In this interview, you will get an insight into a family, who’s son’s passion for being a professional soccer player becomes a reality. I thank the Sotira family for sharing their personal story.
By Ken Willner Nov 2017
I am sitting in the home of the Sotira family with Sergio (father), Adriana (mother) and Alessia (sister) [Christian, their 16-year old son is training].
Adriana lived in Australia with her parents when she met Sergio whilst he was on holiday from Italy. Both originally from Italy decided to create a life in Australia. They got married and started their family when Christian was born in 2001. A few years later Alessia was born.
Active: Thank you for inviting me into your home and sharing your family story about Christian’s journey to become a professional football player.
Christian, just returned from Italy with his dad (Sergio) after visiting his relatives and having had an opportunity to do a trial at a professional club. However, before we go into that, we should step back in time a little. Sergio, I assume you played at one stage?
Sergio: I started 5-6 years old at Aoratorio. It’s a place where young kids go with the church. We had a local team there, and I started to kick the ball around with my friends.
Active: Did you play in a club and a league?
Sergio: Yes, I played in the local club in the town where I lived. I had my opportunity as well, to play in a professional club.
Sergio: Yes, but my head wasn’t the best [said smiling].
Active: What do you mean?
Sergio: I wasn’t concentrating on my school work. I was behind too much. I wasn’t the best, and that is why I try to teach Christian to be on the right track, and learning from my mistakes.
Active: Okay, so I guess you playing soccer from a young age rubbed off on Christian.
Sergio: Yes, Christian is born in September and he had his first ball in December before he could walk [all laughing]. Actually, we should still have it somewhere.
Active: So, you have a beautiful girl Alessia, but you are a bit younger then Christian aren’t you and school work would have started to build up?
Alessia: Yes, I am 14 and school is very hard.
Active: I can understand that. How do you feel with all the hype about Christian, and all these trainings, and all the focus is on what he wants to achieve?
Alessia: Of course I am happy for him to do that stuff, and the opportunities he has received. He has to work hard for what he wants. So, I guess …
Adriana: Well as a sister you are supportive. Alessia would have been at every game and she still is.
Active: Alessia, you have to teach my daughter how to support her brother [laughing].
Adriana: The only time she missed, was when she has been at dancing, but apart from that, she has been there for every game. In that respect, there was never a time when she said, “I don’t want to go.” We used to drag her out of bed at 7am or whatever time it was, regardless if it was cold and raining. She was always there.
Sergio: She is a good girl
Active: That IS a good girl, but I think it reflects on the parents too.
Adriana: With Christian, we sort of said your sister has supported him so he has to do something for her, so once a year he goes to her concerts.
Active: So, tell me a little about Christian, did he start at the Blue Eagles FC?
Sergio: Yes at 4 ½ years of age. The thing is, because he started to kick the ball around in the back yard from the age of 3. I thought he needed to get into a club to get a little bit more serious about soccer.
So back then it was NAB around the corner which is Eastern Utd now, but they didn’t have a club for kids that young. We tried Campbelltown but they were only taking kids from 5 ½ plus, so he was too young.
I knew a guy working with me, he told me that Blue Eagles had started with a young team, so he started there.
Active: He stayed there until he had some success in STIC (South Australia State Talent Identification Championship)?
Sergio: Yes, that was his first club which he stayed at, until he moved to Skillaroos. He started with the SAP (South Australia School Acquisition Program) once a week. Then at the age of 12 he got into the Skillaroos with Coach Richie Alagich.
Active: As a parent how did you feel when he was selected into this program?
Sergio: Christian has always played a year above. When he was 7 he played U9. His first coach liked him and put a lot of trust in him. Then the club selected him to get into the SAP so as a parent, who always loved soccer, I supported him all the time.
Active: I believe you have been at every single training and game.
Sergio: Of course, like I said I wasn’t good enough myself, and I hope that he will be better than me.
Active: Has he passed your skill level or? [both laughing]
Sergio: My suggestion is he will learn something from my mistakes because in Europe it is a completely different ball game.
Active: I want to ask you a few questions about Europe later on, but let’s continue. He had a couple of years in the Skillaroo squad (U13 & U14). How was his development?
Sergio: Could have been a little bit better, I think.
Active: Christian what were your highlights during your time in the Skillaroos?
Christian: Playing in the Nationals and playing in Tasmania. Travelling with the team and playing.
Active: How did school work and all the trainings work together?
Sergio: For me or for him?
Active: [laughing] Well let’s start with from a parent’s point of view.
Adriana: To be honest with you, he juggled it very well in the sense that he would finish school (Primary then) and come home. As you know Skillaroo trainings are not nearby, so we spent most of the time in the car. Even when he moved into year 8 he pretty much did a lot of homework in the car.
