Greek goalkeeping legend Antonis Nikopolidis cast a long shadow over the position for many years. During the course of his long and successful career he fought off the challenge of many pretenders to his crown, among them Kostas Chalkias, Alexandros Tzorvas and Michalis Sifakis.
The trio are all in contention for a starting slot at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and all that remains to be seen is who will be given the job of living up to the high standards set by the peerless Nikopolidis.
Chalkias has been biding his time for both club and country since the late 1990s. Emerging from the youth ranks at Panathinaikos, he moved to Apollon Athens on loan to gain experience before returning to Pana to stake his claim.
The odds on him becoming first-choice keeper were stacked against him however. At the front of the queue were the experienced Polish international Josef Wandzik and the aforementioned Nikopolidis, who was already beginning to make a name for himself.
Over the next three seasons Chalkias pulled on the gloves on a little more than 20 occasions. On the move once more, this time to Iraklis, he turned in another string of steady performances to earn a return to the Athens giants at the end of the 2002/2003 season.
Nikopolidis was still ahead of him in the pecking order, however, with Chalkias serving as his understudy for the following season, at the end of which Greece’s No1 decided to jump ship and join Olympiakos.
Rather than taking up his rightful position between the Pana posts, Chalkias opted to move abroad, leaving the position to Tzorvas, another homegrown product. Himself accustomed to loan spells around the country, Tzorvas quickly made the slot his own.
Chalkias’s move abroad did not work out as planned. A luckless season in England was followed by another in Spain. Brought back to Greece by Aris Thessaloniki in 2006, he briefly came up against Sifakis, now the first choice keeper at the club and who himself played second fiddle to Nikopolidis during a fleeting spell at Olympiakos. Two years later Chalkias moved crosstown to join PAOK, where he has remained ever since.
With the trio of custodians having now become the undisputed No1s with their clubs and Nikopolidis calling it a day at international level in 2008, Greece coach Otto Rehhagel now has the job of deciding who to give the goalkeeping duties to in South Africa. Whoever it is has a lot to live up to.
The new boys have to show the same love for the team as the older players.
“We’ve had some good and bad times over the years with the national team,” said the outgoing Nikopolidis, calling time on a career in which he raised the bar for the men behind him. “The most important thing, though, was that we were a family. The new boys have to show the same love for the team as the older players, and the older players who stay on have to make sure that never changes.”
Though no one is quite sure who the veteran German coach will opt for in the world finals, Tzorvas and Chalkias seem to have the best chances of picking up where the grey-haired shot-stopper left off and gaining reward for their immense patience.
Sifakis, however, is the longest shot of the three. Handed a surprise start in Greece’s latest warm-up match against Korea DPR, the youngster suffered an unfortunate injury that could force him out of the finals altogether. Taking his place in last week’s match was Tzorvas, who has featured more prominently than any of his rivals in recent games, although during the qualification campaign Rehhagel invariably gave Chalkias a starting place.
No matter who gets the nod for Greece’s opener against Korea Republic on 12 June, they can take comfort from the fact that even the long-serving Nikopolidis had to wait fully seven years before he finally had the chance to replace Wandzik at Panathinaikos, proof if it were needed that when it comes to goalkeeping, patience is indeed a virtue.