The former Sheffield waiter taking on England at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup
A former Sheffield restaurant waiter is hoping to serve up a shock with underdogs Greece at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
The Greeks will be based in the Steel City for their first-ever World Cup and are scheduled to play England, who were runners-up last time out, at Bramall Lane on 6 November.
Stafanos Bastas lived in Sheffield from 2017 to 2019 and juggled shifts at Browns in the Peace Gardens with stints at Doncaster and Hemel Stags, who trained in the city.
“I'm so excited," said Bastas, now living in France and playing in the country’s top division for rugby league.
“I hope everything's going to be OK with Covid and hopefully we're going to have people watching. If that happens, everything is going to be amazing.
The 27-year-old prop regularly walked past Bramall Lane to get to his then-home in Heeley.
“When I found out we were playing at Bramall Lane I was through the roof, I was jumping,” he added. “It's going to be a massive event for us against world-class players – a lifetime experience.
“As a team we talk about it right now. We are so excited to play in that stadium.”
He will also have the chance to return to his old stomping ground in Doncaster, with group games against France and Samoa set to take place at the Keepmoat Stadium.
"I am really happy that I spent some time in Sheffield. It's a nice city with very nice people, very welcoming. It's quite multinational with the students around.
"I had the opportunity to learn about Yorkshire culture and the opportunity to try Yorkshire Tea and food, like the traditional Sunday roast. It's nice and interesting with the gravy.”
Bastas also had a two-month trial with Sheffield Eagles while in England.
Eagles head coach Mark Aston described him as “a big unit with loads of potential”.
“It was a really, really nice and intense experience,” Bastas, who only started playing rugby league after he turned 18, recalled.
“Sheffield Eagles is such a professional club and has so much potential. I have to thank everyone so much in the club that they offered me the opportunity. I had a good time there.
“Mark Aston is a very, very good coach, very passionate about the sport. He's very intelligent in what he's doing and has lots of experience coming from his playing days and now from his coaching.”
With just 14 caps, Bastas is the most-capped Greek rugby league player.
The sport was only formed in Greece in 2003 but has a chequered history, which resulted in the national team being banned from playing in their home country from 2016 until last year.
Its previous governing body – the Hellenic Federation of Rugby League – which was affiliated to Greece’s then-government, was expelled from the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) in 2016 for mismanagement of funds.
Despite getting the green light from the RLEF, the Greek government subsequently refused to recognise the Greek Rugby League Association as the country’s new governing body for the sport.
Instead, it backed the Hellenic Modern Pentathlon Federation run by Tasos Pantazidis – the man in charge of the Hellenic Federation of Rugby League before its RLEF member status was withdrawn.
The politics that ensued resulted in some of Greece’s home qualifying matches having to be played at midnight in secret locations to avoid them being shut down by law enforcement.
“It was very, very difficult for us at the time, we had to play quite late and sometimes we had police officers arriving,” said Bastas.
“It's stupid. Why should the sport be illegal? Everyone was frustrated about that. I couldn't let my friends and family come and watch me, imagine an occasion like that [World Cup qualifiers]. Hopefully now everything is going to change.”
Pantazidis was handed a 16-month ban from being involved with any sport last year after he was found to have “culpably violated the principles of sporting traditions and Olympic ideal.”
After qualifying amid the strife surrounding the sport in their home country, the Greek team – themselves innocent of any wrongdoing – could be the side fans take to their hearts this autumn.
They are the lowest-ranked team in their group and several Australia-based players pay out of their own pockets to travel and play for their country.
Staff and players also receive no expenses while on international duty.
"We do sacrifice a lot to play for the Greek team but on the other hand the feedback we get to represent our country is quite unique - I think it's worth it,” said Bastas, who is originally from Karystos, a small coastal town near Athens.
“It's special because of the sacrifices we do. The connection is even greater because we don't do it for personal glory, we just do it for the team, for the country. We are more like a family.”
He adds: “I do believe we will get a shock. I don't know against what team but I think we will compete.
“I think they will underestimate us. They don't expect us to win, not even one game. They think we will be weak and easy, thinking that isn't a bad thing for us.”
The 2021 Rugby League World Cup will take place at venues across England between Saturday, 23 October and Saturday, 27 November.
As well as the Greece Men’s team, Sheffield will host the current wheelchair champions, France, as well as wheelchair sides from Scotland, Wales and the USA.
Tickets go on general sale from April 6.