The “football crazy” tycoon who’s enlisted a six-strong contingent of Australians for newly-acquired Greek club Xanthi FC is on a crusade to pave a pathway for a host of others to follow them to Europe.
“Frustrated” by a paucity of A-League opportunities for homegrown talent, business technology entrepreneur Bill Papas has taken matters into his own hands.
Papas plans to transform Xanthi - plunged into the second tier as a penalty for past ownership irregularities - into a Mediterranean outpost and development hub for ambitious next-gen Australians.
In a mission statement, Papas told The World Game: “I’ve found myself very frustrated with the Australian football landscape.
“I’m quite passionate and vocal about how there’s a huge disconnect to having pathways for youth and making it to a professional level.
“The A-League certainly doesn’t present too many opportunities for young players these days to progress to top leagues.
“The constraints of the transfer system compound the issues, as does the lack of investment in the local competition.
“So for me, it was a question of ‘how do I connect young players with a pathway to a career in the professional game in Europe?'.
“Bringing in an Australian contingent only amplifies the ambition to provide that platform.”
Also the president of NPL side Sydney Olympic, Papas this month appointed Tony Popovic as commander-in-chief of the pilot project, with Popovic’s former Western Sydney Wanderers sidekicks Zeljko Kalac and Arthur Diles recruited as lieutenants.
On the playing side, fringe Socceroos Matt Jurman and Josh Brillante are locked in along with Wellington Phoenix right-back Callan Elliott.
Papas says another Australian could join the influx before the transfer window closes this weekend, and more could follow in January.
The player in question is believed to be Adelaide United goalkeeper Paul Izzo, who has become disenchanted with the current instability of the A-League.
Teammate Riley McGree might yet join him in Greece, possibly on loan, after Adelaide were unable to agree a transfer fee with another European club.
It’s believed the Reds value the attacker at around $1.5 million.
Explaining how he came to complete the purchase of Xanthi, Papas added: “In the past few years, a few Greek clubs have been presented to me as opportunities.
“There were clubs facing financial hardship or a lot of owners were coming to their sunsets in terms of their previous investments in teams.
“Xanthi really appealed to me. They were in the first tier and had a history of never being relegated.
“It’s a great region away from the big cities - and a segue into top-flight football, albeit they were relegated for non-football issues.”
Undaunted by Xanthi’s relegation - sealed after they fielded an under-strength team in an end-of-season play-off due to mass player exodus - Papas said the calamity actually spurred him on to complete the takeover.
“The issues that have surrounded football in general with COVID-19, and with the financial negotiations we had, it would have put a lot of pressure on us had we stayed in the first tier,” he added.
“In some ways it’s worked out better as it gives us time to cement our playing (style) and work out a way back into the top division.
“We want to bring back fans and trust in an organisation and management team that’s very focused on bringing a high level of professionalism, on and off the field.
“We have sensational infrastructure, with a wonderful little stadium with a hotel on site. It’s a family club.
“We’ll be working very hard to get them straight back to the top division by putting the right foundations in place.
“We plan to put a well-structured program in place which will allow young players (whether from Australia or elsewhere) to join us and find a pathway more broadly into Europe.
“We want them to build careers off the back of what we’re doing.”
Founder of the $100 million annual turnover Forum Group, Papas sees a synergy between his business interests and football through the likes of sponsorships and beyond.
But it’s his unconditional love for the game, he says, which is the over-arching inspiration.
“You could say I’m football crazy and this project really appeals to me on a lot of levels,” he added.
Installing Popovic, who exited Perth Glory to embrace his second overseas head coaching stint, was a no-brainer for Papas.
“With his experience and work ethic, people are already seeing a different level of professionalism at the club,” he said.
“The discipline he brings is really important as well.
“Even in the early stages of being there, the players have bought into our project and philosophy.
“I saw in him somebody who has the credentials and I trust him as a person and believe in what he can achieve.
“In the meetings we’ve had together we’ve just clicked and are aligned in what we want to achieve.
“Everybody is aspirational and career-minded and this could also be a platform for him to advance himself in a way that Ange Postecoglou has done in Japan.
“We have a good pool of coaches in our country and they just need opportunities and they’ll do exceptionally well.”
Papas describes the Australian market as “limiting”, notwithstanding the “great ideas” FFA CEO James Johnson has articulated in how the future might look.
“I think it will be some time before the A-League recovers from its current (precarious) state and starts to improve again,” he added