Tears streamed down Panagiotis Retsos’ cheeks as he bid farewell to his homeland before stepping on a plane to begin a frightening but potentially glorious adventure in Germany.
Greek football fans barely had time to get a proper look at the red-hot defender who erupted onto the professional scene with Olympiacos and departed just a year later as the country’s most expensive player.
It took just 40 appearances for Greece’s biggest club to catch the eye of Bayer Leverkusen, among others, and the Bundesliga side offered up €17.5 million to sign him on the last day of the summer transfer window.
"One morning I got a call from Olympiacos, they told me that Leverkusen gave that money and that I had to prepare my suitcases,” he told Gazzetta.
“It was my dream to play with Olympiacos in the Champions League, but I knew I must lose something to gain something. Since then, I have thought about it many times and I have concluded that it’s as if God wanted it to happen. I can really say it was the right choice. "
It has been a rapid rise for a talent that spent eight years bubbling away in Olympiacos’ academy, but the pace has been manageable for Retsos. Stepping into a club, league and culture in which a player his age faces greater expectations than in Greece, the change has been immense, but he is thriving.
“The young players here have the opportunity to play without stress, without fear of making a mistake,” he told Deutsche Welle in September. “It's something very good for us and any mistakes we make makes us stronger.
“In Germany, players aged 17 and 18 get their first experiences at the top level. They may not be ‘ready’, but they think they are ready to fight, to make their start.
“This is something that doesn’t happen in Greece, 17 and 18-year-olds are still considered talents, they play in youth teams and start playing after 20 or 21, but I think that’s a bit late.”
Now 29 appearances into his Leverkusen career, there is no doubt Retsos was right to skip the queue.
Hailed as a “great character” with “great prospects” by Rudi Voller, Retsos is a tall natural centre-back who regularly plays in either full-back position, too. It is an aspect of his game that coach Heiko Herrlich has used to great effect, often switching his position in games to help turn matches around.
In last week’s 4-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, he started on the left of a back three and stayed wide most of the time.
Just two minutes after his side took the lead in a reserved first half, Retsos showed a hint of complacency when he gave chase to Marius Wolf as he ran down that side, allowing the attacking midfielder to nip inside and set up Eintracht’s equaliser.
For the second half, Retsos was patrolling the centre and supporting the midfield as Leverkusen opened up and ended with a comfortable win.
With his reading of opponents and awareness of where his team-mates are, he often finds time to set himself up to close down attackers and take the ball cleanly.
The Greece international is comfortable on the ball and plays with his head up, too, always happy to dribble past opponents while looking for a simple pass.
He has shown some attacking prowess as well, notching three assists, notably when he was brought on midway through the second half in Leverkusen’s win at Hoffenheim in January. He made his mark in the final seconds, strolling into the empty channel on the right side like a classic winger. His run was picked out by Admir Mehmedi’s pass and he calmly skipped past his defender, drove deep into the box and squared to Lucas Alario for an easy finish to a 4-1 win.
Retsos is the youngest in a defence with strong competition for places, and so he has had to endure spells on the bench, but his quick adaptation and frequent starring roles make him a trusted figure for Herrlich.
It is no surprise, then, that Barcelona and Arsenal are said to be monitoring him once again. Although Retsos has succeeded so far with the quick leap to Germany, he would be best served staying there for the time being.
Still, as he continues to make a big impact at the BayArena, another tearful goodbye for Retsos may not be too far away.