Giorgias Karagounis and Sotiris Ninis of Greece celebrate victory in the World Cup match between Greece and Nigeria. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Sotiris Ninis was dubbed a future superstar as a teenager, but hasn't reached his potential yet. Will he finally establish himself as Greece's biggest star at Euro 2012?
Sotiris Ninis showed every indication of being a future superstar as a teenager. He guided Greece to the final of the U-19 European Championship and was named MVP of the tournament. That led to him making his first team debut for Panathinaikos in 2007 at the age of 16, and he was named man of the match on his debut. He made his debut for the Greek national team in 2008, and he's the youngest player to ever score for Panathinaikos or the Greek national team.
The second half of the 2009-10 season saw Ninis start to emerge as a top professional, as he helped Panathinaikos to a Greek Super League title a Europa League knockout stage victory over AS Roma. Heading into the World Cup, he appeared to be on the brink of super-stardom. He made just two appearances in that tournament, both as a substitute, and has had a very up-and-down run for club and country since then. He hasn't reached the heights that were predicted for him back in his teenage years, but he's fit for the first time in a long time, and could finally get the chance to prove that he can be a star on the senior level during Euro 2012.
Injuries have slightly derailed Ninis' career during this past season. He made 21 starts in the league for Panathinaikos in the 2010-11 season, but just five starts in the 2011-12 season. In total, he played only one quarter of the minutes for his club team this season as he did in the previous season. This was mostly due to an injury which he sustained in September that kept him out until March.
Ninis was once linked to the biggest clubs in Europe, but he's chosen a good compromise between a high level of football and a team he has a chance to break into for his first foray into football outside of Greece. He'll join Serie A side Parma, who finished 8th domestically in 2011-12, after the Euros conclude. Parma are almost certainly going to cash in on their über-talented No. 10 Sebastian Giovinco, leaving a place for Ninis in the squad.
Even though Ninis has probably played his best football centrally for Panathinaikos and he will almost certainly be asked to play as a No. 10 for Parma, he's forced into a different role for Greece. Between Greece's conservative style of play and the presence of veteran midfielder Giorgos Karagounis, there isn't a place for him to play centrally in the team. He might be too much of a defensive liability in the center for the tastes of Fernando Santos even when Karagounis decides to retire from international football, and Greece will play with a No. 10 when hell freezes over. This shoe-horns the talented attacking midfielder into a right wing spot, where he's surprisingly effective even though pace and crossing certainly aren't his best tools.
Ninis is facing competition from veteran PAOK forward/winger Dimitris Salpingidis and exciting youngster Giannis Fetfatzidis, dubbed the "Greek Messi", for his place on the right. That Ninis' spot is up for grabs, but Giorgos Samaras' spot on the left is apparently safe, is mind-boggling. Why this is the case, no one knows. It is one of the great mysteries in international football. Samaras and the left wing aside, the good news is that whatever happens with the right wing spot, Santos is going to have a couple of terrific options off the bench to change games. That's something Greek managers haven't been able to say much in the past.
Fetfazidis is almost certainly one of the odd men out because of his lack of experience and defensive qualities, but otherwise, the selection at right wing might be a bit up in the air between the other two contenders for the job. Because of his limited playing time in recent months, Ninis could potentially lose his starting spot in the Greece lineup to Salpingidis, but Santos will find it hard to justify leaving out his most talented player.
The last time Ninis started a competitive match for Greece, away to Israel in September, he scored the game-winning goal for his team, virtually sealing their place as one of the top two teams in their group. He's an absolute terror when healthy, and he provides even more creativity than his borderline-legendary Panathinaikos teammate Karagounis.
Greece's Group A opponents are not so strong down the wings that Santos needs to sacrifice Ninis for a stronger and more experienced player. Ninis' ability to play on the right allows his side to add creativity and flair without sacrificing their shape in the center. He's back to fitness, and It's time for him to finally get the chance to shine for Greece on the big stage.
National Team: Greece
Club Team: Panathinaikos (soon to be Parma)
Position: Right winger/attacking midfielder
Role in the Team: Likely (but not certain) first choice right midfielder in Greece's defensive 4-3-3/4-5-1