Adriana: Oh yeah, I remember the stories. It was pretty much 3 hours in the car when you think about it. So Christian would have to keep up with everything. He would speak to the teachers and they would tell him at times, that he would have to send the assignment in by 10pm that night. Basically, what he would do is to get into the car and do his study on the way.
He maintained his school work but it was really juggling within the time available.
Sergio: There is one thing you need to know. From a very young age we put forward a very simple rule for both kids. School must have priority over sport. Of course, in primary school it is easier.
We never had to write a note to the teacher that Christian did not complete his homework. Training was never an excuse. They had to learn to plan and be smart with their time. They are both good students and are doing well in both sports and dance.
Active: In the interview with Diego Pellegrini, he mentioned that Christian is mentally very strong. It is interesting as I would think that leaving Skillaroos, “THE FFSA ELITE system, people would think it is a sign of weakness. I would argue this as I think that it would take a lot of guts to leave an “Elite” system before the season ended.
I would like to get an understanding of the discussions which went around the dinner table during that time, and what went through your minds?
Christian: I was not enjoying it. I enjoyed the training the first years, but the second year I started to play out of position. I played every game as a right back. I spoke to the coach if I could get a chance in my preferred position. He gave me 10 minutes then he shifted me back to right back again and that was it.
Active: When did you start to really dream about becoming a professional player and thinking it might be possible?
Christian: Since I joined Eastern United, and Diego Pellegrini could give me the opportunity.
Active: Before that, during your Skillaroo time, you didn’t have that feeling?
Christian: I thought maybe one-day I could play in the A-League.
Sergio: He has always wanted to become a soccer player since he was little.
Active: I guess most kids dream of becoming professional soccer players, but I was thinking more on … when it started to become a reality, and when you started to do more training to chase your dream.
Adriana: Can I say from my perspective, because I was against leaving Skillaroos. I don’t know a lot about soccer but I took it as, he made a commitment, so you need to finish it. Sergio was open with him, that it was his decision and we would support him in whatever he does.
In the first year in Skillaroos, he was very happy, but in the 2nd year, he was not happy at all. He was struggling. He would go to trainings but he wouldn’t be very happy about it. Then we started a lot of talks about what we should do?
What does he want to do? Sergio said there was an opportunity at Eastern United. Diego Pellegrini had Christian attend a few trainings.
Adriana: In a sense I was stopping him from his dream
I did not want him to go there, and I didn’t even want to talk about it. I was adamant that he had to finish Skillaroos first. I saw Christian more stressed and extremely frustrated. He wanted to keep going, but he also wanted to do more.
There was a lot of tension within our family at the time, in the sense I was stopping him from his dream, Yes, I was! I was selfish because I knew if he went to Diego Pellegrini at Eastern United, something would come out of it and I didn’t want to lose him. I am being very honest here, but we sat down together and discussed it. Christian was very sure that this is what he wanted to pursue, and give it a go.
So, in the end we thought okay what do we do now? So, Sergio said to him “You need to make a decision now because you don’t want to leave it any later.” So that’s when Christian decided he wanted to leave Skillaroos, and we decided not to go to the Nationals in Coffs Harbour.
Sergio: Christian spoke with his coach for 40 minutes face to face. Basically, he told the coach that if you going to play me 10 min here and there, then I am not interested. I want to show what I can do and play where I can make an impact.
Active: That is good to have the guts to speak up.
Sergio: It is mature to see the coach face to face to talk about it. Then the coach basically said he can’t promise this. Well okay then that is it, I am out!
Adriana: So Christian made his decision.
Active: That is a big decision for a 14-year-old.
Sergio: I say thank God, he opened his eyes. I believe that you get to a certain age when you understand the game and understands the level he is, and he really understands what he wants to do with his game.
Obviously for him it was at that time, and I told him that “if you stay here, this will be the outcome and if you go there this is what will happen.” You can stay here and play with your friends or if you really want to become a professional and have a real go, these are the options you have and it’s your decision.
Adriana: Can I just say that it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of talking and heated discussions. Sometimes, I was a bit of a brick wall because he was committed so he should finish it. But to be honest with you, the changes in his development in his soccer, in the last year and a half have been amazing.
As I said I am not so knowledgeable in soccer but what I have seen in his development is extremely amazing and his strength as a player is excellent.
Active: You started with Diego Pellegrini pretty much straight away?
Christian: Yes, but only with training, because the transfer season was closed.
Active: Your decision also meant you could not play any more games for the rest of that season.
Christian: It was about one and half months.
Adriana: Can I also say we did try negotiating with Skillaroos, that although he didn’t want to be considered for Coffs Harbour, could he please still finish the season … but it was a no.
Active: Tell me a little what happened in the beginning when you started with Eastern United FC Academy? What did he say? What did he suggest you should do etc?
