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June 4, 2007

LIVING A DREAM
Bayside native Chronis signs with AEK Athens

 

The reality of being a professional soccer player hit Andreas Chronis in AEK Athens' friendly against Benfica at Giants Stadium.
The reality of being a professional soccer player hit Andreas Chronis in AEK Athens' friendly against Benfica at Giants Stadium.
Photo by James Messerschmidt
By Dylan Butler
BigAppleSoccer.com Associate Editor

It took a little less than two weeks in March for Andreas Chronis to go from Queens, N.Y., high school standout to Greek professional soccer player. But it didn’t become a reality until he stepped on the field for AEK Athens against Benfica in a friendly at Giants Stadium May 27.

“The second I heard my name a rush came and it was like, ‘Wow, this actually happening,’” said the 18-year-old, who entered the match in the 55th minute. “It became official at that game.”

While it was just a coincidence, the match seemed to be the perfect coming-out party for Chronis, who just a few months ago was playing for Holy Cross HS in the CHSAA playoffs. But there he was, playing the final 35 minutes of AEK’s 2-1 loss to Benfica, which features superstar Rui Costa.

And when he walked off the steaming hot pitch after his debut, the left-sided player was an instant celebrity. Fans begged and pleaded with him for souvenirs and he obliged, throwing his socks, shin guards and cleats into the stands. Although three Benfica players offered to exchange jerseys with Chronis, he promised it to his family.

“I thought I held my own,” Chronis said. “I was tired, the field, the weather, everything played a part in it. I wasn’t sure I could actually play on that level, but it gave me more self belief.”

Chronis has taken the fast track to being a professional soccer player, to realizing his lifelong dream. For a while, he wasn’t even thinking of turning pro. There was graduating high school, playing club soccer over the summer and then enrolling in Columbia University in the fall.

But a spectacular performance for Eleftheria-Pancyprians at a youth tournament in Cyprus, where he scored 12 of his team’s 16 goals, made him an instant target for the top teams in Cyprus. Thanks to a connection with a Greek newspaper reporter, soon, too, AEK soon expressed interested, too.

“When I was younger, that was the team that I followed in Greece and I’ve always said that I wanted to go there,” he said. “But I never thought that it would actually happen.”

But it did happen in March, and it happened quickly.

Chronis was originally given the chance to train with the AEK second team. What followed was a scrimmage with many of the club’s coaches, scouts and president, former legendary AEK player Demis Nikolaidis, whose jersey Chronis wore as a kid.

And, as if according to script, Chronis scored in the scrimmage.

“When I scored the goal, I went insane,” he said. “After that, right away they wanted me to go to the first team and that’s when everything started hitting me that it could actually happen and that my dream could actually come true.”

Interest from another Greek Super League club helped expedite the process and within a week, Chronis was offered a four-and-a-half year deal. Not too bad for a 17-year-old from Bayside, N.Y. who grew up playing baseball and soccer.

“I felt like I was on top of the word. It just shows you that when you put your mind to something and keep at it, it could actually happen,” he said. “I didn’t realize that until I put the pen to paper.”

Signing the contract was the easy part. The day-to-day reality of being a professional — changing his attitude, living alone — those were the things that took a bit longer to get used to.

In his family’s comfortable Bayside home, Chronis had a support staff and all the perks that go with it, the home-cooked meals, the laundry done for him. But in his Athens apartment — paid for by AEK as part of his contract — there is no one else.

“I thought that it would be very cool to live by myself. I could do anything I want anytime I want and I don’t have anyone there to bug me,” Chronis said. “But once I got into the house and it was empty, there was no life. It was just me. It forces you to mature much quicker than you would being here with your family, which would be much easier.”

It also took Chronis some time to get adjusted to his new soccer surroundings.

“When I first walked in the locker room and I saw everyone, I didn’t feel like I belonged at all,” Chronis said. “I thought they were so above me that I didn’t want to speak to them. I was awestruck. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to approach them. It does take someone to come up and say, ‘Hi, how are you.’”

That person for Chronis was Vassilis Lakis, a member of the Euro 2004 Greek champions who returned to AEK after a stint with Crystal Palace in England.

“We hang out, after practice we go for coffee, which is a big thing over there,” Chronis said. “We talk, he’s always telling me what to do and what mentality to have. It’s great.”

Even sitting down at a café in the afternoon is something different for Chronis.

“There’s never time for coffee here, you’re always running around,” he said. “There it’s calmer. You have time for yourself. It’s not a seven-hour school day and then practice. It’s just practice, that’s your job.”

Before he signed for AEK, Chronis wanted to make sure he’d be able to get his high school diploma. With the help of Mary Anne Kelleher, a guidance counselor at Holy Cross and the school’s president, Joseph Giannuzzi, Chronis was able to take some online classes and he squeezed in the fourth quarter’s workload while in Athens.

He graduated with his class Saturday.

Of course, becoming a professional soccer player also has its down side. While training with AEK for two months, Chronis would hear from his brothers the negative comments from other area players.

But he takes the criticism in stride.

“I hear so many things now that people are talking,” he said. “There are so many players who have gone there from here and returned with nothing.”

His father, Peter Chronis, who played professionally in one of Greece’s lower levels when he was younger, put the negative statements in perspective.

“They can all have their opinions,” he said. “But the only opinion that matters is that of the coach.”

And, thus far, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, who recently signed a four-year extension with the club, has liked what he’s seen out of Chronis. Ferrer, who previously coached Real Betis and Barcelona in La Liga, has been known to give younger players a chance.

“A coach must be bold when dealing with young players,” he told UEFA.com. “My motto is that the sun must rise for everybody, so the person who makes the most of his moment is the one who succeeds. I have no qualms about sending an 18-year-old on to the pitch. I am not the only one, of course, but I want to contribute and give chances to young players.”

Chronis has one week off before beginning preparations for pre-season, joining new teammate Rivaldo for training in Holland July 3 in a pre-season that includes a game against Lazio.

Because AEK finished second behind rival Olympiakos in the Greek Super League, AEK will play for a Champions League spot, which means Chronis could be on the field against AC Milan, Manchester United or Real Madrid in a few months.

“Once I got the contract, I didn’t think everything was done,” he said. “I knew there was a lot of work because all these players have been playing five, 10 years and they were at a level I’d want to get to. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

 
 
 
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