By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – To be twenty-one years old and leave your country to seek your fortune in a land far away. How well we know the story. The story of our immigrant heritage. The story of Greeks leaving Greece at a time of great struggle and strife to come to America. For Peter Philipakos, Jr., however, the trip was reversed. His recent journey to a land of opportunity was from America to Greece.
How can that be, you ask; America is the land of opportunity. Perhaps, except for one area where Greece can certainly compete: in the game of soccer.
Peter left his home and family in Glen Cove, N.Y., to “find a better life” as a professional soccer player for Greece’s Athens Football Club (AEK). The 3½-year contract was signed in early January after Peter spent some time showing his skills to the team’s leadership over his Christmas vacation from American University in Washington, D.C., where he was the top scorer in 2003.
“My dad had a passion for soccer that he passed on to me at a very young age; when he knew I was ready to go pro, he took up the cause as my agent,” Peter said.
Between Peter’s freshman year at St. John’s University and this last year at American, three opportunities to play professionally presented themselves.
“On two separate occasions, we went to London and Manchester to explore possibilities there,” his dad, Peter Sr., said, “but we both knew he wasn’t ready to be on his own in a foreign country. This year, I knew he was.”
So when the deal was right (Peter’s dad calls the details “too complicated to explain”), Peter grabbed it.
“I’m making more than a majority of soccer players in America by going to Greece,” he said.
“Soccer just doesn’t have the draw here that it has in Europe. And the passion for the sport makes for confident teams and players and translates into wins on the field. I needed to feel that passion to have a professional soccer career.”
Though currently ineligible to play in any official matches, Peter will train with the club for the remainder of this season and will make his first-team debut in the 2004-2005 season.
Peter and his family, who were very supportive throughout his years of amateur play, always knew that he would not be a professional in the academic sense of the word.
“When he was in college, I told him ‘there is no reason to finish because you’re not taking advantage of it; the college is using you, you’re not using it,'” his dad said.
From the time Peter first joined a soccer team at the young age of five, everyone, including coaches and the parents of other players, could see he had a natural talent and self-confidence. In the years that followed his debut on the field, soccer was an unyielding passion.
“When the team practice was over and everyone went home, Peter was in the basement lifting weights or he would go for a run to continue to condition himself to excel in soccer,” said his proud older brother Ted, Peter’s “best friend” and greatest supporter through the years. (“After every match he played, if I wasn’t at the game, I was the first person he called to go over the game and what he did right and what he did wrong.”)
That’s the kind of teamwork there was behind the decision to go to Greece and explore the possibility of playing there.
“When we went at Christmas,” Peter Sr., said, “Peter fell in love with Greece. He had been there almost every summer before but never appreciated it as much. We went to a soccer game, and he saw thousands of people going bananas. He tried out and everybody loved him.”
Was the offer a surprise?
“No,” Ted said. “I was there watching the training sessions. I knew he had the skill, and it was only logical they’d be impressed. I felt the offer coming. When it came, it was exciting because when a player is young and starting out, he usually plays with smaller clubs, not clubs like AEK.”
Established in 1924, AEK has won 11 Greek championships and 13 Greek Cups. Only two other Greek clubs have won more Greek championships: Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, the Philipakos family’s favorite team.
Will Peter’s playing on a competing team change the family’s soccer loyalties? Ted doesn’t think so.
“Perhaps we’ll cheer for Panathinaikos to win their games and for Peter to play well on the AEK team,” he said.
Cathy, Peter’s mother, is also very proud of her son’s achievements; but although she knew that he would go pro, she thought it would be in his own country.
“That a Greek-American wound up in Greece is such an amazing thing. My only concern is that I don’t want it to go to his head. He’s already in the papers and on TV. He needs to learn to deal with it. I tell him to put both feet on the ground and know where he’s going; and when he’s feeling too big for his britches, to remember who he is and where he came from.”
Asked whether she regrets all the years of taking Peter to practice sessions and games as he grew up, whether she regrets not having made academics more of a priority, Mrs. Philipakos responds without hesitation.
“I do not believe in having regrets in life. We spent so many years traveling all over during the week, Saturdays and Sundays, going to games by car and even by plane or train. Although we sacrificed, the outcome is so good. If we had any regret, it would have been if we had gone through all that and he went nowhere.”
As for Peter’s dad, he isn’t concerned at all about whether not having obtained a degree will negatively affect Peter’s life.
“At the age of 19, I came to New York from Greece, learned English, attended Manhattan Community College for one year, and studied architecture at City College for three years. I was also working in a diamond business, and the owner said he wanted to make me his right-hand man. The money was good, so I dropped out of school and eventually bought a jewelry business of my own, which has been very successful. As a result, I have a different theory about life. If you have a brain, having a degree isn’t a necessity. If the economy is bad, having a degree won’t get you a job.”
As for Peter, he likes the work schedule not having a degree brings.
“I wake up in Varkiza and look out the window at the sea; soon I’ll go swimming in the morning. I drive for an hour on the Attiki Odos, practice from 3-7, and return home.”
And he doesn’t have to worry about the laundry or being fed well. Yiayia takes care of that.