After earning his first ever Socceroos call up, Chris Ikonomidis is the name on the lips of Australian football fans. Adam Howard sat down with him in July of 2012, before the bright lights of international football were shining on the youngster.
Adam Howard: You started off at Sutherland Sharks where a lot of young players have recently come through. What was it like there, and why do you think they’ve been able to produce so many talented youngsters?
Chris Ikonomidis: I enjoyed my football at Sutherland, starting in the under 11’s and ending on a high note with the under 15’s 2010 side that qualified for the Manchester Cup World Finals in Manchester.
The club was a very nurturing club that supported my football from the President down. I was encouraged to be creative and I was lucky to have Ivan Blazevic as my coach for most of my time (5 years) at Sutherland. I ended up with around 120 goals from an attacking midfield position. Ivan never really concentrated on technique or skills…it was mostly mental; thinking, options, decisions. There are some great players that have come from Sutherland and there are also some other great coaches as well.
AH: How did the move to Atalanta come about?
CI: It was complex. I initially was invited to Arsenal when I was 14. Whilst there I was put in their Under 16’s side and scored a winning goal on debut against Norwich. I remember playing and training with the likes of (Benik) Afobe and (Jack) Wilshire. Arsenal were cautious and told my parents that every box was ticked but I needed European experience. It was an amazing time, I even spent 20 minutes one on one with Robin Van Persie who encouraged me and gave me the shirt he was wearing.
The following year, after a successful Manchester Cup tournament I was re-invited back to Arsenal but there was interest from Italy as well. A groin strain limited my efforts in London with Arsenal reassuring me that they will continue to monitor my progress. By the time I reached Italy I was fully fit. My invitation to Italy was facilitated by a scout that lives there. Together with my representative they arranged trials at 3 clubs.
Within 4 days an offer was made by Sampdoria. Inter Milan was next and they liked me but no offers were made. They wanted me back for another look. Next stop Atalanta BC who were at the top of Serie B at the time and bound for promotion to Serie A. The club was buzzing.
Atalanta was impressed and the clubs’ sporting director, Gabrielle Zamagna warned the club not to let me leave. My mother and I were treated very well at the club, and I loved the set up. At one session (whilst being assessed) I was placed in the centre of a high intensity training match – I later realised that it was the first team which explained why they looked old! I performed well by keeping up with the game and roughing up my marker, who turned out to be the Club Captain Christiano Doni. Doni was not impressed and after the third time around him he launched a barrage of Italian abuse which at the time I didn’t understand.
I was assessed medically, drug tested and my fitness was monitored. I was even sent to a tournament with my age group and scored our only goal, a well-timed volley against Chelsea. The funny thing was that Arsenal was also at this tournament looking on.
By the time the team arrived back in Bergamo, my contract was on the table. A three year, full professional deal.
AH: Can you tell us about your time there so far?
CI: In my first year I was placed in my own age group and allowed to settle in. I was sent to school to learn Italian, with class mates who were also new players from Poland and Sweden. The training was intense, but I was at the top of my age group both technically and fitness wise. This earned me training sessions with the Primavera (reserves) who regularly train with the first team. I got to play with and against players such as German Denis, Maxi Morales, Manolo Gabbiadini, Guido Marulingo and Ezequiel Schelloto.
I was told that I was to be developed as a trequartista (playmaker). I was also amazed at the coaching. It was completely different to what I had in Australia. At one stage I was under the instruction of Beppe Bergomi, who taught me some valuable lessons on relaxation, peripheral vision and field placement. It was only later that I learnt that he played in four World Cups and was a winner in 1982.
I live with the other internationals at the Casa Del Giovane in Bergamo. It’s a relaxed home like environment. We have cooks, cleaners, laundry, supervisors and the club also has a sports psychologist who keeps an eye on us. The city is beautiful with a lot of history and the people love their football. My parents visit me often and the club invites them to first team games. My highlights so far are playing well and scoring with my own age group.
An invitational Under 17’s tournament in Moscow was definitely another highlight. Spartak Moscow invited Atalanta, Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon, FC Sochaux and Borussia Mӧnchengladbach to participate in their 90th year anniversary.
I started the tournament with the winning goal against the French team FC Sochaux 1-0. I then slotted a half volley in our second match downing the hosts Spartak Moscow 1-0. After that I was targeted as the danger man. Good games against the Germans and Portuguese followed. We were then up against FC Barcelona and looking on was Samuel Eto’o. This was the second time I was facing up to this team who had won the Manchester World Finals in 2010. Some of them remembered me as we fought hard but lost 2-0.
My team was also invited to play 2 friendlies this year. The first against the Russian National U 17’s side where I performed very well and the other against the national Romanian U 17’s team. This Romanian team had previously beaten AC Milan 3-1 and was now lined up against us. This was probably my best game this year, we won 1-0. My agent was in shock when his phone went crazy, 4 Serie A clubs and an African National Coach (Who was born in Italy) wanted to know who I was and what my situation is.
