‘A bit of a joke’ - Izzo plans last laugh on those who belittle Greek second tier

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In a flash of candour, goalkeeper Paul Izzo admits there may be those who demean his presence among a pioneering contingent of Australians in Greek football’s second tier “as a bit of a joke”.

But the last laugh may well rest with Izzo and Co if, as expected, Super League 2 Xanthi bounce straight back to the top division under Tony Popovic’s guidance and once again rub shoulders with the glitterati of Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, Aris, AEK Athens and PAOK.

Sitting fifth, five points off early pacesetters Ionikos but with a game in hand, Xanthi are making the right moves, even if Izzo concedes heading there in the first place might be construed a quirky career choice.

“I was up for the challenge of moving overseas,” said the former Olyroo whose 94th-minute penalty save at the weekend ensured a 1-0 win over Trikala.

“I was looking for a change, and on the face of it it looks a bit weird for all of us to be coming here and playing in the second division in Greece.

“Some people will look at it and think it’s maybe a bit of a joke but the standard is pretty high: we aren’t simply going for a kick-about in a Sunday league game.

“This is a full-on league and a good place for my development and also the other boys who have come here from Australia (teammates Josh Brillante, Matt Jurman and the Popovic brothers Kristian and Gabriel).”

Owned by Sydney tycoon Bill Papas, Xanthi is home to nine Aussies, including backroom and coaching staff, with a strong Antipodean essence pervading the historic, football-obsessed town.

Ironically, Izzo was close to joining compatriot James Jeggo at high-flying Super League Aris, but former club Adelaide United couldn’t agree terms and he had to wait his chance to move.

“I had that (transfer) lined up but it didn’t happen,” he said. “But then this one came along and I grabbed it.

“When you look at the small picture people will say ‘you’re playing in the second division’.

“But the big picture is getting promoted and showcasing yourself in big games against big teams next season.

“That’s a very attractive prospect when you think about it.”

Expectation levels amongst fans of a club which had spent the best part of the last 40 years in the top tier are high, with newly-minted owner Papas banking on Popovic replicating his proven track record of success.

Speaking ahead of Thursday’s visit to seventh-placed Diagoras, Izzo, 26, added:

“The fans believe, and even the other teams around us do too, that we’ll go straight back up.

“By our standards, and maybe the fans standards also, we should maybe be a bit higher up the table than we currently are.

“We are definitely looking for a lot more improvement. The pressure is massive here.

“But we are a completely new squad and maybe we need that time to gel and get to understand each other a little bit better.

“This is a very tricky league ... everyone is quite strong, and even teams near the bottom make life very difficult for you because they are battling to stay up.

“There are no walkover games here and that’s probably the hardest part.”

Izzo missed the opening four games after undergoing hip surgery to disperse a hematoma, but he has started the last three and is relishing the high-stakes atmospherics of every game.

“I wanted to experience this type of pressure and I can tell you it’s a lot more than you feel in Australia,” he explained.

“If you lose a game it’s not like ‘ah, it will be okay we play again next week, it’ll all be good’.

“You really feel the value of the points you win and those you lose as well.

“It really hit me in the first game I played where there were certain risks you’d take when you feel comfortable but with so much pressure involved you tend here to be a bit more careful because every decision can be costly.

“It’s all part of the challenge.

“I like Popovic’s style - it suits me and the players we have.

“I couldn’t be happier, to be honest.

“He’s quite a demanding coach but he’s proven at every A-League team he’s been at that he creates dominant sides.”