Lucy Zelic - 'In conversation with': Chris Ikonomidis

0:00

Ever since he was 4 years-old, Chris Ikonomidis knew he wanted to be a professional footballer. It’s a story we’ve heard so many times before but close to none will tell you that it’s a journey that hasn’t been without it’s challenges.

For Ikonomidis, his career trajectory hasn’t necessarily seen him follow a traditional path. 

There was no “breakout season” in the A-League to herald his arrival on the Australian football scene, rather it was with the Sutherland Sharks at a tournament in England.

At age 15, he earned a youth contract with Italian side Atalanta, thus commencing the gruelling process of surviving the competitive rigours of Italian calcio.

Now, a vital piece of Perth’s attacking puzzle under Tony Popovic, the wonderfully natured 24 year-old opens up about being bullied at La Dea, why a return to the A-League was the best option and which World Cup winner he once roomed with. 

LZ: I have to start off by asking you how important that win was at the weekend and how desperately the team needed it, considering where you were on the table?  

CI: Yeah, the weekend's win was was massive for us and especially against the team coming in second at the time, it was huge. Our performances weren't bad and haven't been bad all year, it's just we're lacking that little bit extra. For the table, the win was massive and also for the morale of the group, it came at a really good time for us.  

LZ: It's been a strange start to the season for Perth. How do you explain it?  

CI: I think it was strange. We had a solid pre-season and we had a few hiccups with my injury. Obviously Bruno Fornaroli is a fantastic player but he hasn't played much football in the last year and I think it takes a few competition games to get that back. We weren't expecting to be last on the table considering the line-up we can put forward but I really feel that we've found our form now and we can show, like we did last year, when we find our form and things start clicking, it doesn't matter the team does in front of us, we will always be scoring a lot of goals.  

LZ: Are you still pissed off about that grand final result?  

CI: Yeah, it is disappointing. It does come to mind sometimes and I just think if only we could have just scored those penalties and been Premiers and Champions. That's huge. I've never won a  grand final; I've never won anything like that in my career before and the premiership was the first thing I've won, so I'm definitely hungry for that this year.  

LZ: What’s it like working under Popa?  

CI: It’s awesome, that's the reason I chose Perth. When I considered coming back to the A-League to play, I had numerous offers from pretty much all the clubs and I sat down with my agent and we took a few weeks to decide. The factor that hinged on me choosing Perth was Popovic, the style in which we play and his desire to have me there.  

LZ: When your agent tried to talk to you about coming back to the A-League, was it a hard sell? Did you think about whether it was the right move for you and if you were just going to be seen as one of "those" players returning from overseas?  

CI: Of course. There's that stigma with "he's tried his luck over there and he wasn't good so he's just coming back to see what he can get here." Once you get past that stigma that comes with it and you see the opportunity behind it and you get your mind right, then that's the perfect scenario and that's what I did and it's what I'm trying to do now. 

LZ: It’s incredible to think that you're still only 24. You've already been through so much in your career but what drove your decision to come back to the A-League?   

CI: After my Wanderers stint on-loan, I went back to Lazio and began pre-season and I still had another two years on my contract. That's when my agent and I had some long discussions about the kind of direction of my career. Lazio were making it a little bit difficult to go on a permanent deal somewhere and we didn't want to do another rushed loan and then be back at square one again. We wanted to go somewhere where the club owns me and it's going to release that pressure off me to quickly do well in six months to get my next move. We scouted around a lot and honestly, the best thing that came up in the whole world was here in Perth. I spoke to my agent about it a lot and he said "Chris, I'm not bringing you back to the A-League because you're an A-League player and you're going to spend your whole career here." It was more about go back, have a good foundation, play a lot of games and get in the spotlight again in a sense - show everyone what you can do. It got me back into the national set-up, it got me a lot more interest than what I had previously, which actually works. Sometimes, you have to assess where you are and take, not a step backwards but take a step sideways to move forward. 

LZ: What was Chris Ikonomidis like as a kid and what was your first introduction to football like?  

CI: Chris Ikonomidis as a kid saw the football world at four years of age when I enrolled in my older brother's team, coached by my mum. I instantly fell in love with the game. After my first training session, when I was 4, I had these tiny boots on; I didn't even have a uniform I was just training in my school uniform and I said to my mum, "mum, this is me, this is what I want to do. I want to be a professional football player at any cost." That night I left my boots on until I fell asleep and fell in love with the game and it's been part of me and it's shaped who I am as well.  

LZ: At what point did your dream to be a professional footballer become real?  

CI: Since I was 4 or 5, I'd walk around telling everyone, “this is what I'm going to do”, but it never really turned into reality or a chance of being my reality until I was 15 years of age. My team from Sutherland Shire, the Sutherland Sharks, qualified for the Nike Cup tournament in England and I knew there'd be a lot of scouts there. That's when it kind of dawned on me "oh this is a chance to do something here, to make it as a pro or to put your foot in the door and see what this life can be like."  

