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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 04 November 2017
SPORT 26 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2017 Bai Antoniou will be playing in the Cypriot topflight in January The Australian youth international impressed during a trial with AEK Larnaca - with the move providing a homecoming of sorts DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM PHOTO: BAI ANTONIOU TWITTER CON STAMOCOSTAS Last A-League season Antoniou was part of the Sydney FC history-making squad that won the A-League double. During the Sky Blues premiership winning campaign the club broke several league records that began with an impressive 19-game unbeaten run. By season's end, Sydney finished at the top of the league and had broken the record for most wins, highest goal difference, least goals conceded, most clean sheets, most points in a season, and the highest winning margin. However, Antoniou who was 19 at the time, struggled to break into the first team squad and says that watching on the sidelines as his teammates made A-League history was difficult. "Of course, you want to play," he tells Neos Kosmos. "So, you're biting your tongue a little bit, but you've got to understand the quality that was at Sydney FC as well. Being one of the youngest players there, you're not just going to get thrown into a winning team when you've got people like Bobo, Milos Ninkovic, and Alex Brosque. "You've got some of the best players in the country that are ahead of you. It does get a lit- tle bit frustrating, but I knew what I was getting into when I signed for Sydney FC." So, at season's end, the 20-year-old was desperate for game time and found an opportunity to go to Cyprus. After spending a few months trialling on the Mediterranean island Antoniou found a club in the region from which, coincidently, both his parents originate. And the Sydney born youngster says he was buzzing at the chance to play in Europe after being invited to go back to his parents’ homeland in January. "That was one of the main reasons for going to Cyprus," Antoniou says. "My mum is from the village of Troulloi located only 15 kilometres away from Larnaca and my dad was actually born there. He's already told me how much it means to him that I could be playing there. "He knows how much of a big club AEK is. I've had his nono come up to me and say how much they can't believe how good it is for me to be able to do that. And to get my mum's side of the family involved as well. It's something that's going to be really special for me when I get that chance." Antoniou grew up in the inner west suburbs of Sydney. During his mid-to-late teens he was selected by the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Antoniou says that environment helped develop his game. "While playing for NSW with the Project 22 program we had an institute challenge down in Canberra at the AIS and we won the interstate competition," he says. Then a few weeks later I was asked to join the program. I was about 16 years old at the time and we played in the youth league against men so, it really gets you ready for the next level of football. The AIS was a perfect stepping stone for that stage of my career and for me was the perfect place to be and I learnt quite a lot." Soon after Antoniou represented Australia's U17 and U20 National Youth teams where he was coached by Socceroo legends Tony Vidmar and Paul Okon. Looking back Antoniou says it was an honour to represent Australia. "It's what anyone that has put on that green and gold jersey will tell you, it's an unbelievable feeling," he says. "You feel so proud to be representing your country at such a young age and at such a professional level as well. "It's good to see where you are, how you fit in with the best at your age in the country. It's the right pathway. It's where you want to be. Being in the U20s was again the perfect environment. Paul Okon would always have us play against an A-League team which is the best way to set yourself to become an ALeague player. To see where you are at against those types of players." During this time Antoniou was playing for Sydney FC's youth team and an outstanding 2016 season in the NSW NPL2 competition saw him score 20 goals during their premiership and championship-winning campaign. As a result of his fine form, the following term Antoniou was promoted to Graham Arnold's senior squad and says signing with Sydney FC's first team for the 2016-17 season was a proud achievement. "That was a dream come true last year," he says. "Sydney FC was my childhood club, it's the club that I had always wanted to play for. And to finally be able to get that contract after signing with the youth team in 2014, you can't imagine how good it was. It was unbelievable. "I made my debut in the FFA Cup against the Wollongong Wolves. My time at Sydney was great. I learned a lot. I realised the difference between youth level and A- League level. I met a lot of good people, a lot of friends and good coaches that taught me a lot about my game as well." But after being unable to make any first team appearances during the Sky Blues record-breaking season Antoniou left Sydney for opportunities elsewhere and with the help of a fellow countryman planned his next move. "I have a friend, Perry Moustakas, who played in Cyprus for over 10 years and who I also played with a few seasons ago," he says. "He always spoke to me about the quality of football in Cyprus and how they know the game differently than in Australia. I was coming off contract with Sydney FC and Perry introduced me to someone over there. So, in May, Antoniou packed his bags and tried his luck in Cyprus, where his reputation in Australia was not known. "I was over there for few months and Perry's contact took me to AEK where I had to start with the U19s and work my way up because they had no idea who I was," he recalled. "They didn't care about my CV or anything. They made me prove myself first." "I played five games with the reserves, and I scored three goals and provided seven assists. They have told me they want me to come back next year because the transfer window had closed and it was impossible to sign me at that stage." Even though red tape thwarted his chances to begin his career in Cyprus immediately, the speedy winger is still excited about the next step in his football career. "I am well aware of what the level of football is going to be in Cyprus," Antoniou says. "So, when I go over I will be mentally and physically in the right shape to go. When I first went over and took part in my first session with AEK I couldn't believe how good they were. I loved every minute of [it]. Technically and tactically, I felt like I was in one of the best clubs in Europe. "I am happy to be able to go back in January, I see it as a challenge and I am going to enjoy starting again and proving myself again in a different country. Until then I just have to train hard."
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