32 players to watch, February 2010

Player To Watch #21: Fanis Gekas

Number 21: Theofanis Gekas

Country: Greece

Club Team: On loan to Hertha BSC, German Bundesliga

Position: Forward

American Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”:  Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears

For many of my American sports brethren—particularly those of us fortunate enough to hail from the South (whatever image you just put into your mind is hardly offensive—we’ve heard them all—some of them are true—and as long as you don’t make jokes about General Sherman—we’ll probably still invite you in for sweet tea and pecan pie…I digress)—Wednesday was a national holiday. It was College Football Christmas in February—National Signing Day. Very quickly for the hopeless: this is essentially the NFL DRAFT of College Football—it is the day when the best high school players sign letters indicating their intent to play for a particular college.

In my days as a collegian, this literally was a holiday. Unless I had a morning class, I didn’t have class, which is to say, I didn’t go to class. I didn’t sleep in either, as one may do from time to time on holiday. No sir. I went to Publix. That’s where the good stuff is for any national holiday—the world famous Publix Sub, potato chips, snack mix, super transfat loaded chemically preserved bean dip, cheese dip, spinach dip, hot dogs, large quantities of raw meat, peach Hi-C, if you  can find it, Kool Aid, Coca Cola and yes… beer. The really tasty American kind—I mean, the best: Natural Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bud Heavy, Bud Light for the pledges, the Silver Bullet (for the uninterested girlfriend who knows Valentine’s Day is around the corner). Like any good Yank, I majored in excess and the Gods who Smile on Sports Fan Yanks also understand that the best place for college football Christmas is the same week as the Super Bowl (or, occasionally, three days after the Super Bowl), and this makes for a perfect storm of American youthful excess.

The Signing Day Holiday is either a preliminary grocery run for the Super Bowl, which really is our American Sports Holiday, even if you aren’t from North Georgia, or, Signing Day is the best way to get rid of whatever excess you didn’t imbibe and gorge yourself on excessively on Super Bowl Sunday. This applies double in college and as such my day involved a trip to Publix, a cart full of transfat, beer, liquor and a foot long sub, a pack of lights, a venti sized cup of gas station coffee for the trip to the grocery and back, a fraternity house living room, three televisions, three computers, and three half-naked men. That’s not Wallis Warfield Simpson American or apple-pie cliché American, no sir. That’s the damn dream, gentleman. Throw in the fourth TV, on CNBC—and maybe Brooklyn Decker, and I win.

Forgive me for the large digression. I blame excess, or George W. Bush- you choose. Regardless, one of my favorite Signing Day Holiday games is “word association,” where one commentator asks a talking “expert/head” to associate the first one or two words that come to mind when a recruit is discussed. That’s a fun game!! It goes a bit like this:

Boring Looking, just outta J-School Commentator: Dominique Easley?

Good Looking, Rich, Talking Head: “Burst. Imposing.”

Odd Looking, bad joke Commentator: Adrian Coxton?

Dated Sorority Presidents, Heisman Winning Commentator: “Gamechanger. Electric.”

And so forth.

Being American, I thought—isn’t that a fun game? And shouldn’t I use it on my rather un-American probably has me on some Dick Cheney super secret list of red sympathizers soccer blog? Yep. Absolutely. I’ll try forwards first, since they score goals and Americans love scoring! A bunch of them were easy…

Fernando Torres? Physically imposing, technically special. Thierry Henry ? Handball…wait a minute. Winner. Ruud Van Nistelroy? Lethal. Clinical. Didier Drogba? Powerful, fast, a presence. Leo Messi?. Once-a-generation gamechanger.  Wayne Rooney? Asshole…wait, Competitor. The guy who led the European World Cup Qualifying Region in Goals? Uhhh…None other than the Pride of Larissa, Fanis Gekas. Championship. Okay, okay—I don’t get to write that without another aside, this time shorter.

