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Dec292011

Michal Papadopulos - The seven minute starlet

BY STEFAN VLIEGER / @StefanVlieger

Highbury, 2nd December 2003, Arsenal versus Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two youngsters celebrate Arsenal's fifth goal in the 88th minute of this League Cup game. One of them, announced by the commentator as 'Fabrice Fabregas', has just scored his first goal for Arsenal and will later become one of the best midfielders in the world. For the other, the Wolves game turns out to be his first and only appearance for Arsenal. He's now under contract at a small club in Russia. His name is Michal Papadopulos.

Born in the Czech Republic town of Ostrava on the 14th of April 1985, Papadopulos made his formative steps as a footballer with local side Banik Ostrava. A promising talent he was scouted by Arsene Wenger’s team in 2003 and offered a loan deal by the Gunners at the age of 18 in July of that year.

His progress in London was rapid. After a few games in the Gunners Reserve team, he was included in Arsenal’s squad for the Carling Cup clash with Wolves in December and made his debut as a substitute replacing match-winner Jeremie Aliadiere. He only entered the field of play with seven minutes left, but within 90 seconds was in the thick of the action. After a Sylvain Wiltord ball flicked past the opposition goalkeeper the goal was left gaping for the young striker. Alas, with 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas in a better position it is the Spaniard who netted thus sealing himself a place in history as the club’s youngest ever goal scorer.

After that cold December evening, Papadopulos never appeared in Arsenal's first team again. In the summer of 2004, it was announced that his loan deal would not be extended and he returned to Banik Ostrava.

Back in his home country, Papadopulos won the Czech Football Cup in 2005 and a few months later signed a contract at Bayer Leverkusen. In the two and a half years that followed, he made 19 appearances in the Bundesliga, but only netted a few times while on loan at Energie Cottbus. He moved to Mlada Boleslav in the summer of 2008 and soon after made his debut for the Czech national team against England at Wembley. After one season, in which he netted ten goals in 27 appearances for Mlada Boleslav, he signed a deal with Sportclub Heerenveen in Holland.

In the autumn of 2009, during my last Journalism study year, I was an apprentice at Friesch Dagblad, a local newspaper in the region of Friesland. I wrote a few articles about Sportclub Heerenveen, so I also went to their training ground a few times to watch the players train. The club had had a disastrous start of the season, but one player stood out from the rest not just in matches, but also in training sessions. Papadopulos was scoring easily from all possible angles, with his left foot, right foot and especially with his head.

Heerenveen played Hertha BSC in the Europa League in November 2009 and I had to write an article with post match reactions from a few players. The home side lost 3-2 and Papadopulos scored both goals for Heerenveen. "We lost the game, so I can't say I can enjoy my two goals. However, I'm satisfied with my achievements so far here", he told me after the game.

At that moment, the striker was the club's topscorer with eleven goals in all competitions. His bad mood about the result changed into a smile on his face when I asked him about his time at Arsenal. "It was fantastic to play and train with Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. I was young and I learned a lot from them. I had a great time at Arsenal. Unfortunately, I didn't play many games because of an injury and tough competition with other players."

Three days after the Hertha BSC game, Heerenveen played an away game against FC Utrecht. In that game in Utrecht it turned out he was scoring his last two goals for Heerenveen. The club appointed Ron Jans as their new coach in the summer of 2010 and for some reason he completely ignored Papadopulos. Heerenveen decided to sell the player in January this year to Zhemchuzhina Sochi in the Russian First Division. However, Papadopulos' new club had to withdraw from the competition in August and he moved to FC Rostov.

About a month ago, the now 26-year-old striker scored his first goal for Rostov. Papadopulos has not featured very regularly, it again appears he has found a club where he spends most of his time on the bench.

Would his career have been different if Papadopulos and not Fabregas had scored against Wolves? We will never know. Hopefully he will find a new club where they give him the chance to show his qualities. He wasn’t an Arsenal player for nothing.

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