Kone finally showing his calibre
Football fans across Italy jumped out of their seats in unison last December when Panagiotis Kone twisted his body in the air and buried a ferocious bicycle kick past Napoli goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis. For Bologna's unheralded Greek midfielder, it was an unforgettable moment, earning him a sudden blast of attention. Now, a few months on from that outrageous strike, the dust has settled and Kone has put his fleeting spell in the limelight behind him, refocusing on his tireless work in support of Bologna's forwards.
Nicknamed the 'Little Knife of the Balkans', the 25-year-old is no one-strike wonder, and many believe he has what it takes to evolve from a good player into an exceptional one.
"At least we didn't make a mistake with the Greeks," noted Rossoblu President Albano Guaraldi after the goal against Napoli, his comment also alluding to Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, another attacking midfielder. As it happens, Kone could just as easily have opted to represent Albania on the international stage, having been born in Tirana in 1987 before his parents left for Greece when he was two years old.
'Gjergj' quickly became Panagiotis Giorgios after the move and he did not hesitate for a second when first called up by the Greek national team in 2010. "Greece has given me everything, both as a person and a player," he told FIFA.com. "I owe a lot to this country, which extended hospitality to my father, a biologist, when he decided to come and live here."
First taught the game in the Olympiacos youth set-up after joining aged 11, Kone was soon turning heads thanks to his excellent technique on the move and natural elegance – qualities that backed up his desire to wear the No10 shirt. At 17, and already considered a star in the making, he then succumbed to the lure of northern French club Lens, but the culture shock did not take long to destabilise the youngster, with the change of country, playing style and above all climate leaving him feeling far from home. Less than a year later, in fact, he was packing his bags again, returning to Greece to sign his first professional contract, with AEK Athens.
Kone's form varied wildly over the next three seasons, and he seemed to alternate decisive contributions with barely visible displays. When Brazilian legend Rivaldo arrived at the club, the writing was on the wall, and Kone next took his wares to Iraklis, where he spent the following two years in relative anonymity, toiling for success and consistency. That spurred him on to attempt another overseas adventure, and he headed to Italy to join newly promoted Serie A side Brescia, being rewarded with a fine first campaign that also brought a maiden Greece cap, in the 2-1 win away against Austria on 17 November 2010.
Brescia ended the season in the relegation zone, however, and Kone was picked up by Bologna, having been recommended by former team-mate Alessandro Diamanti. For Rossoblù coach Stefano Pioli, it rapidly became clear that the club's new arrival should be switched to a more central role. "I feel like I express myself better when positioned as an attacking midfielder, but I don't have any preference," explained Kone. "It's not a problem for me whether I play in the middle or on the wing. I'll play wherever the coach needs me." That flexibility and enthusiasm have evidently served him well, and Kone can now pride himself on being a regular starter in one of the world's toughest leagues. "It's difficult to make your mark in Italy," he added. "The championship is very difficult, very tactical and a lot more intense than in Greece. For Greek players, that means changing our mentality completely."
As a result, Kone is now answering the critics who have dogged him throughout his career, most notably by following up his sensational goal against Napoli with a sumptuous winning strike at the Stadio San Paolo in the Coppa Italia three days later. "That second goal showed all the doubters that the first wasn't a stroke of luck," he said, addressing those observers who have tended to paint him as an erratic performer. "I give everything on the pitch and I never stop working to improve myself and above all be more consistent."
Having settled into his new position, where his combative spirit has brought major dividends, Kone finally seems to be making his abilities count. His dream now is to help Greece book a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. "We have real hopes of making it," he said, ahead of Friday's vital encounter against Bosnia-Herzegovina, joint leaders with Fernando Santos' side in the European Zone's Group G. "In defence, we're where we need to be, but we don't quite have enough going forward."
That looks to be an accurate summation, given that Greece have notched five goals in their four games so far while their upcoming opponents have buried 15. All the same, with Kone now thriving at last and developing a taste for scoring, Greece could be about to sharpen their attacking edge.