Inside Sport - - HOW GOOD IS -

El­i­gi­ble to rep­re­sent Greece, Aus­tralia and Amer­ica at in­ter­na­tional level, it’s a mea­sure of 16-year-old Panos Ar­me­nakas’ abil­ity that the de­bate about which se­nior foot­ball side he’ll choose is al­ready un­der­way. Hav­ing grown up in Syd­ney, after be­ing born in New­port Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, Ar­me­nakas is look­ing like one of the world’s bright­est prospects. The youngest-ever Aus­tralian-raised player to sign a pro­fes­sional con­tract in Italy, Ger­many, Eng­land, Spain or Hol­land, he re­cently inked a three-year deal with Udi­nese Cal­cio in Serie A.

“Of all the ju­nior play­ers I’ve seen in my time in Aus­tralia, he’s the most gifted,” says veteran SBS com­men­ta­tor Les Mur­ray.

Aus­tralia’s ri­val na­tions for Ar­me­nakas’ in­ter­na­tional pledge are also aware of his im­mense skills, with Greece se­lect­ing him to play in an un­der-17s fix­ture ear­lier this year. De­spite ac­cept­ing their youth cap, Ar­me­nakas’ af­fil­i­a­tion with Greece shouldn’t con­cern peo­ple Down Un­der, says Mur­ray. “My in­for­ma­tion is that his heart’s with Aus­tralia,” he said. “The boy was born in the USA, but was brought to Aus­tralia be­fore he could walk. He speaks with an Aussie ac­cent and has never lived in Greece or Amer­ica for five min­utes of his life.”

It was 13 years ago that John Ar­me­nakas made con­tact with a class-mate from Syd­ney’s Fort Street High School, which marked the of­fi­cial start of his son’s foot­ball jour­ney. “I got a call when I got back from Greece and it was Panos’, dad, John,” for­mer AEK Athens and Soc­ceroo Jim Patikas said. “He men­tioned his lit­tle boy – he wanted me to look at him. He was three and a half years old. I said, ‘He’s ba­si­cally still wear­ing nap­pies!’

“A year later John asked me again to please look at him, so I went to the park and had a lit­tle ses­sion, you know, to see if Panos could run [laughs].” After con­duct­ing ball stops, one-touch pass­ing and run­ning drills, Patikas quickly re­alised what many oth­ers would soon see. “Even at that age, Panos was a freak,” the 50-year-old says.

Ris­ing through the youth ranks at Syd­ney Olympic, Ar­me­nakas joined AC Mi­lan’s academy in Syd­ney; there, his rep­u­ta­tion only flour­ished after star per­for­mances against elite ju­niors world­wide.

As he evolved from sub­ur­ban se­cret to known prodigy, Ajax, Man United and Barcelona were among the suit­ors who tried to lure Ar­me­nakas to their clubs. Ul­ti­mately, Wat­ford FC se­cured his sig­na­ture in 2012 be­fore he trans­ferred to fel­low Gi­ampaolo Poz­zoowned club Udi­nese Cal­cio in July this year.

It’s a ca­reer pro­gres­sion Ar­me­nakas Sr also de­serves plenty of credit for. “We had a tech­ni­cal cul­ture [in Aus­tralia] at the time which was quite de­struc­tive in terms of tech­ni­cal in­flu­ences,” Mur­ray says. “We were ba­si­cally try­ing to pro­duce weightlifters. His fa­ther clearly saw that and kept him away from that. The de­ci­sions his fa­ther made, in col­lu­sion with Panos, were based on what was best for him. At Wat­ford he was in good hands. He was at a club that be­lieved in him, took good care of him and trusted him. That’s why he chose to go to Udi­nese.”

Udi­nese Cal­cio boss An­drea Stra­mac­cioni inked Ar­me­nakas to a three-year deal.

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