PHOENIX – Moving across the world is never easy. Navigating a new culture and language without the comfort of family and friends can be overwhelming, even more so when you’re 12, as Panayioti “Panos” Armenakas found out firsthand.
Billed as the most talented footballer of his generation when he was barely 7, Armenakas moved from his native Australia to Europe in 2010 to fulfill his goal of playing soccer at the highest level, a journey that led to him playing in Italy and England. However, the pursuit of his dream was emotionally taxing on the young star.
“It was tough moving away from family, being alone, having to mature, leaving everything you know behind and going to a new country,” Armenakas said. “But it was my dream and I thought that that’s what I had to do if I wanted to make it at the level that I wanted to get to.
“It was never easy. There were some nights crying and feeling alone, with no family or no friends nearby. But it was what I wanted to do. So nothing got in the way of that.”
Armenakas, now 25, is currently spearheading Phoenix Rising’s rise up the USL Championship table, recording eight goal involvements in 18 starts since he joined the team on June 2, and he has created the fourth most chances in the league. Rising are unbeaten in eight of their past nine games and have secured a playoff spot after a shaky start to the season. They close out the regular season Saturday with an away game against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
Armenakas’ addition was vital to Rising’s uptick in form.
“He gives us a jump of intensity and aggressiveness in the final third,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said. “If you give this kid an inch, he will take a shot, he will run to a space. He’ll find something.”
It’s been a long road to success for Armenakas.
He excelled at soccer at an early age, attracting the attention of theat 7 years old. The highly-touted youngster was in the world by The Guardian in 2015 while he played for the Italian club Udinese’s academy.
However, he never got an opportunity with the senior team despite making an appearance in the matchday squad, due in part to managerial changes, and he was released at the end of the 2017-18 season.
He has not played for a senior club for more than a season since leaving Udinese, featuring in the Greek, Danish and Belgian leagues.
Progressing through youth soccer academies is a notoriously brutal process. In England, only 30% of players at Category One academies were signed to professional contracts,, with only 10% of those contracts coming from Premier League teams (the highest league in England).
Youth players often need to be lucky to get chances at the highest level.
“A lot of it is timing,” Armenakas said. “You have to have the quality, but to be honest, I’ve seen a lot of players that maybe haven’t gotten the opportunity that I personally thought were good enough and a lot of players that I didn’t think were quite that good got it because they were there at the right place at the right time.”
Coming to America represented a change of scenery for Armenakas after a few up-and-down years in Europe.
He initially turned out for another USL Championship side, Loudon United, before moving to Phoenix Rising halfway throughout the season, a decision that has paid dividends for his career due to the faith coach Juan Guerra has placed in him.
“As a player there’s nothing more you can ask for than a coach that’s believing in you and constantly putting you in in all the games, especially the important ones,” Armenakas said. “It shows the faith he has in you and believing that you know you’re the player to help the team win and when a coach has that faith, the best thing you can do is repay that faith.”
Armenakas’ innate belief in his abilities and competitiveness made an instant impression on the rest of the squad.
Ahead of Rising’s game against Las Vegas Lights, Phoenix winger Dariusz Formella offered a wager to anyone who would accept it. If they scored, Formella would have to get their initials tattooed on his body, but if Formella scored, they would have to get his initials tattooed on their body.
The only player who took him up on it was Armenakas.
Sure enough, Armenakas scored the winning goal in the 82nd minute and won the wager.
“He’s very competitive,” Formella said. “He believes in himself. It was not an easy decision because a tattoo is for life, but he was pretty sure he was going to score.”
As Rising approach the playoffs and attempt to secure a home playoff game, Armenakas’ hunger to prove himself after frustrating years in Europe, and the innate talent that saw him be so widely lauded at a young age, could be vital to their success.
“Panos wants to prove and show everyone in the league what he can do,” Guerra said. “I think we need to make sure that we can utilize that towards our advantage. Utilize his motivation, utilize how hungry he is and how he wants to show everyone what he can do.”