First appeared on the "SeekaGreek" website August 2000
Ive agreed to meet Nikos Dabizas in a small café at the heart of Newcastles city centre. He comes here every day, sometimes even twice, for his daily frappe and a chat with a few of the local Greeks. "Its a part of my daily routine," he says, pausing to take a sip of his coffee. "I finish training, come here for coffee, go home and watch TV and maybe go to the cinema now and again. I dont always understand whats going on, but I laugh along with the rest of the audience anyway," he jokes in a self-deprecating kind of way.
Since moving to the North East two-and-a-half years ago, Dabizas is finally getting the recognition he deserves for the commitment and enthusiasm he has shown to Newcastle United from day one. In a recent pre-season friendly in the U.S., Bobby Robson handed him the captains armband for the second half, an honour he accepted with as much surprise as honour. "Even though it was just a friendly," he explains, "it was a very emotional moment for me to be made captain of a team like Newcastle, especially being a foreigner and having spent only two-and-a-half years at the club. It came as a huge surprise to me."
Dabizas joined Newcastle in 1998 after Kenny Dalglish paid Olympiakos £2m for his services, and is considered by many to be Dalglishs most astute purchase. He has his close friend, the now Wolves-bound Temuri Ketsbaia, to thank for that, who recommended him to Dalglish having frequently struggled against him in the Greek League. "Ive always followed English football," says Dabizas, "and always been captivated by the atmosphere. I like the fact that the stadia have no tracks around them and no fencing so that the fans are close to the pitch. I also remember watching Newcastle under Kevin Keegan, when they always played attractive football."
He still cites the high point of his career as his debut at St. James Park against Coventry. "I came on after about 25 minutes after Stuart Pearce went off injured," he recalls. "Ill never forget the roar from the crowd as I came on and the applause that ran around the stadium, even though the fans had never seen me play. I played well too, and was cheered on all the way."
The relationship he shares with the fans seems to be considerably more than healthy. A few days before our interview, I decided to visit the official Newcastle United website where I posted a message welcoming the opinions of fans visiting the site and urging them to post their own messages on the site for me to present to Dabizas on the day of the interview. I was left with the impression that the City of Newcastle has its own resident Greek God. Nikos Dabizas, the God of Defence. Hes keen to hear the replies Ive received, and laughs at the opinion of one fan who says that hes the best defender Newcastle have ever had. "When you give it your all, you will always have the fans on your side," he explains. "Thats the nature of my game, commitment, and they [the fans] can see that. I dont shirk any responsibilities, I dont hide behind the rest of the team. I enjoy the challenge and the opportunity to show what I can do."
It goes both ways too. Dabizas clearly thrives on playing in front of large crowds and relishes the prospect of playing in front of over 50,000 people at the recently expanded St. James Park. "No footballer wants to play to small crowds. Its like an actor playing to an empty theatre," he says, neatly avoiding any football clichés. "Football is a spectacle, its for the fans. Were ultimately the servants of football, were there to entertain. Without the fans, football has no meaning." As an ex-accountant, I can only try to imagine feeling any passion towards those who pay my wages. As a football supporter, its refreshing to hear a professional holding such high regard for the fans of football.
Only a handful of players at Newcastle have played under more managers than Dabizas has since he joined. After Dalglish and Gullit (apparently referred to as the dreadlock by many fans), Dabizass game seems to have blossomed since the arrival of Bobby Robson. "Hes very enthusiastic," he says of Robson, "hugely energetic despite his age. His passion for football is enormous, and his life will surely feel empty once he retires." Dabizas feels as much indebted to Robson as any fan of any team that Robson has managed feels. "As soon as he [Robson] came to the club, he said that everyone would get their chance to prove themselves, and I took mine. On a personal level, I had my best season in a Newcastle shirt once hed arrived. On a team level, hes shown with our results, in difficult must-win situations, what he can do to a team. It would have been inconceivable for a team of Newcastles stature and heritage to begin this season in Division One. Unacceptable."
