A World Cup player and a journeyman

Kostas Katsouranis.-M. SRINATH

Kostas Katsouranis and his former AEK Athens team-mate Bruno Cirillo are here in India, lending a helping hand to the sport in the country. By N. Sudarshan & Ayon Sengupta.

The inaugural Indian Super League has brought in a wide array of foreign stars to the country. But Kostas Katsouranis, 35, is the only player in the League, who played in the recently concluded World Cup in Brazil. The former Greece captain has found company in FC Pune City — his former AEK Athens team-mate Bruno Cirillo. The two players spoke to Sportstar about their career and their rendezvous with Indian football.

Are you happy the way Pune is playing? The team didn’t start the season well…

Kostas: Last five or six games we have been good. All the teams start poorly at times. We didn’t know each other at the beginning and that was a problem.

Bruno: I think it’s always the case with new teams. In my experience, you need a little time to become a team. During the first two games we were nervous, a little disjointed but after that we have found our game.

Why did you decide to play in the ISL?

Kostas: For me it’s for a new experience. For the age I am in it’s a good option. I like football and I wanted to find something to my standard and with the right money. It was also to do something new. If you do something here you stay in the history of Indian football, winning the first League. The three-month duration was also important. If you are going to play in Germany or Italy, you have to sign up for a year. I would have been away from my family for long, but now after three months I can be back with them.

Bruno: I am an Italian but I have played in France, Spain, Greece and Cypriot. In my career I have travelled a lot. I like this project because it’s the first edition. The second reason is the coach (Franco Colomba) — he gave me a chance to play in the Italian First division (Reggina) when I was 21. So, I had no hesitation following him here.

Kostas, what do you think were the main reasons behind Greece’s surprise EURO 2004 win?

Kostas: We were like one good family with good players, who had great personality. We had a good coach, the right players and the right mix of talent and experience. With each game we grew in confidence and we always believed that we could achieve it. It was the biggest win of my career. The national team was a second home for me because I have played so many games (114) for 11-12 years. And during that time we had a lot of success. Even in this World Cup we had a good time.

Greece recently lost to Faroe Island in a EURO qualifier…

Bruno Cirillo-M. SRINATH

Kostas: We are not doing too well. But I am very far now, so I don’t know what exactly is going wrong.

Do you still want to play for Greece?

Kostas: It’s not just my decision. If they call me I will play. Everyone wants to play for the national side.

But a lot of players have announced international retirements to extend their club careers…

Kostas: That’s their opinion, but I don’t agree with this trend.

Bruno, Italy has had two dismal World Cup outings after wining the trophy in 2006. How bright is the future of Italian football?

Bruno: Italy is starting fresh. Many younger players are coming in and we are in good hands because (Antonio) Conte is a very good coach. We will soon start doing well again.

Italy is known for its resolute defenders. But there has been a sudden fall in the quality of defenders in the country. Do you agree with that?

Bruno: We don’t have many problems (in defence). We have players like (Giorgio) Chiellini, (Leonardo) Bonucci and (Andrea) Ranocchia and even some of the younger defenders are really good. But it’s not like before, when we had (Paolo) Maldini, (Fabio) Cannavaro or (Alessandro) Nesta. We have to give the players some time, because we have a very good school of teaching. They need some time to gain confidence and the more you play in the Champions League, EURO, the Mundial the better you get.

A lot of Italian teams play with a three-man defence. You personally prefer a three-man or four-man defence?

Bruno: I prefer to play with four — all my career I have played with four defenders. I feel composed in a four-man defence. If you play with three defenders, all of them have to be really good, playing at the same level. Two (of them) have to be (tenacious) like a dog and the one in the middle should be good with the ball. So, only if you have these characteristics in your players you can play with three defenders. Otherwise it’s impossible.

Kostas, you have played both as a defensive midfielder and a centre-back. What is your favourite position?

Kostas: The position I play now, central midfield. This position offers me the chance to go forward and score goals. I have played in central midfield since I was a kid and I think it suits me best.

How was the experience of leading Greece in Brazil 2014?

Kostas: The atmosphere there was great. They had wonderful stadiums and fans and it’s very good for a football player to participate in something like that. We played some good games but we lost an opportunity. We had the chance to be with the best eight teams in the world. Costa Rica (in the Round of 16) played with a man short for more than 60 minutes but we failed to take our chance. The game went to penalties and from thereon it was a 50-50 situation. But generally it was a good World Cup as Greece crossed the group stage of the competition for the first time.

How difficult has been the ISL schedule?

Bruno: Never in my life have I played three games in one week. Of course, it’s a little difficult with no time to rest, but from the beginning we knew this. We have the experience and we know how to keep ourselves fit for back-to-back games. But you tend to tire in the mind and the most important thing is to keep your mind clear, so that you have the same level of concentration for every minute of each game.

Kostas: All my life I have played three games a week — you play on Saturday or Sunday, then in Europe over the week and again the next weekend. So, it’s not a big problem. But now some of the games are far too near.

Are you happy with the ground conditions and practice facilities in India?

Kostas: Depends! Things are not like in Europe. But it’s normal; it’s the first season here. But if the teams want to improve, they need to build practice facilities and good stadiums. But I think they already know that and all the teams are working towards it. The fields we play are not perfect but it’s not so bad, though I found the artificial turf at the Salt Lake very difficult to play.

Bruno: I played in the Europa League in Moscow (in artificial turf), but the field in Moscow is like normal grass. This (Salt Lake stadium) is a little old and difficult. In India everything is not perfect, as the organisers had little time to prepare. But everybody tries to make us relax, do the best for us and give us the best conditions. Every game is a big event, with many people coming to the ground. And if this continues next year it will only get better.

Kostas, you are the only player in the ISL who played in the 2014 World Cup. Does that put some extra pressure on you?

Kostas: No, what pressure? I am nearing 36, I am not a kid. For me there’s no pressure. I participated in the World Cup and I didn’t want (to be tied down by a) long-term contract and so I decided to come here.

What do you think Indian players can learn from you?

Kostas: Many things — they can ask, watch us train, figure out what we do in difficult moments. There are players in India. But India doesn’t want (to promote) football, so it’s natural that India is in this position (156th in the world). They don’t give the players the right facilities as they give to the cricketers. The first thing you need for football is money and India has that. In 10 to 12 years India can climb up the FIFA rankings to 56! My experience says if there are so many people there has to be talent. I gave an interview to a political newspaper from Greece and I told them things have changed rapidly (since the ISL started). For the first few games there were no fans around the stadiums or team hotels, but now in Pune the fans are everywhere. After two to three editions of the ISL, Indian fans will cheer for Indian teams and not Manchester United or Arsenal.

Bruno: Many kids have started following football here with the start of the ISL. Cricket is the top sport but many will now get converted.

Which is the best team in the ISL?

Kostas: We are the best. Why will we put our team last? But Chennai is a good team, Kolkata is good. If you look at the points table there is not much difference between the teams. And, I think, this is a good thing.