“Championship” was the word I used after drafting the Euro qualifying goal machine Theofanis Gekas, in the third round of my Euro 2008 fantasy draft. I was certain I had secured the “steal” of the competition. Who needs Bastian Schweinsteiger, I thought? This guy was automatic. I even accompanied my pick of the Greek with “Fanis Gekas! Put on the board—Championship!” and a fist pump when I selected him. I was certain of Euro Fantasy Glory. Then the tournament happened. Gekas played 45 terribly ineffective minutes in a 2-nil defeat to Sweden and then 59 minutes before literally breaking a bone in his face against Russia. This ended Gekas’ tournament. It also marked the end for the Greeks, and was critical to the last place Fantasy Euro Finish of your writer. This is where the Pride of Larissa meets his American soulmate, Chicago Bears tailback and new lovechild of Mike Martz, Matt Forte.

Forte was the “Championship” piece in more than a host of NFL Fantasy drafts last August. He returned the favor by being perhaps the largest fantasy bust of the year.  Not only did his touchdowns drop off from his impressive rookie campaign by a whopping twelve scores, he ran for three hundred less yards, caught six less passes (with an allegedly better signal caller!!) and saw a nearly half yard dip in his yards per touch. To say the least, fantasy owners of Forte certainly didn’t think they drafted a guy who would run for 100 yards only twice (both against the absolutely putrid Lions) and in their wildest dreams they didn’t think they drafted a player who would score negative points once (Week six against Atlanta) and flirt with negatives two more times (Week 2 against Pittsburgh and the Week 12 humiliation at Minnesota). Anyone who was as unfortunate selecting Gekas before EURO 08 surely understands the soulmate connection.

That said, the flops analyzed; there’s still the good. There’s still the guy who finished in the top five for offensive rookie of the year in the NFL who if he can mentally adjust to catching screen passes instead of taking the ball on trap plays could reemerge as a dominant force under new OC Mike Martz. There’s still the guy who led the Greeks in scoring in EURO qualifying, who led the Bundesliga in scoring with VFL Bochum in 2007, single-handedly keeping that side from relegation. There’s still the player who, unlike Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney, Henry, Jermaine Defoe, Van Nistelroy—led all of Europe in qualifying goals. There are still those players and there are even more similarities.

Forte isn’t particularly fast. Neither is Gekas. Forte lacks a sudden burst but is elusive, changes direction exceptionally well and seems to have what pundits like to call a “great mind for the game.” Gekas is elusive and smart. He’s not particularly gifted on the ball but plays his strengths well, maintaining composure and using his knowledge and exceptional movement to find seams in defenses that can shred those who don’t take him into account.

Like Forte, Gekas is also the key cog in taking an ordinary attack that on a good day is viable and making it dangerous. Both players are, as the signing day talking heads like to, “X Factors. Like Van Nistelroy, Gekas has an uncanny ability to poach around the net, and he’s certainly an above average finisher. He’ll need to be clinical on a team that needs a primary scoring option more than it needs anything else in South Africa. He is the engine that drives the Greek attack. The Greeks won EURO 04 by doing what they do—remaining exceptionally organized, building and sometimes simply maintaining possession from the back, and taking their chances when defenses tire of pursuing the neat movement of the ball. This was not as effective in EURO 08, but part of the problem was not taking their chances when they arrived. The Greeks group, which includes Argentina, Nigeria, and South Korea, is promising if for no other reason than the Greeks style is a radical contrast to the other three sides they will meet this summer. If they can slow games down and make them tactical battles about organization, they’ll be able to frustrate the more offensive minded opponents in their group. This will be even more effective if they are lethal with what will inevitably be a handful of chances in the counterattack. A lead makes the Greece extraordinarily dangerous, but to collect leads, and have a shot to advance, they’ll need Gekas to finish.  And if Gekas finishes, maybe a World Cup fantasy owner who takes a flier will have his championship.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior staff writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com.

Neil W. Blackmon