LZ: What do you remember about those days of playing football as a young lad?  

CI: I remember just being happy and playing so free and waking up and having my game at 3pm in the afternoon and putting my boots on from 8am in the morning and just being so excited to play and to be running and scoring goals and celebrating with my teammates. It was so joyful at that age. 

LZ: Whenever I talk to footballers about the early days, each of you talk about how much joy it brought you but has it ever broken your heart? 

CI: Oh constantly! It constantly breaks my heart and constantly makes me fall in love with it - it's  definitely that kind of cycle but I'm so grateful for football because personally, it's given me everything. It's given me my friendships, it's given me stronger relationships, it's brought not only myself joy, but it brings my parents joy every time I score a goal with the Socceroos and I see my mum and dad crying on the sideline: that kind of joy, you can't get from anything else besides football.  

LZ: Who were your biggest influences growing up? Would you say it's your parents? 

CI: Yeah, it's definitely my parents. We didn't come from a footballing background in my family and they kind of learned the ropes with me. They're living the highs and the lows with me and they still do today. That's why I've always said, I'm on this journey not just by myself, but with my whole family and whatever I go through, they go through so they add such a big motivation for me as well.  

LZ: Can I be honest and say that off the back of last season, I genuinely thought that an overseas club was going to come in for you. I was actually quite surprised to see you stick around in the A-League. Were you enticed elsewhere? Or was staying in the A-League your choice?  

CI: Honestly, I didn't really say I want to go at all costs or I want to stay at all costs. It was kind of, let's finish the season as strong as possible and see what my agent is telling me. We always said we don't want to force a move and it be the wrong move, we want to go when the time's right, for the right offer, with a club who wants me and that way we stay on the upwards track for my career. Obviously I have aspirations to play in a big league, in a big club and do things on the world stage. We didn't want to say "oh here's an offer from Norway or Korea, let's jump at it" -  we want to pick the right offer and at the right time. I wanted to stay working under Popovic because he was on my back about staying but the truth is, I felt I didn't get the right offer that was going be a good career move for me.  

LZ: It’s a smart move from you because most players would jump at any opportunity that presented itself overseas but you've already been through it. You signed a youth contract with Atalanta when you were 15 going on 16 which is crazy. What was that like?

 CI: It was really tough. This first two years in particular, I struggled a little bit. Not so much on the pitch, I struggled off the pitch. I didn't have any friends, I got bullied a little bit and didn't really fit in anywhere because I didn't speak Italian and I didn't know any professional football set-up. I went from training twice a week to training everyday and being in a full professional set-up and then being called to train with the first team. After I found my feet in a couple of years, I had a good six months and I got a transfer to Lazio who came and saw me play and things really took off for me there. I started playing well in the reserve team, scoring a lot of goals and I got that first team contract.  

LZ: It’s a shame that your time at Atalanta wasn't great. I think most people assume that some of the biggest challenges that footballers go through is physical and getting your body right, but more often than not it's the mental side of things that prove to be the toughest thing to tackle. Is that about right? 

CI: Yes, that's 100 percent right. The body and that is the easy part. You know what it is? I really commend myself for having the motivational endurance at that age because anyone can have motivation for a week or six months if everything's going good but to stay motivated, to stay on track and have that end goal in sight, I look back now and I think, man, I was a tough kid to go through that because it's really shaped who I am now. Now if I get down or anything, it's not that bad compared to the hard times I went through overseas.  

LZ: So you stuck it out and then got offered a youth contract with Lazio. You must have been relieved to get out of Atalanta?  

CI: Yeah, I was glad to move on. The sporting director at Lazio took a liking to me; he saw something he liked and they offered me a three year youth contract. As soon as I moved to Rome where Lazio is, things changed for me - I started feeling happier, I started going out more and meeting people and learning the language and the happiness off the pitch translated to success on the pitch. I started playing well for the Primavera which is the reserve team and I scored, I think, 23 goals in the season. Pioli at the time was the first team manager and he handed me a first team deal and brought me under his wing to train and and to do stuff with the first team for that first year. I got an appearance in the Europa League and then I started the loans.  

LZ: What was the level of football like?  

CI: It was fantastic. The set up was amazing and I was learning and playing with amazing players like Miroslav Klose, Ciro Immobile, Felipe Anderson. Keita Balde and Antonio Candreva are just some of the attackers that I was up with every day in training so that was massive for me. That couple of years, I learned so much.  

LZ: Who impressed you the most? Who did you love being around both football-wise and personality-wise?  

