There are only a few select people who really get to know the true personality of a professional footballer. The childhood friends who have been with them on their journey from schoolboy to pro, the relatives who have supported them from a young age and those who provide a crucial service or enhancement to the players’ lives. They are the trusted ones.
Leonidas Papanikolaou, who recently launched his own therapy centre in his home town of Kalamata in Greece, is a physiotherapist with years of experience. He has worked with some of the biggest names in football, including Arsenal forward Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
We caught up with Leonidas to find out about his backstory and how he became the go-to physio for football stars across Europe.
Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a physiotherapist.
I started my studies in 2004. I finished university in 2009 but in this job you never stop learning and I still attend seminars. The research changes every year. Some things that we tried for years can change with new techniques and other types of therapies.
I was really young. I was 17 years old when I had to decide what I was going to do with my life. This is a problem because when you are so young it’s a little bit difficult to know what you will like to do for the rest of your life. Here in Greece we have exams and it depends how high is your grade in the exams if you can go in the university that you like.
I remember my mother asked me ‘why don’t you go to study physiotherapy?’ and I thought it was a good idea. The first month after I finished university I started to work at Olympiakos Kalamata. From the beginning I was working with athletes. However, physiotherapy is not only but the area of musculoskeletal is what I like.
How did you end up working with Sokratis Papastathopoulos?
I was working in a team in Athens with Sokratis, who was one of my best friends from a young age. We worked together over several summers in Kalamata, our hometown. He asked me if I wanted to work with him and in about 10 days I was in Dortmund, eventually going on to work with some of the best athletes in Europe. It was a dream come true.
What’s it like working with some of the best footballers in Europe?
I was very happy to work with all of them because when you work with them and you see that you can make them happy it’s great feeling. I have very good contact with all of them.
I have many funny stories [with the players]. With Panos [Retsos] there was a weekend where we had no electricity in his house all weekend. With Dinos [Mavropanos] I lost the keys to his house one day! There are many great memories with Auba and his children too.
What are the main differences between your role and a physio working in a club?
It is important to have communication with physios from the clubs. The biggest problem in a club is the time. When you have 5 or 6 physios at this level their time is limited. The biggest difference is that I’m able to dedicate more time to the players.
Tell us about your new company PhySioAnalysis Kalamata
It’s a new project for me. It was ready and I started to work in January but after some weeks we all know what happened with coronavirus. The most important aspects of a physio are his experience, hands, kindness and respect – because you need his help to improve your therapy. Of course I have a lot of new technology machines for evaluation and treatment but the most important is passion for work and this is something I have a lot of.
What do you think about criticism towards physios when clubs have many injuries?
The easy thing is to criticise them. I am sure that they want the best for their players and they try as hard as they can. As I said before if I didn’t speak with the other physios maybe we could have the opposite result. Of course human errors can happen sometimes, but they are rare. We have to remember that every patient is different. It means that our job is not easy.
Do you have aims of working for a big football team one day?
I would be really happy to work in a big club. I spoke with several big teams before I decided to start my project in Kalamata. I can travel to the players whenever they need me, which I like. When you work closely with the players you can become friends with them and this is also another aspect of my job which I really like.