AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis In this Wednesday, Feb. 27 photo, players of AO Giannina soccer team practice at a training ground in Ioannina city, northwestern Greece. AO Giannina is a tiny team that can't stop winning. The 11- and 12-year-olds have conceded just twice in their last 14 matches and scored 74 times. One of those goals – posted on video sharing websites YouTube and DailyMotion – earned them unexpected world attention and an invitation to play at Barcelona's famed academy this Sunday, March 24.
KRANOULA, Greece | From a patchy field in northern Greece to Barcelona's famed football academy, this youth team is about to make it big.
AO Giannina captivated the football world's attention a few months ago when a video of the 11- and 12-year-old players in bright orange uniforms scoring from kickoff went viral. Right from the opening whistle, the players exchanged 20 passes and scored in less than a minute.
“All 11 players touched the ball, but no one from the other team did,” AO Giannina club director Vasileios Kitsis told The Associated Press. “No one realized what had actually happened until we watched the video after the match.
“It got a lot of attention. It was on television in England.”
It was also seen in Spain, where Barcelona has become the dominant team in club football. Playing a passing-based game nicknamed “tiki-taka,” Barcelona has won four Spanish league titles and three Champions League titles since 2006.
On Sunday, the little team from Greece — dubbed “Baby Barcelona” by the Greek media — will play against a Barcelona youth team at the club's academy.
“We like the passing game,” AO striker Diogenis Eleftheriou said, referring to his team's plans for the match in Spain. “We pay attention to all parts of the pitch — that's the best way I can explain it — to the defense, midfield and attack.”
On a recent day at AO Giannina's training ground, players ran past a vinyl cut-out of Barcelona star Lionel Messi before starting practice.
Barcelona's youth team, goalkeeper Elefterios Papadopoulos joked, will have to be in top form to beat the Greeks.
“For them to score a goal, they'll have to get past our strikers, our midfield, our defenders, and then me. That will be difficult,” Papadopoulos said.
Ioannina is a lakeside city of 110,000 residents in northwest Greece famous for its silverware and long bouts of rainfall. The city's top men's team, known as PAS, earned the nickname “Ajax of Epirus” in Greece in the 1970s after drawing comparisons to the great Dutch team of Johan Cruyff.
AO Giannina plays at the nearby village of Kranoula, an unlikely place to make football history.
At the foot of a mountain, the small municipal stadium is reached by a country road that winds past tiny farms and menacing sheepdogs. It's where the team routed rival Atromitos — Greek for “Fearless” — 6-1 on Dec. 23.
The damage was done in the first 59 seconds on Kranoula's torn-up playing field. AO players passed with surprising authority, chased haplessly by their opponents, back, left, back again, right, forward, and left again before Ardit Zigaj slid the ball under the goalkeeper and into the net.
The invitation from Barcelona was quickly followed by the realization that there wasn't enough money to make the trip from a region of Greece among the worst hit by the country's financial crisis, where one in every four are people out of work.
“I hardly slept for 10 days as we looked for a sponsor,” said Kitsis, a wiry and animated former footballer.
“Some of the parents hardly have enough money to put food on the table. But there was no way their kids weren't coming,” he said. “Finally we got a backer, a cable TV company. It was great news ... because we do everything together as a team. We're not playing tennis.”
Papadopoulos, the youth team's goalkeeper, looks up to Greece national team goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis and Italy veteran Gianluigi Buffon. But like the rest of the players, school and training keep him distracted from thinking about his own team's success.
“We didn't even know we were being filmed. It was a surprise,” he said. “People were calling us up and telling us things were crazy. So put the video up on Facebook. I got 2,000 likes.”
As parents watch through a canteen window, the boys go through the same ball-control drills they rigorously repeat four times a week. Two of the players are driven by their parents about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from neighboring Albania to make each practice.
Playmaker Costis Papadopoulos says the team gets its composure from endless hours of practice.
“It's the passing. That's what we work on in training. It's better to score a goal after many passes, instead on one player trying to take the ball past the defense on his own,” he said, taking a brief break from practice. “It's harder for one player to do the work. If you pass the ball a lot, it tires the other team out.”
Every few seconds, coach Costas Michailidis blows the whistle and AO Giannina players change tricks.
“The scissors,” he shouts. “Now the flick.”
He keeps the team philosophy simple: “Kids are like sponges at this age, so it's all about skills training at this point. Tactics and other considerations in the game come later. It's the skill we work on every day.”
It seems to be working. The team has conceded only two goals in their last 14 matches and scored 74 times.
In Barcelona, Michailidis said he will tell players what he does before every match — to enjoy the game, think about how you play and not the score.
“I don't think you see this kind of commitment and concentration from kids that age very often,” he said. “It's a pleasure to train these kids. I'm so very proud of them.”