Christian: Well I remember training with the first team and Diego wasn’t really the coach at that time. I was only doing the academy with him and he said I needed a lot of improvement on my left foot … what else was it?
Sergio: Well basically Diego obviously has a lot of experience and he have played on a very high level. It didn’t take him that long to recognise Christian’s weaknesses. He started to work on his left foot in one on one sessions. Lots of juggling with his left foot only.
He was correcting small things he saw that were not quite right. He has an eye for the smaller details, and he doesn’t say well done if he doesn’t think it is perfect.
Christian is not the tallest boy so he had to improve his technique. Technique had to be his strength. He had to understand what his weaknesses were so he could improve.
Active: So how did you feel mentally when you started with Diego Pellegrini? Did you feel that you were on a path to achieve success and that you felt within yourself that you could do it?
Christian: Yes, I always listened to him and worked on correcting what he told me to work on.
Active: That would have been very exciting considering what you just have gone through.
Christian: I was upset that I didn’t finish Skillaroos, but that is the way it went.
Active: Sometimes you just have to make decisions, but you were very young and made a very big decision. Personally, I think you will benefit from that in the future. It’s always a lesson in everything we do.
You trained anytime you could, like every free half hour in rain, wind and sunshine.
Sergio: With Diego, you don’t miss many sessions.
Christian: If it was flooded we went to play futsal in Pembroke. We played an hour and a bit with the academy. Each session we focused on something specific. One training was only juggling, another training was only the left foot, another only shooting, and another chipping through balls in the air from different positions.
Active: So how was the training over in Italy?
Christian: It was very intense and the players went in so hard in challenges, even in trainings. They shoot from anywhere as well.
Active: When you say hard and compare it to here in Australia, how hard?
Christian: They trained as if it was a full-on game. They played for a spot in the 1st eleven. There are 22 fighting for a spot and they are really fighting.
Active: When you trialled, did you trial in any specific positions?
Christian: Yes, midfield.
Active: So, you were competing with a number of other players for the midfield role, where they from around Europe or only local Italians?
Christian: They were locals but they came after me. I did my first 3 weeks to be assessed and they came after that.
Sergio: We travelled around a little to show Christian the region and also took the opportunity to trial in a few different clubs.
Christian: There were also 3 other players from Columbia trialling and one was a midfielder.
The first week they didn’t talk to me
Active: How did you feel? You were arriving there and went into the change room for the first time. You have all these players around you, that see you as a threat. What was the atmosphere like?
Christian: Basically, the first week they didn’t talk to me at all, but slowly I started to talk a little bit. The first week I played with all born in 2000 and Franz Pjetri was there, he helped me. He kind of showed me around a bit.
Sergio: The first week he was training with the existing team so they were already an establish team. The 2nd or 3rd week the Columbians were there. Then after we left we knew there were some local players trialling to get in as well.
Active: Tell me, because this would be even more challenging, because you walked into an establish team. They would look at you thinking, who is this guy trying to steal a spot. You must have been mentally very strong to have the confidence to just believe in yourself. How did you feel at the time?
Christian: For the first week, I was nervous, also because I was training with a year up. When we played games, I was very nervous because I wanted to show what I could do. I just didn’t know what to expect from the other team either.
Active: I can imagine. Even Messi is nervous before games [All laughing].
Christian: When I trained with the 2001 team, no one talked to me at all. Then the week after, they started to talk a little. They started to ask me a few questions about how long I would be there and so on, so this made me more comfortable.
Active: Was it as you expected when you arrived?
Christian: I honestly was amazed. Technically they were great but as I had been there the year before as well, I knew a little. In the previous year, the 1999 age group had beaten Juventus and Milan. They were great, so I had some level of expectation.
The 2001 also won the league so they were really good.
Sergio: One thing when you end up playing A, B or C in junior, if you are in this club you have something special. I was amazed to see them.
Active: Did you connect with anyone over there?
Christian: Franz Pjetri who I knew from here in Adelaide.
Active: So how did you live there?
Christian: The club suggested a B&B hotel and I was lucky because Franz was just 100 meters away. The first night we didn’t know what was around there. We went out for dinner with him most of the nights for the first week.
Active: Did you do any school work while you were there, and how did that work with the school here?
Adriana: Initially they took a bit of time to get the work to him. He left in July, week 2 of the term, so it was a little bit difficult to give him a lot of work. But through email and the school portal and through my connections, we made sure things happened. Through Skype and things, he would do training and home work.
Christian: We got up and had breakfast and then I did as much homework as I possible could before lunch. Then I had lunch and then went to the pitch.
Active: Did you train every afternoon?
Christian: Yes, it started at 3:30 to 5:30, very intense training
Active: Where you fit enough when you started?
Christian: Diego knew what I needed to do, so I was ready.
Adriana: What I liked as a parent, is that Diego did not only prepare him physically but also mentally. Often, he would have chats with him.