Rather surprisingly, Dabizas has much to say about Robsons predecessors too, particularly Kenny Dalglish who he still reveres. "Kenny was a very likeable man and Ill always have the utmost respect for him. He was very straight, kept a low profile but always respected his players. He never criticised a player to the media and all the players liked him for that. He made Newcastle feel like one big family, like we were all in it together." So what went wrong? "You cant summarise it in one sentence," Dabizas explains. "It just didnt work out for him. It came as a huge surprise when he left, because wed just managed a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, which was a good result. No one expected him to go at the time."
Well, he did, and along came Ruud Gullit. "I actually figured in about 80% of games under Gullit," he says, keen to dispel the popular misconception that he fell completely out of favour under the Dutchmans management. "I started on the bench often though, for tactical reasons, but understood from his [Gullits] body language that he wanted to bring in his own players." That he did, as Domi, Marcelino, Goma and Dumas soon arrived. Dabizas became the fifth choice centre back, behind Howey, Marcelino, Goma and Dumas. Thats when he came close to leaving the club altogether, as he goes on to explain. "The board discussed it and Freddie Fletcher told me that if I could find a club, I would be sold. Leicester were interested, but they couldnt agree a price."
That was fourtunate, since Gullit soon left with the club in bottom place in the Premiership with one point from six games. "His fault," Dabizas says of Gullit, "was that he couldnt forge a good spirit in the team and his management of players on a personal level wasnt ideal. Once hed fallen out with the high profile figures at the club, most notably Alan Shearer, he was in trouble." Dabizas, however, shies away from criticising Gullits managerial skills. "He has good ideas and is a very clever man, but wasnt really with us on a psychological level."
Dabizas is looking forward to the new season now. Before signing a new contract, Inter Milan were rumoured to be making moves to take him to Italy. "They watched me playing for Newcastle and for the Greek national team and liked what they saw, but I was waiting on Newcastle to make me an offer, because I was happy to stay here." Would he ever be interested in playing his football in Italy? "I enjoy my football here more than anywhere else in the world, but Italy would offer a different challenge, both culturally and career-wise."
Heres a bit of football trivia. Nikos Dabizas was the first Greek ever to appear in an FA Cup Final, unless you believe the ludicrous claims of some North London Greeks that Charlie George was Greek. Dabizas vividly recalls first stepping out onto the hallowed turf of Wembley against the double-winning Arsenal team of 98, which included the enigmatic Nicolas Anelka, whom Dabizas regards as the hardest opponent he has faced yet. "Wembley has a magic about it, the atmosphere is indescribable. It was hard losing twice in a row but we were unlucky in having to face two great sides at their peak." After losing to Arsenal in 98, the following year they faced a Manchester United team that went on to win the treble. More disappointment was to follow last season, when luck seemed to desert Newcastle completely against Chelsea in the semi-final in a 2-1 defeat. "That was my lowest point as a Newcastle player. We shouldve won that game," he says.
We finally move on to discuss his role in the Greek national team, and his ambitions on the international stage ahead of Greeces first World Cup qualifying match in Germany. Undoubtedly one of Europes great underachievers in international football, Greeces problems are basic but deep-rooted according to Dabizas. "The Greek philosophy on football is the problem. Man for man, we have the players who are good enough to compete at the highest level. Our problem is one of collectivity. We dont do the simple things well, we dont concentrate for 90 minutes."
I ask him about life after football. Does management appeal to him? "I dont know. I havent thought about the future yet. Who knows? Anythings possible," says the man whose career may have followed in the footsteps of his father, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Were it not for his skills with a round leather ball, he, like Denis Bergkamp in the cheese-making factory television commercial, could have been working with Feta rather than Edam.
With the interview over, we relax and talk about things other than football. Being in Dabizass company is strangely comfortable, not what I expect. We exchange contact details and agree to meet again later on in the season for another chat. He also promises to donate a signed Newcastle shirt to the radiomarathon charity.
As a British-born Greek Cypriot and a keen
follower of football, its undoubtedly heart-warming to see a Greek plying
his trade in English football, and doing it rather successfully. Unlike the
Elgin Marbles however, Dabizas will one day head back to his motherland, but
his legend will live on in the black and white part of the North East. Until
that day, Nick the Greek lends himself wholeheartedly to the Toon Army, like
the legendary warriors of Ancient Greece.