Dimitris Eleftheropoulos took charge at Panionios GSS only six months after hanging up his goalkeeping gloves and, with his side thriving in Greece, he said the move from goal to bench "seems pretty easy".
Fourth in the Super League after 12 rounds, Panionios's no-nonsense style has served them well, and Eleftheropoulos – who retired just before Christmas 2011 and was hired by the Nea Smirni club this summer – is still waiting for the waters to get choppy. The former Olympiacos FC goalkeeper, who had a long spell in Italy with AC Milan, AS Roma, Ascoli Calcio 1898 and AC Siena, told UEFA.com: "I have been ready for this change in my career for a long time – being in the presence of great coaches in Italy inspired me and made me fall in love with coaching.
"What I didn't expect was to love coaching more than playing," added the 12-times capped international. "I adored being a footballer – I thought I would never find anything to match it once I retired, but coaching is even better. As an athlete you improve, but there is a ceiling to what you can achieve. As a coach, you find out there is no ceiling to what you can learn and aim for. So, although I only retired last year, my playing days seem so far away. It's strange."
In the last 25 years, Panionios have only once finished as high as fourth in the table – back in 1986/87 – but if expectations have been raised, Eleftheropoulos's targets remain modest. "Our goal is to avoid relegation," the 36-year-old said. "That may sound weird given we are fourth, but our mindset will not change. The club is going through a tough time in very troubled times for Greece. The viability of the club comes first. Our concern is to remain in the top flight so that Panionios can survive financially."
That down-to-earth attitude is shared by his players, who – with an average age of 22 years and four months in their starting lineup – are one of the youngest teams in the league. "I consider myself lucky, because my team are eager to learn and show their progress on the pitch," explained Eleftheropoulos. "There are no egos. The foundations are solid and maybe one day we can build something greater upon them."
Eleftheropoulos, of course, has played on higher stages, as part of the Olympiacos side that reached the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League. "The Champions League is the best competition in world football," he said. "The whole procedure, from Monday to Wednesday, is unbelievable. Any player who gets to play in it is blessed – that's how I felt when I was playing."
Is European football a blessing that his Panionios players might receive next season? "Any normal person would dream that," said Eleftheropoulos. "However, I like taking baby steps and prefer focusing on my plans instead of my dreams. My plan now is for my team to become solid, to avoid relegation and for me to constantly improve as a coach. My dreams can wait – I am in no hurry."
© 1998-2013 UEFA. All rights reserved.