Active: I found this interesting, you have to be mentally prepared. You can be prepared to work your hardest, but walking into a change room at 15/16 years old in a different country, into an establish team must be extremely intimidating. Adding to this, the aim of taking another player’s spot! Wow that takes mental toughness.
Sorry I can sit here for hours talking to you, but we need to wrap things up. From a family perspective, what advice can you give to other families who have a son or daughter, who have a dream of becoming a professional soccer player?
Sergio: The first thing is that the family has to understand what the child really wants. Second fair enough, if the child has a dream but the parents has to stay with both feet firmly on the ground. What I am trying to say, is that in this country, soccer is not the number 1 sport.
I can see a lot of parents thinking they have a Maradona living at home or Walter Zenga as keeper or Gianluigi Buffon, and the parents have to support the dream but also be real. They are not a Maradona or Buffon, parents keep saying well done when it is not well done.
The child must know that if he goes over to Europe, it is not going to be like Campbelltown or Metro Stars. He needs to be extremely good, and also be mentally prepared. The whole family needs to understand this, be supportive, fight for it and cope with it.
Active: During your time with Diego and all this training in pouring rain and studying, you must have been tiered. Was there any time you felt like … can we just have a break for a week?
Christian: Not really, No never!
Active: You are so determined, and love what you do. Do you have any advice? You have been playing with your mates, many of them probably wish they had your opportunity and do what you do. What would you say to players who really want to become professional football players?
Christian: If they are good technically and they think they are ready and really want to be a professional player, and also have the full support from their parents, I believe Diego would provide an opportunity for them.
Adriana: So, what you are saying is that you need a good mentor?
Christian: Yes, they need someone who has had the experience and played in Europe.
Sergio: Parents have to be careful, so they don’t destroy their kids. Parents love their kids so much, so they tell them that they are so great but you must be fair and real.
When I coached him at a very early age at Blue Eagles, I said he did well but it was always a BUT to always improve. Sometimes he said you put me down, but I said no, I want to help you and told him he needs to improve.
Active: As parents, I think in particular with our first born, every year is a new year for parents too. We all experience new things with our children. This is one reason I really wanted to interview you. Every child is different and the way they react is different too so it is great that you share your story.
Adriana: Also, considering the advice from a mother, the fact is, I understood that this is Christian’s dream and I have to let him go. At the same time, I really admire him and I see his commitment.
I deal with a lot of teenagers because I am a school teacher. What I see in my son is that commitment for school work, friends (a little, bit but not a lot) and soccer because he plays 6 to 7 days a week. I am very proud of him because he knows his commitments and it can be lonely. He makes a lot of sacrifices.
Christian: If you want to do well at both school and soccer you need to sacrifice a lot.
Adriana: There is not much time for anything else. That’s what I can see as a parent. He is doing really well and I hope it works out and we just have to see.
Active: Can I ask you Alessia, as a sister what advice can you offer to other sisters or brothers who have someone who is a fanatic about being a professional.
Alessia: Obviously you need to support them and encourage them. But as a sister or brother you can’t really do much.
Adriana: I guess what you are saying is apart from supporting and being there for him. I think she has grown with him. I also want to say that both are very humble kids. Christian has always been a humble player and never bragged about going to Italy.
Sergio: That is one of his strengths.
Active: Thank you so much for sharing your story. You really have given the readers your hearts by being very open, even sharing the most difficult times.
Adriana & Sergio: You are welcome, now we just wait and see what happens next.
Note: This interview was done while waiting for an Italian club to offer him a contract.
Since this interview, Christian did get a contract with the Italian professional club Triestina and he moved to Italy in July 2017 prepared and ready for the new season and new life in Italy.
We wish Christian the best of luck in chasing his dreams.
“Off the Pitch with Active” is a program of interviews with people involved in junior sport for the benefit of children’s development. I hope my stories and interviews will help both parents and players gain further knowledge, to help them achieve their best potential in sport and in their life.
Participating in team sports from an early age, contributes to a healthy wellbeing. Sports makes people feel more positive. It is a scientific fact, chemicals are released in our bodies while exercising and playing sports. This chemical reaction may also increase confidence in school and life in general.
In this program Active Illustrated shares experience and wisdom from current and past players, and educators related to the topic of junior sport.
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5th Mar ’17 Off the Pitch with Active: A Taste Of the Big League Part 2 with Chris Higgins continue his story and talk about when he came back to Australia and started coaching. He discuss his coaching philosophy and how he work with junior keepers. If you enjoyed part 1, you should not miss part 2.
21st March ’17 Off the Pitch with Active; Interview with Diego Pelegrini; the Mind Counts for 70%. Diego talks about his career in Italy and the feeling he had lifting the EUFA Cup trophy at San Siro Stadium with Parma. He also talks about the tough times and what it takes to become a professional player.
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