Clubless but shining with Greece

Three months after helping Greece shock the world by winning Euro 2004, few would have expected that Vassilis Tsiartas would be training at a run-down third-division Athens club just to keep fit. But the former AEK midfielder, who has won 67 international caps, has never done anything by the book. So when Greece coach Otto Rehhagel picked him for Saturday’s World Cup qualifier in Ukraine, Tsiartas closed his ears to critics who said he was no longer fit to play at international level. Then, as if to prove a point, he conjured up a stunning free kick from 30 meters to gain Greece a much-needed draw and secure the European champions their second point after three qualifiers. «I am the only coach relying on a player who does not have a club and he comes through every time,» Rehhagel said after the draw in Kiev. The 31-year-old found himself in his current predicament after falling out with first-division AEK at the end of last season when the cash-strapped club failed to pay him. Soon after, Tsiartas went from hero to zero, from one of the best-paid players in the Greek league to unemployment and training with third-division Thrasyvoulos. His international career seemed all but over. Many said the elegant left-sided midfielder, who had invariably been used as a substitute by Rehhagel, was way past his prime. Rehhagel surprised everyone by continuing to include the midfielder in his squads. In the first qualifier against Albania, Greece were trailing 2-0 when Tsiartas came on late in the first half. Six minutes later, Stelios Giannakopoulos pulled a goal back from Tsiartas’s superb cross. He also came on late in Greece’s second match, a 0-0 draw against Turkey. Then, last weekend in Kiev, Tsiartas, Greece’s only international without a club proved he still has one of the most accurate left feet in the business. «Leave it to me. I’ll score,» he told teammate Giorgos Karagounis, who had lined up to take the free kick nine minutes from time. As good as his word, Tsiartas then proceeded to show why he is considered by many to be the best all-round Greek talent of his generation.