Championship held the same year, a competition in which a remarkable Greek team progressed all the way to the final. But then again, records tend to fall in Ninis’ wake. Not only is he the youngest player to be capped by Greece, but also to play in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match, score for the full international side and be made captain of his current club, Panathinaikos.|
An almost certain addition to this list will be a first league championship for the precocious performer, a title that the Athens-based team should wrap up in the coming weeks – with just two games to play they hold a six-point lead over their great rivals and nearest challengers, Olympiacos. With this kind of success so early on in his career, it is no surprise that big-name European clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, AC Milan and Real Madrid have been keeping tabs on him for some time now.
Albanian-born but of Greek descent, Ninis is equipped with delightful technique, incredible vision, staggering pace and a shot of considerable power. It was these qualities that enabled the attacking midfielder to race through his country’s various youth selections, and just a year after becoming an integral part of the under-19 team, he found himself in the senior international squad.
When the news first broke that Greece’s German coach, Otto Rehhagel, had called up the promising youngster, it caused something of a frenzy among the Mediterranean nation’s media.
“It’s a dream come true and an extra motivation to work even harder and improve myself,” said a delighted Ninis at the time. Three days later, on 16 May 2008, came the moment he had been waiting for, as he made his senior debut in a friendly encounter against neighbouring Cyprus. Unquestionably, Lady Luck was smiling on him that particular day, providing him with the opportunity to score the opening goal of a 2-0 victory. Despite this memorable international entrance, his name would not eventually figure in the list of players selected to perform in Austria and Switzerland, where Greece were unable to defend the European Championship title they had acquired so stunningly four years earlier.
An interrupted odyssey
Henceforth recognised as the rising star of Hellenic football, Ninis has nonetheless had his share of ups and downs in the intervening years. He continued to exhibit sparkling form in the under-19s, leaving no-one in any doubt about his quality. But in spite of his inclusion in Rehhagel’s plans on a couple of occasions, injuries were destined to restrict his tally of senior international caps at a crucial time in his career.
His appearances in the green shirt of Panathinaikos were of a similarly intermittent nature. It was the Athens club’s Spanish coach, Víctor Munoz, who first brought him into the team at the tender age of 16 for a Super League match against Egaleo. A tremendously assured performance from Ninis that day earned him a deserved man-of-the-match award. “He plays as if he’s at training,” was Munoz’s admiring post-match reaction, and even before the season had come to an end, Panathinaikos had offered Ninis his first professional contract.
The beginning of the 2007/08 campaign found him battling with various injuries that, in addition to his falling out of favour with new coach Jose Peseiro, kept him on the sidelines for the entire season. When Henk ten Cate took over the Pana hotseat the following year, things began to change for the better for Ninis, starting with his appointment as one of the three squad captains. This was an honour that he has since taken to heart, putting in some devastating recent displays, none more so than against Roma in February’s Europa League Round-of-32 clash, where he stunned the Stadio Olimpico crowd by not only scoring a fine goal himself, but creating two others for his team-mate Djibril Cisse.
It seems Ninis has finally begun to fulfil his considerable promise, but whether this potential is capable of creating a South African success story, leading to a possible move next season to pastures new, remains to be seen. At the very least many fans are hoping he can inspire his compatriots to win a FIFA World Cup match for the first time in their history. Only time will tell if his personal journey will feature a heroic return from Africa to his homeland. Among so many possible outcomes, the one certainty is that there will be many an expert pair of eyes trained on the young Greek over the summer months.
Ninis is contracted to Panathinaikos until 2012. Any club wishing to snap up this Greek gem will have to come up with €10 million, or €17 million if the buyers happen to be one of Pana’s Super League rivals.
Despite having rewritten the footballing record books in Greece with his precocious achievements, Ninis was actually only the second youngest player to don the colours of Panathinaikos in an official league match. The first was 15-year-old Kostas Antoniou in 1978.
Sotiris Ninis is Albanian by birth but it was his Greek descent that proved more persuasive; he opted to make himself available for the Hellenic Republic in February of 2007, shortly after having received a call-up to the Albanian Under-21 national team.