No-one can say that the career of Chris Ikonomidis has followed convention. After all, few players secure an international cap before featuring in a single professional match. Equally, few can point to having been mentored by the FIFA World Cup™'s all-time leading goalscorer. Both are the case for Ikonomidis.
Moving to Italy as a teenager from his native Australia, Ikonomidis rarely featured at youth international level, thus eschewing the usual route to international stage. A mobile and athletic forward, the untested Ikonomidis made his unexpected first Socceroo appearance in 2015, a selection in keeping with Ange Postecoglou’s vision of building further depth for the Asian champions ahead of next year’s FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017, and ongoing Russia 2018 qualifiers. Many of Australia’s football *cognoscenti *were left scrabbling for morsels of information on the internet about this latest left-field call-up.
Australia’s head coach has always been of the view, ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough’. After all, Postecoglou himself debuted as a teenager in the intensely physical environment of the mid-1980s’ Australian National Soccer League, entering the fray in place of Alan Davidson – father of current Socceroo Jason Davidson – who had been sent to hospital after yet another heavy clash.
No doubt the mindset of former Lazio coach Stefano Pioli was similar to Postecoglou's given Ikonomidis’ atypical club debut. There was to be no low-key late appearance as a substitute in a comfortable league fixture, but rather a starting appearance in the UEFA Europa League. Ikonomidis was reportedly rated the best player on the pitch by Italian media. If the idea was to see if he would sink or swim, then it was clear that the 20-year-old had the mentality to survive in professional football. Such was Lazio’s confidence, they handed the unheralded youngster a five-year contract.
*Learning the craft from a master *
After a brief spell at Atalanta, fate smiled on Ikonomidis with a transfer to Lazio. As if a move to the Eternal City and one of Italy’s big clubs wasn’t enough, Ikonomidis found himself learning the art of goalscoring from one of the game’s greats; all-time World Cup record-scorer Miroslav Klose.
And the serendipity didn’t end there as Klose happily took the teenage Aussie under his wing. “I think he can relate to me a lot,” Ikonomidis tells FIFA.com about the about the prolific German striker whose 16 goals World Cup goals is a record. “He is a true football legend but a humble guy, and I think he saw that I was always respectful, collecting gear, and staying a bit at the back, and maybe he saw himself in me a little bit. I think he had that respect for me right at the start.
“He definitely [took me under his wing]. He helped me to adjust to the first-team setting. I consider him a good friend. When I made my debut in the Europa League he was over the moon for me. We talk about Australia, every now and then, and I try to convince him to come to Australia and play in the A-League.”
*Unwritten chapters *
Having learnt at the feet of a master, this young Aussie now hopes to carve his own niche on the world stage. The Socceroos are set to visit Russia for next year’s Confederations Cup courtesy of their maiden AFC Asian Cup win early in 2015, just prior to Ikonomidis’ maiden call-up. And they will, of course, aim to return to Russia 12 months later for the World Cup.
Of more immediate concern for the Sydneysider of Greek heritage is another chance to test himself on the international stage, prior to the resumption of AFC World Cup qualifiers in September. The coming fortnight will see the Socceroos take on two special opponents – England, Australia’s oldest sporting rivals, and Greece, the birthplace of Ikonomidis' grandparents.
And Ikonomidis says there is a good vibe among an Australia side who are clearly on the up, amid a period of rebuilding. “It gives you a little boost to have a coach that gives young players a go,” continued Ikonomidis with unfailing politeness. “When I come into camps, it is the best feeling in the world. Everyone is great mates, it is a unique group. There is no jealousy, only positives.”
Ikonomidis spent the end of the European season learning his trade on loan at Serie B side Salernitana, getting plenty of match time into his young legs. It has been an eventful four years since he made the journey across the globe as a raw 16-year-old. “It was very hard adapting, on and off the pitch,” says Ikonomidis looking back to the start of a career that clearly still has many chapters yet to be written. “My mum tried to fight me on that move when I was 16, but I won that one in the end. Certainly all the sacrifices have paid off.”