I’m married to a Spaniard, which means, amongst other things, that I know a lot about Spanish football and nothing of my native English football. Swedish football was just a dark mystery to me, so I was very happy to interview Kenny Stamatopoulos, goalkeeper for the Canadian national squad and Sweden’s own historic team: AIK.
As his name indicates, Kenny (born Kyriakos) is originally from Greece. Growing up in Canada, however, gave him a love for the distinctly non-Mediterranean sport of ice-hockey, which he took up at the age of 2. It wasn’t until he was 13 years old that he started to show an interest in the most popular sport for children in Canada: football.
The minute I played soccer, I knew I wanted to be a soccer player. I had so much confidence and was so committed to being the best I could be. I remember vividly a particular test I was meant to be taking, for computer science. I tried but couldn’t concentrate at all; all I recall doing was signatures, practising my autograph for when I became a soccer player. I got 25% on the test.
Although he started quite late, he showed promise straight away, which prompted his father to look into a summer trial with a football team in his hometown, Kalamata in Greece. Kenny did so well at Kalamatis, he was offered a full-time position, but decided to put it off for a year to finish high-school. By 19, he was a professional goalkeeper, having played the beautiful game for only five and a half years. It took hard work and dedication, qualities Kenny claims to have learnt from his father.
My biggest influence was my dad. He came to Canada with nothing and worked his way up to having a business empire. He was a painter and would get up at 6am to go to work until 4, then come home for a family dinner and took us to every one of our hockey and football games. When we went to bed, he’d be off again at 10 and work until 1 in the morning. He put family first and work second, but he did both with dedication. I left my close-knit family for good when I was 17 and they did nothing but support my actions and never tried to influence me. In fact, it was only years later that I found out that my father was a goal-keeper too; he hadn’t wanted to say in case it swayed me towards that position. In goalkeeping terms, my biggest influence was Edwin van der Sar. I think he was one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.
After 4 years in Greece, Kenny felt it was time to get an agent and move on to bigger things, landing a contract in Norway, where he moved around a few teams before playing for Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle. Kenny found love in a cold climate, meeting, as he quipped, ‘the only other Greek in the whole city’. Maria, a beautiful half Greek, half Norwegian girl, was to become his wife in 2009. Although Kenny is passionate about Greece and wants to go back to live there eventually, he opted to play for Canada at a national level. ‘It was hard to choose,’ he says, ‘because I have strong Greek roots, but a Canadian mentality. I love both countries and now I have Scandinavian ties too.’ More so, since Kenny and Maria have a gorgeous little son (Nicholas, 2010) and daughter (Christina, 2012), who were both born here in Sweden and are one quarter Norwegian.
I asked Kenny what he likes most about Scandinavia. ‘The women,’ he answers, mischievously. ‘I did marry one, after all’, he adds, looking over at Maria, who he clearly adores. How does she cope with all the press attention that a footballer gets? ‘It’s not quite the same as in England, where the terms ‘footballer’ and ‘footballer’s wife’ are so loaded, nor do the press badger individuals as much. But, yes, there have been times where we’ve been at a café together and I leave for a bit; when I come back to my chair, there’s a girl there!’ I ask Kenny how he deals with these girls. ‘Before I was married… very easily,’ he grins. ‘Now, I’m just friendly; it’s nice to talk to people.’ And are the perks of footballing just limited to socialising? ‘Well, there’s the money too! But to be honest, the best part is that I’m able to do what I love every day. What might be some people’s hobby, for fun, is my job and my passion and that’s a great feeling.’
It hasn’t all been easy though. As Kenny put it, ‘there’s a lot of egos in football’. Whilst at Tromsø, he found himself in a disagreement with the coach, which meant that he was put on loan 4 times in as many years. Happily, for the fans of AIK, the last loan turned into a full-time contract. Fans themselves are a mixed blessing to a footballer. ‘It’s fantastic playing for such a great club, such a well-supported and high-achieving team. But there is pressure. We have some of the most passionate fans I’ve ever met; one guy told me that his happiness for the week depends on whether we’ve won the game on Sunday. But aside from pressure, our fans are brilliant. They’re always supportive, even through tough times, like in 2010 when we had a lot of changes. We switched coach three times that year. Then, in 2011, we got our new coach, Andreas Alm. He’s a former AIK player and believed in one thing and carried the whole team with him. We did well and the fans were over the moon. At the end of the day, we both want the same thing: to win every game.’
Kenny on the job, proud to be part of such a well-supported team
I suggest that goalkeeping comes with some difficult territory, since you can stop the other team scoring, but can’t score yourself. ‘Yes, you always want to do more than you could; it can be frustrating. But goalies have another problem; they’re prone to attack from players and so prone to injury. I had an injured ankle that kept me out of the game for 4 months; you lose practise and position as a result. And I played through a broken jaw once and had to wear a crazy ugly mask to keep it together. And now I’ve got a family, travelling is tough – it’s hard being away from them.’
It’s also hard because any athlete has a shelf-life; it’s necessary to be successful every season as one needs to make enough money to last for the years when you can’t play anymore. It challenges the belief that footballers live an idle, spendthrift, dissolute life; Kenny has strict training, a self-imposed healthy diet, he saves rather than spends. He has strong family values and Maria calls him a ‘neat freak’ since he’s so tidy. At present he’s offered to train up under-16 goalkeepers and his dream once he’s retired from football is to set up a goalkeeping academy. Perhaps he’s not a typical footballer; he’s certainly an extraordinary expat.
If you liked this article, you may also like reading about our other ‘Extraordinary Expats‘. It’s always great to read about people doing well in Stockholm!
Article: Farrah Gillani
Photos with kind permission from Kenny and Maria Stamatopoulos and from Bloggen 17124.se