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Giannis Konstantelias: Greek wonderkid earning Messi & Neymar comparisons

It is a long time since Greek football had a player emerge who could be described as having Lionel Messi-esque characteristics.

But when local journalist Stavros Kolkas went along to watch PAOK's Under-19s take on Larissa in their season opener back in September, he could not believe what he was seeing.

"PAOK has a Messi clone in its academy," he told radio station Alpha 98.9. "The other day against Larissa, he came on at half-time while it was 0-0. He scored two goals, gave two assists and PAOK won 5-0."

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The player that impressed Kolkas so much was playmaker Giannis Konstantelias.

At the time just 17, it was clear to Kolkas then what has been clear to anyone who has watched Konstantelias play over the last few years: that he is a very, very special talent.

As it happens, Konstantelias could even, if things had gone differently, been learning in close proximity to Messi at Barcelona, after he spent time on trial at the club's La Masia academy back in 2018.

Barca were impressed with what they saw, with some reports suggesting they were willing to pay around €1 million to sign the teenager, though a deal with PAOK could not, in the end, be agreed.

That may have benefitted Konstantelias, who despite only turning 18 in May already has three first-team appearances at PAOK under his belt, and having been around the senior squad for much of the 2020-21 campaign, is expected to have a major breakthrough next season.

The teenager has come a long way from learning his trade on the streets of Volos, around 200 kilometres from his current home in Thessaloniki.

"I didn't watch much football growing up, I just played in the parks and out in the streets with my friends," Konstantelias tells Goal in an exclusive interview. "That is how I fell in love with the game.

"Playing in that urban setting for kids helps you be creative. My style is creative, highly technical and always looking to bring something extra in the final third of the game.

"Eventually I thought maybe I can do this for a living or the rest of my professional life."

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Even before catching PAOK's eye at the age of 11, it was clear that Konstantelias had something special, with his first steps in formal football taken at local club Agia Paraskevi.

"Such a player does not emerge every day. Not even every 50 years," Alexandros Malakasiotis, the head of Agia Pareskevi's academy, told Sportdog. "He has some gifts, which are unique.

"We had the pleasure of seeing Konstantelias grow up here. He left early, but he stood out like a fly in milk.

"For me, he is a phenomenon. If you see how he passes and moves into space, you will understand what he is about.

"When he goes one-on-on, it is like watching Neymar."

That Neymar comparison is one Konstantelias himself also makes, saying: "He is my biggest influence in the modern game. I feel more attracted to his playing style than anyone else's."

Having joined PAOK in 2013, Konstantelias made his way through the various age-group teams at both club and international level, catching the eye of a number of top European clubs along the way as he honed his skills in his favoured No.10 position.

As well as Barca, both Ajax and Rangers are known to have scouted him extensively, while Chelsea believed they had secured Konstantelias' signature before he signed a new contract at PAOK in December that ties him to the Greek outfit through to 2024.

So confident were the Blues of signing him that they were already setting up a loan pathway for Konstantelias to spend time in either Belgium or the Netherlands before moving permanently to Stamford Bridge, while Atletico Madrid are rumoured to have since entered the race for one of Greek football's golden boys.

PAOK, for what it is worth, have shown to their academy talents that there is a path to the senior ranks following Christos Tzolis' breakthrough season in 2020-21.

The 19-year-old forward scored 16 goals and laid on 10 assists for the PAOK first team last season, with his performances having earned him admiring glances from the likes of Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund as well as a debut for the Greece national side.

"For me, seeing Christos come through shows the pathway for next season," Konstantelias says. "It is good that we are getting a chance to play and be part of the first-team set up to show we have what it takes to conquer this step, and then the next one.

"We all want to take that chance. We all grew up in the same setting and it has taken a lot of work to reach this stage. The work has been very good in the academy over the years, and it will show in the first team."

And what about Konstantelias' future?

"I compartmentalise things and think about short-term targets," he insists. "It is not about where I am in five years, but baby steps.

"I want to be the best in my next game or training session. I want to also enjoy what I am doing and keep loving what I am doing and enjoy playing.

"In Greece, in general, we watch a lot of the Champions League and watch the top five leagues. I feel closer to La Liga, as there's a lot more creativity and the league is more technical and free on the pitch."

That could be good news for Barca if they were ever to reignite their interest in the teenager who plays like both Messi and Neymar.

But regardless of his next step, the future looks very bright for perhaps the most gifted player to emerge from Greece in generations.