Nikolaos Nioplias is relishing the opportunity of leading Greece into a second UEFA European Under-19 Championship in three seasons as he continues to make a major impact in his first coaching position.
The 42-year-old took charge of the U19 side in January 2005 and immediately guided the team to that year's finals in Northern Ireland. They began promisingly with victory against the hosts, but defeats against Germany and Serbia and Montenegro meant an early elimination, although Nioplias is confident a repeat is not on the cards in this year's event. "I feel more sure of myself nowadays, more experienced, more trained in tournament circumstances," he said. "In the beginning, I was deciding almost instinctively, led by my playing experience".
Considered one of Greece's greatest players, Nioplias is perfectly placed to assess the country's approach to youth development and he believes there is plenty of room for improvement. "Compared with other European nations we are light years behind in terms of grassroots football," he said. "There are talented young players but there's nobody to teach them. The top-flight league clubs are slowly trying to include more young players in their first teams, but in the lower divisions and amateur football we lack organisation and coaches. This creates a problem, although luckily I had plenty of time at my disposal to travel around, watch and talk to players. I was able to handpick the squad to form a 'basin' of 30 players from where we make our final selection."
There are positive signs, however, and June's Elite round in northern Greece did wonders for the profile of their team. "TV coverage and the public support played a significant role in the psychological preparation of the squad," Nioplias added. "My players had the chance to show they really deserved to be in the spotlight. After getting over their initial stress of cameras and the expectation, they started producing the football of which they are capable. They also dealt with the pressure of playing for the result and they delivered. That was a great chance to get accustomed to the circumstances they will encounter in Austria: TV, high tempo and packed stadiums."
Nioplias is optimistic about his team's chances despite a shortened preparation, explaining: "We haven't been able to prepare as we would have liked, my players were on vacation until the start of July. We will concentrate on tactical aspects, hoping they have kept fit during their holidays. We have a good chance of progressing beyond the group stage if we play to our abilities; we have a talented team and play as a unit, but also leave room for individual skill. I know we can play even better as I saw that in the preparatory friendlies. I will be happy if my team produce collective football - win or lose."
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