By Ilias Karagiannis
From the flames of war in Israel to being appointed assistant manager of Dutch football club Ajax, the journey of Greek Australian Michael Valkanis has been on fast-forward, as he has not had time to digest the significant changes that have taken place in his life.
With strong ties to Victoria having previously played for South Melbourne FC and coached at Melbourne City FC, Valkanis is still one of the personalities that make the Greek Australian community proud today.
On the occasion of his recruitment to Ajax, The Greek Herald contacted Valkanis in search of the threads that still connect him to the community.
Valkanis’ gratitude was evident in every part of his speech as he took The Greek Herald readers on a tour of his recent coaching journey and revealed that his Greek Australian identity remains a constant source of pride.
You recently joined Ajax after leaving Israel due to the conflict with Hamas. Could you share your journey to Ajax and your initial impressions of the club?
I was the head coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv, historically one of the biggest clubs in Israel, the supporter base is huge. I love their passion for the club and what it stands for. It was a project I was enjoying. There was a 3 year plan to get the team back to where it once was, competing for the league and playing champions league. Unfortunately, this plan was cut short when the Hamas acts of terrorism cut my stay short.
From the first moment I arrived in Tel Aviv I felt the love and support of all the people. We worked hard to lay foundations for a future the club envisioned. Our last game against our arch rivals Beitar Jerusalem was winning 3-0 away from home in front of 30,000 screaming Beitar fans. It was a sneak peak into the future of what we were building.
When I departed Israel on October 7, my intentions were that I will be returning to continue building and working to improve our team. I left all my belongings behind after the club made sure my family and I flew back to Greece to remain safe, hoping that we would be back to resume our normal lives and do what we love doing – football.
When I went back to Greece, I was communicating with my players and staff daily, concerned for their safety and well being. In a short time at the club I had connected and created relationships that meant a lot. It wasn’t easy every day watching the news and seeing what was happening and not knowing how everyone was doing. It came to the stage after three weeks, where things were getting worse and not improving, that the club and I had a discussion about the future. I was still wanting to go back and continue, hoping that the date set for the league to resume on November 25 would go ahead. The situation day by day looked like it was getting worse.
Coincidently, John van ‘t Schip called me and discussed the opportunity of going to Ajax with him. Within 3-4 days things moved quick. Sad at how it finished in Israel, but also happy with having this opportunity to coach at one of the biggest and most historic clubs in the world that has also had so much influence all over the world on how football is played.
In 2010 I had travelled to Holland and visited the club as part of my FFA coaching scholarship. Back then there is no way I would’ve thought of doing what I am doing now. I was mesmerised back then. I was at the home of the way I liked to see football being played. The academy, its first team, the football idea, a philosophy. And now I’m here, I think I’m still mesmerised. I love it. I love coaching. We have a big challenge ahead of us but that’s what I like about coaching. Even better we are at a club where our philosophy and the way we like to see the game played is aligned totally with the Ajax idea.
The outbreak of war in Israel and your subsequent departure from Hapoel Tel Aviv must have been a challenging experience. Could you share your thoughts on the ongoing conflict and how it has impacted your coaching journey?
I dont want to get political. I am sad that in 2023 wars are becoming the norm. Russia and the Ukraine, now Israel, terrorism, inhumane acts. One thing I did feel during this time was all the emotions I felt for the people when I was safe at home and my players and staff were living a life of uncertainty. Watching the news, and how this has escalated, made me very concerned. I thought of my players a lot. All they want to do is play football and do what they love doing. Just goes to show that I went from enjoying a project I was entrenched in and over night the sounds of alarms stopped what I was doing. My passion, my love for a project ended by something out of my control. Take nothing for granted, give 100 per cent every day, enjoy every moment. Help people achieve their dreams.
Bill Papastergiadis, the President of the Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM), has expressed his pride in your new role at Ajax. How significant is your connection to the Greek Australian community, and what message would you like to convey to your supporters?
I am very proud of being a Greek Australian. We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to live in Australia however, never forgetting our Greek traditions and customs defined by our religion and history. The Greek community in Australia, especially in Melbourne, is so strong and have made Australia home by also giving back so much to the country.
My parents were migrants that went to Australia for a better life, for opportunity and they will be forever grateful for the opportunities they had. Through my parents I learnt to work hard and to chase my dreams. To never give up and to always dream big. They came with one bag, and worked hard to support the family and give me and my sister everything we needed. But it just goes to show that all you really need is what is inside of you to achieve your dreams. Passion for what you do and work hard.
Greeks are pretty strong minded, proud people that when they work as a team they can achieve the impossible.
As a prominent figure in the Greek Australian community, could you tell us about your background and upbringing in Australia? How has your Greek Australian heritage influenced your career in football and your coaching philosophy?
Playing for South Melbourne and representing the large Greek community, influenced my football career. It played a huge role in my upbringing as a young Greek player forging his way through what was one of the biggest clubs in Australia at the time. To me, South Melbourne Hellas was the Greek community. It represented all the Greeks. Playing for the team as a Greek boy meant I had extra responsibility to win.
I remember from a junior we were expected to win. We wore the Greek ‘ethnisimo’ on our chest with pride. Winning brought a lot of happiness to many that would come to Middle Park to connect on the weekend and get away from working to enjoy the team they loved and represented them. South taught me the importance players and coaches play in other people’s lives. We are not only role models but we are blessed with the opportunity to put a smile on people’s face. To bring happiness in their world for 90 minutes and hopefully until the next day where they can enjoy the win, bantering with their colleagues that support the opposition.
Football is about entertainment, for me this is about attacking, scoring, there is no better feeling than when the ball hits the back of the net and the supporters leap to the sky from happiness. That emotion you feel when you win you can’t buy from the supermarket. But you can replicate it again and again through hard work. Sometimes the result is out of your control but you go again, never give up and work hard!
You’ve collaborated with Dutchman John van’t Schip at various clubs before. How has your coaching partnership evolved over the years, and what strengths do both of you bring to Ajax?
I have worked with Jon since 2016 at Melbourne City. Our partnership from the beginning grew and evolved from our common idea of football. We both see football played the same way. Our football philosophy is the glue, but I also feel that our values have brought us closer together as people. We are now more than just colleagues but also good friends. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and that allows us to work well in tandem to get the best out of a team. I feel at home. Speaking from a football philosophy point of view.
It is an iconic club with a huge legacy of legendary players and coaches. I love working at De toekomst (training centre) you feel the tradition, the past as the walls are decorated by photos of the past. I can not complain – looking at pictures of Johan Cruyff are an inspiration. He changed how people saw football, influenced so many modern coaches of today.
Yes, I love being here. We started with a win against Volendam on Thursday 2-0. We played well. I loved our first half. A real attacking, dominant display. The players needed this. They had lost a lot of confidence with previous performances and results. To turn things around we need to bring back the Ajax identity. To play creative, brave and courageous attacking football. As we did against Volendam. There is no secret, we need to work hard at training, train the way we want to play. We have quality young players. I am sure we will turn it around.