Saturday Spotlight: Greek islander Mavrias well prepared for Sunderland stay (From The Advertiser Series)
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Saturday Spotlight: Greek islander Mavrias well prepared for Sunderland stay
After seven years in Athens working his way to the top of the Greek game, Charis Mavrias has arrived in the Premier League and is keen to make the most of his chance. Sunderland’s new winger explained to chief football writer Paul Fraser how he ended up on Wearside
IN the comfort of the media suite at Sunderland’s Academy of Light, Charalampos Mavrias sits back in his armchair, reflecting on the biggest summer of his life so far, smiling regularly and in relaxed mood.
Brought up watching English football on television on the Greek island of Zakynthos, the talented and highly promising teenage winger has always had aspirations to play in the Premier League. A £2.5m switch to Sunderland has enabled him to achieve that goal.
Throughout Sunderland’s pursuit of him after being targeted by director of football Roberto De Fanti, there were times when he feared the deal would not go through and other times when he was ready to jump on the plane to England.
Eventually, despite occasions when it might never happen, the 19-year-old packed his bags, emptied his locker and said his farewells to friends and family. He was moving to another country, leaving those he has known behind to experience a new culture and a new way of life.
While autumnal temperatures have started to fall on the North-East this week, Mavrias could have been warm weather training for Panathinaikos in numbers edging close to 30 degrees in mid-September with the sun blazing. Mavrias, though, is happy to be getting wet on Wearside.
“Life and football here are very different,” said Mavrias, who is more commonly known as Charis. “It's better for football here, you have all the things you need here to play football and be ready – doctors, coaches, everything. Despite what people think, this is also the weather over here for football, too. For four months in Greece, it was 30 degrees, too much. Here it's better, cooler and easier to play good football.”
Mavrias is regarded as one for the future at Sunderland, but has already been highlighted by Di Canio as someone who can have a greater impact after an impressive full debut in last Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Arsenal.
The massive change of environment, where he is no longer surrounded by people he knows and is close to, is more than capable of making it hard for him to adjust to, which could impact on his football until he has settled.
Yet, despite being in the early years of his professional football career, Mavrias does not feel like he will need an extended settling in process, having gone through a life-changing move earlier in his childhood courtesy of his talent.
When he was growing up on Zakynthos, a small island well liked by British tourists in the Ionian Sea, his only real hobby was to go out and play football while his parents ran a popular cafeteria in Zakynthos City. Such commitment during the early years led to him being spotted by one of the biggest clubs in Greece.
“I always played football, from five or six years old,” said Mavrias, hoping to keep his place at West Bromwich Albion today despite the return of Emanuele Giaccherini. “I played in academies in Zakynthos and at 12 years old I went to the academy of Panathinaikos. They saw me in a tournament. I had to leave my family at 12 to live at the training centre over in Athens.
“My mother (Denise) was a little upset, she had a cry but my father (George) liked football, so he wanted me to go. They stayed in Zakynthos for the first year, but after that they came to Athens in the winter to see me. They still work but after October, November they will come here to Sunderland for two or three months to see me.”
Throughout his seven years with Panathinaikos, Mavrias made rapid progress and his ability with the ball to go beyond players and create things alerted a number of European clubs, including those in Serie A. The connection with Italy was what led to De Fanti, a former agent now director of football, contacting his Athens-based counterpart Nikos Dabizas about the player’s availability.
Dabizas, a former Newcastle player who was back in the North-East last week for Steve Harper’s 20-year charity match, was reluctant to lose the youngster. Having previously loved his time at Newcastle United, however, one of St James’ Park’s most well loved foreign defenders had no problem in recommending the area to Mavrias.
But Dabizas is adamant the grounding Mavrias got at Panathinaikos will stand him in good stead for the Premier League. “Football was his priority after joining the academy at 12,” said Dabizas. “He was going to school and then training at Panathinaikos after that. He has a good mentality. He has all the elements in his game to achieve a good career at Sunderland.
“We had a chat before he signed for Sunderland. I am the sporting director at Panathinaikos, so I explained the situation to him. I encouraged him because he wanted the challenge of the Premier League.
“It is a good move for him and for Sunderland. He is a very talented boy, very down to earth. The academy at Panathinaikos is fantastic, very well organized and that has helped him a lot. They work professionally, not just on the football side but on a personal level too.”
Sunderland have not just signed a teenager without first team experience, though. He made his first team debut for Panathinaikos three years ago in a Champions League game with Rubin Kazan. In doing so he became the second-youngest debutant to play in the competition behind former Newcastle full-back Celestine Babayaro.
A week later he played his first domestic game in a Greek Cup match with Kozani and the following season he became more of a regular under Jesualdo Ferreira, which earned him new contract which tied him to the club until 2016 - and in the summer of 2012 he scored a Champions League goal at Motherwell.
“I played for Panathinaikos in the Champions League when I was 16, I remember the game, I was so stressed,” he said. “I was white with nerves but after that I played more games and got some experience, it was all good. All of those experiences will help me at Sunderland.
“I’m already enjoying it here. I like the area, the staff and all of the players. We work very hard. I've been to England once before, we (Panathinaikos) played Tottenham in the Europa League last year. It's all fantastic. It's very different to Athens.”
Mavrias, regardless of his background, is tipped to become a key component of Greek football on the international stage. Such has been his rise, there is a common belief that he will become one of his country’s hottest exports.
Names such as Giorgos Karagounis, Theodoros Zagorakis, Angelos Basinas and Angelos Charisteas are some of the most well known Greek footballers across Europe in recent years, but at the age of 19 Sunderland’s summer recruit has the potential to be around for a long time.
He has two caps for his country already and, with his country sitting level on points with Bosnia in qualifying, it is hoped he can help Greece to the World Cup next year in Brazil: A worthy stage for Greece’s wing sensation, according to Dabizas.
He said: “He definitely has the potential to be Greece's future. If he starts to play well for Sunderland then he will be selected for the national team and go to the World Cup, he is capable of achieving that.”
First of all, though, Mavrias has the shorter term aim of helping Sunderland climb off the foot of the Premier League table he always wanted to be a part of.
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