AH: What can you tell us about yourself as a player?
CI: I am an attacking midfielder. As I said, the club is developing me as a trequartista, a play maker that has the ability to instantly change a game. My style is unique having been trained at an early age by an interesting group of South American, Croatian, Dutch and Australian coaches. I was never the fastest in my early years but at 15, I got quick. I now clock the fastest times at Atalanta, and they get better with every testing…must be all that pasta!
As far as weaknesses, the only criticisms that I’ve had are that I need to track back more when we lose possession. I am also able to play on either wing and this is where I played whilst on loan to the Primavera.
AH: Who do you look up to in football? And who has been your greatest influence?
CI: My greatest influence so far is my family who from an early age helped me in my dream to become a professional footballer. My mother coached me in the Under 6’s and realised that I had something special. I scored 84 goals that year. She taught me to run with the ball and at training it was me versus the rest of the team.
At Sutherland it was Ivan Blazevic. I’m only now understanding some of the things he tried to teach us. Johnny Doyle has also helped me. Johnny has always believed in my dream and shared his knowledge with me before I left for Italy.
The following is an extract from an email sent by Doyle, where he is full of praise for Chris’ potential and character.
“Just over a decade ago in all the thousands and thousands of players that I have met up with in my experience of coaching young men and boys in the game of soccer, Chris was one of those characters that immediately stand out in your mind and you realise the indelibility of a wonderful potential. To see this potential realised now in the form of an Australian youth making the grade in Europe and inviting such admiration from the best soccer people in the world, this reflects the possibility that more great stars like this will arise.
“From the age of 5 and 6 Chris was identified as a talent too good to play in his own age group. In an age where accelerated learning was only coming into fruition Chris proved beyond ALL doubt that accelerated learning whether at school or at sport was a means to championship achievement. The most impressive psychological factor about Chris apart from his self-confidence and his humility is his unselfishness in contributing to his teammates, his teams and his friends. Chris is going to become one of the best integration players that Australia has EVER produced. Not satisfied by being a ‘lone’ star on a football field Chris produces dummy runs, check back runs, rotation runs with a goal of supporting his team mates to get hit with the ball, his retention is absolutely brilliant and his constant desire to lay the ball off again and do a second run is the most tangible indicator of a champion.
“In Chris we have a person who absolutely unifies the two concepts of individual brilliance and teamwork in the game of football. First stop Europe, second stop without doubt the world stage.”
Doyle also added that he is of the very strong belief that Chris is a person who will worthily and heroically wear the Green and Gold and it’s just a matter of time that he will be afforded this opportunity.
CI: My father has spent countless hours perfecting my right and left foot and even today we’ll spend a couple of hours training on left and right foot volleys at high speed. Mentally my mum has been fantastic. She comforted me when I felt homesick and was there on skype or phone when I needed something. My friend Antonio from Milan has also helped me immensely. He has acted as my agent often communicating my needs to the club. He has also helped me settle in Italy and to learn the Italian way of doing things.
I look up to Tim Cahill. Watching his story on Aussies Abroad made me realise that what I’m going through is the normal path for a 16 year old overseas. His initial struggles I can relate to, the only difference is that I’m doing it in a country that does not speak English.
AH: Have you had any contact from Paul Okon or anyone else from the national team setup?
CI: None at all but I would love a call up. An Italian Agent with connections in Greece has heard that the Hellenic Football Association is interested in me and that I may get a call up to their Under 18’s. This would be great because the Europeans play against each other quite often. In my age group at Atalanta there are 4 Italian, 1 Swedish, 1 Polish and 1 Hungarian international. They often play against each other and I think that’s fantastic.
My heart though is with Australia but they have to call me.
AH: What are your goals for the upcoming season?
CI: I have been placed in the Primavera for this season. My goals are to establish myself in this team and to continue on my path. It is from the Primavera that individuals are plucked out and placed in the first team squad. My goals realistically are to get close to this step. I still have another year (2013/14) to then push for a first team spot and a run in the Serie A.
I would also like to start with an international career but I know that this needs to be earned so I will continue to do my best.
AH: Longer-term, what would you like to achieve?
CI: I am hopefully setting myself a plan to play in three leagues whilst in Europe. Serie A, Premier League and the Spanish League. I would like a long career and then to come back and settle in Australia. Internationally I would love to play for Australia and I believe that today’s youth will band together in the future and have a national team that will challenge the world’s best.
AH: Do you support an A-League team?
CI: I have a few friends that are associated with Sydney FC. They support me so I support them.
AH: Would you like to play in the A-League someday?
CI: Yes, when I finish with my goals in Europe.