BY MARK GODFREY – EDITOR
While a galvanized Arsenal turned on the style to dismantle Olympiacos in Piraeus on Wednesday to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League for the 16th consecutive year, it’s a story from the opposite side of the great Athens metropolis that has caught the eye recently.
The side vanquished by the Gunners are currently leading the Greek Superleague with a 100% record and are already seemingly set for a sixth successive title win, barring any unlikely slip ups over the coming months. Olympiacos’ most hated rivals are Panathinaikos; the two contest what is known as the ‘derby of the eternal enemies’ and the pair have shared all of the last 20 championships solely between them. Yet, it is Athens’ third great club side that have muscled their way back into the picture after a period of massive upheaval that threatened to see them dissolve forever in the turmoil of Greece’s crippling financial situation.
AEK Athens were formed in 1924 by Greek refugees from Constantinople in the wake of the Turkish War of Independence and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, and had, until 2013 participated in every top flight season. They’ve taken more than their fair share of the spoils in the great ancient capital; Greek champions on 11 occasions (the last time in 1993-94) and 14-times cup winners, the modern era has been a very mixed bag for AEK.
In 1999, an earthquake seriously damaged their home of 75 years, the Nikos Goumas stadium in the Athens suburb of Nea Filadelfia. As a consequence, the club decided to demolish it in 2003 to become tenants in the newly-renovated 70,000 capacity Olympic Stadium. In 2013, AEK unveiled plans for a new purpose built arena called the Hagia Sophia Stadium – after the famous structure in Istanbul, a direct reference to their Byzantine roots – which is to be situated on the same land as their original home.
Funding for the 65million Euro project has been boosted by a 20million Euro contribution from the local Attica Regional Authority, yet construction was delayed due to complaints about the plans from local residents and the Municipal Council of Nea Filadelfia-Chalkdonia. These were eventually rejected by the courts and AEK hope to move into the completed stadium in 2017.
All this talk of a brand new home and their current lofty league position (second in the Superleague at time of writing) would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Wrangling over the club’s finances and ownership had rumbled on for over a decade when, in 2013 – amid on and off field chaos and plummeting attendances – AEK were relegated for the first time in their illustrious history. They were also deducted three league points for a pitch invasion by furious supporters who chased opposing Panthrakikos players off the pitch in an end of season league game.
Subsequent bankruptcy forced AEK officials to take the unusual step of self-relegating the club even further down the pecking order. Instead of picking themselves up and dusting themselves off in Greece’s second division at the start of 2013-14, they returned in the amateur leagues – one level lower than where they should really have been. When at their lowest ebb, AEK came back under the control of Dimitris Melissanidis, a former club president and billionaire oil and shipping magnate. He was instrumental in the transfer of ownership to Enosi Filon AEK (Union Friends of AEK), a non-profit supporters group.
Unsurprisingly, AEK strolled to success in the amateur ranks and then, last season, they earned another promotion, this time back to the Superleague putting an end to an absence of two years. This on-field resurgence has coincided with a much more stable period in the boardroom and on the club’s balance sheet – is it any wonder with such a wealthy backer as Melissanidis helping to steer the ship these days?
All appeared to be going well this season too on their top flight return until Euro 2004 winner Traianos Dellas – who guided the team to back-to-back promotions – unexpectedly resigned as manager after a heavy defeat to league leaders Olympiacos in October. His position has since been filled by the former Brighton and Sunderland boss Gus Poyet, who has signed on until the summer of 2016.
The Uruguayan’s early results have been good, with a Champions League place seemingly within AEK’s grasp. However, Poyet’s name has been linked with a return to the English Premier League and the vacant Swansea City job; rumours that have been poo-pooed by Poyet himself – for now at least.
While hopes of domestic silverware and a return to European competition are seemingly attainable, the fact that AEK Athens have just managed to survive at all, with the backdrop of Greece’s economic disaster mirroring their own, is nothing short of miraculous given the situation they were in just two years ago. And with money in the coffers to finance a new stadium, the chances are that AEK’s journey back to the top may not be done yet and Olympiacos’ recent Superleague title monopoly may be under greater threat than for some time.