Cyprus may have lost 2-1 at home to France in a recent Euro 2004 qualifier, but those 90 minutes were a personal triumph for Yiannakis Okkas.
The forward opened the scoring early on with a delicate chip that left French keeper Gregory Coupet completely stranded, and generally was a man inspired. His clever movement, speed and ability with the ball at his feet meant he often proved too hot to handle for France’s much- vaunted centre-backs, Marcel Desailly and Philippe Christanval. The PAOK Salonika forward’s dribbling skills posed a conundrum that the former rarely solved, while the latter seemed a nervous wreck every time Okkas came near him.
‘Yes, I thought I had a good game tonight,’ said the 24-year-old. ‘Despite their poor World Cup, the French are still one of the best international teams around, and it’s a matter of great pride that we gave them a lot of problems.’
Since quitting Cypriot champions Anorthosis Famagusta for PAOK Salonika in summer 2000, Okkas has worked hard to shed his image of a richly talented but erratic performer. Now, it is only a question of time before he cashes in with a transfer to Western Europe. The forward has been linked in the past with Juventus, Udinese, West Ham and Blackburn; thanks to his display against the French, there should be even more scouts beating a path to PAOK’s Toumbas stadium, especially with the asking price likely to be no more than œ2million.
PAOK could use the money since the collapse of the main pay-TV deal in Greece and some injudicious financial decisions have left the club with a mountain of debt.
In fact, Okkas very nearly did not start the current campaign in PAOK colours. Unhappy about the non-payment of their salaries, theforward and fellow Cypriots Yiasemakis Yiasoumi and Yiotis Engomitis filed a suit to have their contracts with PAOK declared null and void. However, majority shareholder Giorgios Batatoudis somehow found the money to meet the arrears, and the Greek Economic Court of Appeal ruled against Okkas and company.
Although not entirely happy to still be at PAOK, Okkas has not been sulking. He was outstanding in his club’s 4-1 win over Panathinaikos on the opening day of the season and scored with a magnificent lob in the 5-3 aggregate success against Portuguese side Leixoes in the UEFA Cup first round. He is playing for a move and should soon have his wish.
Club PAOK Salonika (Gre)
Born December 11, 1977, in Larnaca
Previous clubs Nea Salamina, Anorthosis Famagusta
International debut February 1997, v Poland
International caps 45 (9 goals)
Honours Cypriot League 1998, 1999, 2000 (Anorthosis); Cypriot Cup 1998; Greek Cup 2001