Portuguese international Vieirinha landed in his homeland on Wednesday ahead of undergoing a knee operation, fresh from helping PAOK Thessaloniki to their first Greek championship in 34 years.
Immensely popular with his club, Vieirinha has led by example as captain and inspiration as PAOK have successfully recovered from losing out on the Super League due to controversial disciplinary measures taken towards the end of last season.
PAOK’s previous title win came in 1984-85 - before Vieirinha was even born - but to understand the added drive within the team’s ranks ahead of the current campaign, it is necessary to contextualise with the events of last season when the club nicknamed The Double-Headed Eagle battled it out with AEK Athens for the Greek crown.
The sides met in March, with PAOK hosting AEK needing a victory to assert themselves in the title race. Vieirinha’s men had a goal disallowed in the closing minutes, leading to a pitch invasion which included irate PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis. The game was abandoned, with events taking a bizarre turn two hours after the match when the referee changed his mind and awarded PAOK the 1-0 victory.
PAOK’s owner was to cost his team, however, as it emerged Savvidis had been carrying a gun when he entered the field to contest the decision and reportedly threatened the official. The Greek Super League was initially suspended, and PAOK were later deducted three points, while AEK were awarded three points and would go on to lift the title.
Driven by injustice
The margin between the sides at the end of the campaign was six points, making the punishment a title decider. For Vieirinha, the story was a driving force behind PAOK’s resurgence this year, during which the team is undefeated with one match remaining and on course for a league and cup double for the first time in the club’s history.
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Vieirinha said in an interview published over the weekend. “We knew this season would be difficult, but we had another incentive: to prove how unfair what happened was. It made us a family, since we were united fighting an injustice. We told every new player that joined what happened last season to get them into our vibe. We vowed to win it this year.”
PAOK have been imperious, dropping just eight points all season and beating nearest challengers, Pedro Martins’ Olympiakos, home and away in a dominant campaign. Asked how they handled the pressure, Vieirinha said: “The pressure we’ve experienced in the last two years is what every footballer wants. I myself have demands put on me; people expect a lot from me. Pressure is good. It makes you a better player and a better person.
“Have I seen this a lot in my career? Of course. Pressure and mental aspects impact footballers. The pressure works differently with each player. You see players who are flying in training and you think “this guy can be whatever he wants” but on the pitch they don’t do half of what they can. Of course there’s the opposite. A very good example is Kevin de Bruyne, who was my teammate at Wolfsburg. In training he didn’t do what he did in games. But we knew his quality. There are players who like the added pressure; it brings the best out of them.”
Vieirinha has shown himself to be one of those, with the 33-year-old often rising to the occasion for PAOK at decisive moments, including a goal in the crucial 3-1 win over Olympiakos in February. The Portuguese saw his season cut short by injury when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament on April 14 in a match against Larissa, but Vieirinha was afforded a unique chance to revel in PAOK’s title clinching victory over Levadiakos the following week.
With PAOK 5-0 up and the match headed for stoppage time, the yet to be operated Vieirinha was called from the substitutes bench and introduced with the understanding he would stand on the touchline and soak up the action. “A great team like PAOK does not deserve to wait 34 years to win a championship,” he said. “What we lived through this past year is a dream for every PAOK fan. I am one of them. For me, PAOK means everything.”
“Family made me”
Born in Guimarães, Vieirinha spent part of his formative years with Vitória before moving to FC Porto at 16, where he arrived to find a club headed for an historic spell under José Mourinho. Quizzed on his biggest influences, Vieirinha spoke of those at Porto and PAOK (where he had a prior spell between 2008 and 2012) who have had an impact on his career.
“As a footballer, lots of Porto players who are great personalities such as Vítor Baía, who was then the most decorated player in the country. Deco and the coach Mourinho helped a lot so it was special to be with them. In Greece I was helped a lot on a football level by Fernando Santos and Sérgio Conceição.
“But the person who helps and inspires me as a person is my wife, Vaso. In the ten years we have been together, I have been encouraged and I have grown on many things that I’d been lagging behind on. She has made me become what I am today. A time in life that changed me forever? The night my daughter was born. It changed the way you look at the future. I used to laugh at people who were scared to get on a plane. Now I’m scared too. I have a responsibility towards her.”
It is easy to see why Vieirinha is loved and appreciated by his colleagues. Among those is troubled owner Savvidis, who is reportedly keen to ensure his captain stays at PAOK beyond his playing career, with a role as sporting director planned for the future. For now, focus is on recovery after the operation, which had been delayed in order for swelling to subside and for Vieirinha to enjoy his team’s success.
The surgery is due to take place in Porto on May 6th under the watch of Portugal National Team doctor José Carlos Noronha and PAOK’s medical man Manolis Papakostas. Vieirinha has suffered severe ligament damage earlier in his career while at Wolfsburg, although there is some relief that the current damage is not on the same knee.
The Portuguese faces a tough rehabilitation period over the summer, but will inevitably face the challenge in typically resolute fashion, with the aim of being back at PAOK next season to continue his adventure. The supporters of the Aspromavri will be counting on it.
By Sean Gillen