CI: I think I learnt the most off Klose because he was a good English speaker so I roomed with him. He would teach me so much football but also the humbleness that he had was incredible. He would stay back and collect the balls and if I didn't have any kit, he would lend me his own clothes and his own shorts and shirts or whatever. He was just the most humble guy. That's the reason why he had all that success as well because he was 36 at the time and still doing extra finishing and heading and stuff like that. He'd grab me and say "Chris, we're doing this, we're going to work on this today." He was a massive influence for me for that couple of years and when I had my debut coming up, he kept me calm and just gave me a lot of good advice.  

LZ: You lot are on the road so much, it's such a large component of your job. What are some of the crazy things that have happened to you in your travels?   

CI: When I went and played in the Serie B with Salernitana I saw some some funny stuff because it was a small enough club where they can do what they want and no one will really notice. I remember once we had an away game and I had my family over visiting me and I went to play the game, they were waiting for me back in my city, and we lost the game. We get on the bus to drive home and the manager comes on and says, "we're not going home. We're going to drive to this hotel and stay for a week until our next game". I remember thinking that's barbaric. And when I say hotel,  don't think the Hilton or the Ritz or the Intercontinental - it's basic rooms, no TV, you have to share with two other guys, it's a small bed, no change of clothes and you can't leave the hotel. It's kind of like a little prison camp to punish us tonight for not winning the game. Little stuff like that always happened and it kind of tested you mentally, but they're all funny stories now looking back on it.  

LZ: How did you rate your time in the Danish Superliga with AGF?  

CI: That was a good experience for me, I think I was only 20 or 21 at the time. I went there and I started playing games and learning a new style of football, which was much different to what I was used to. But again, at that age it's about getting those first team games under your belt and the more minutes you play, the more you're going to learn at that age.  

LZ: You’ve given the Australian football fans a taste of what you're capable of when you're in and among the national team set-up. What's it been like for you?  

CI: I love it. The biggest honour I get and the biggest joy I get is when I'm in that national team camp. From wearing the tracksuit around the hotel to playing and getting little messages from all my family and friends. I've enjoyed it so much so far and I've got 12 caps but I'm so hungry for more, I really think there's so much more I can give. The public and everyone have only seen a little bit.  

LZ: What more can we see from you? What do you feel like you've still got yet to achieve? 

CI: I think I've got a lot more goals and assists in me, especially for the national team. When I find that I'm playing for them and starting with the Socceroos at a consistent level, I really feel that I can familiarise myself with the set-up and replicate what I did last year in the A-League in the national team as well.  

LZ: You mentioned earlier that in order to go abroad again it needed to be the right move. What does that represent to you? Where would you like to see yourself end up?  

CI: The right move for me depends on so many different factors, like the coach having a desire to have you there, a league that'd suit my style and a team that wants to use me in the correct way. That could be honestly anywhere in Europe or a top Asian club so I don't really have a predetermined vision out of where I want to go, I'm just doing my best and when the right opportunity comes, just go and take it.  

LZ: What experience do you feel has defined you the most? You spoke about how difficult it was at Atalanta and the bullying that went on there so would you say that it played a big part in how it shaped you?  

CI: That was tough. Also, when I was just 20 years old, I went out on-loan to the Serie B team and I'm not sure if you know, but the Serie B is even more intense than the Serie A in terms of pressure from the fans and the kind of mentality they have there, it's quite intense. To experience that at 20 was huge. I remember on my first week of training, I turned up as this boy on-loan from Lazio and one of the older guys in the team came to me in the shower and he said, "if you dare try and take that left-wing position, I'm going to kill you." I was shitting myself, I said "Oh my God what am I meant to do here." I went home for a few days, I was a little bit rattled - I didn't know what to do, but it turns out I ended up playing and playing well there and starting all the games. That guy, after about four or five weeks, was actually happy for me so it was an introduction into the competitiveness at the European level.  

LZ: Now when you look back on moments like that what advice would you give to a younger Chris Ikonomidis if you could?  

CI: I would say just relax and try and block out the noise from other players and other other people - just focus on what you need to do as best as you can and don't be intimidated by anyone. [Laughs]  

LZ: Did you feel that sense of intimidation? Particularly playing alongside and against such world class players?  

CI: Yeah, of course. Especially in training at Lazio in the first team - when you're playing with that kind of calibre of players, you learn, "OK, if I make a mistake, that's fine." You'll have the best centre-mid in Europe screaming at you but it's good training for you to block that out. If you do take that personally, if you do get upset or something after a mistake, then it's only going to get worse for you. That taught me so much mental resilience. Now, when I come back here and I play games, it's a breeze for me.  

LZ: Which coach has had the biggest impact on you and your development?  

CI: I’d say probably two of them - Stefano Pioli was the man who plucked me out of the reserve team and brought me into the first team set-up and gave me my my Europa League debut with Lazio and also Popovic has had an impact on me. He took me in last year and he showed so much desired to get me here and gave me all the tools and gave me the platform to perform.