Learning from your mistakes is an important life skill. In Greek football, one manager never got the message. James Gillespie reports.
The word on the street is that the Greek Superleague is the best it’s ever been, and it’s true too. The traditional dominance of the Athenian giants has shrunk, and the rise of teams from outside the capital has brought a wider natural fan base to the fore in Greek football. The gulf in class has shrunk and the league is more competitive than ever. Not only that, but there are Greek teams performing in Europe, Panathinaikos’ 5-1 defeat to Barcelona notwithstanding
However, in many ways the position of the manager in Greek football is still just as volatile and subject to emotion as it ever was. Nothing has changed in the case of Dusan Bajevic, three times manager of AEK, and twice of their deadly rivals Olympiakos. All in a day’s work for a football manager in Greece, right?
Bajevic quit AEK this season for the third time in what might seem like extraordinarily strange circumstances, that is for anyone who doesn’t know the long and complex relationship he holds with the club. Just managing a club three times in 13 years is exceptional enough for most.
AEK began the season under Bajevic on a bad run of form. After four games they were 13th out of 16, with only four points. The start is poor enough to justify the resignation of any manager, especially in Greece, and that is exactly what happened, but there’s more to it than that. The story behind the scenes is what makes this case so fascinating.
Bajevic was attacked on the pitch in a pre-season friendly, and in many ways this shocking episode set a deeply negative tone for the start of the new season. The situation is surprising for the fact that AEK finished a decent fourth last season.
Bear in mind that Bajevic is a living legend for AEK, he led the club to two championships and the Cup between ’77 and ‘81, and as a manager he led them to four championships and another Greek Cup. These are all achievements not to be taken lightly.
One thing that sets Dusan apart from any other hero is his history of betrayal. The man actually left AEK for the first time to join hated rivals Olympiakos, and AEK fans never forgave him for his actions.
At the time AEK fans demonstrated their unhappiness at his departure for Olympiakos in the derby of January 1997. In that match he was pelted with oranges, eggs and yoghurt. The fans also waved money printed with his face. Football is an emotional game, and that the defection of a hero to your most hated enemies resulted in such scenes is not unexpected.
What was unexpected was Bajevic returning to AEK in 2002. The hard line supporters still held an intense hatred and as a result he received death threats, and was the focus of mass protests. Not only this, but Dusan was pelted with chairs and coffee at games. Eventually he gave in after two years of abuse, when fans abused his wife at a game against Iraklis. Anyone would think this was enough for one man, but to the fury of AEK fans he again led Olympiakos to glory in 2006, winning the double.
In life an important skill is to learn from past mistakes. Sadly Bajevic hasn’t picked this one up, and decided to reignite to his love-hate relationship by rejoining AEK in November 2008.
This time around the fans reacted in a similar way, and although Bajevic led them to European qualification at the end of 2010, there were movements agitating for the departure of the ‘traitor’ Bajevic. The pitch side attacks against Kallithea were an outpouring of anger, but they were also an astute method in the disruption of harmony within the squad. Four games into the season and the disgruntled AEK hardcore had succeeded in pushing the manager out of the club.
In his place AEK appointed former Sevilla manager Manolo Jimenez, just two weeks ago, and he was typically mobbed by fans at the airport in the Greek style, a la Riera. He kicked off his AEK career with a 4-0 win over a good Aris side, but subsequently lost 3-0 to Anderlecht in the Europa League. The team now faces a massive test on Sunday against champions Panathinaikos in his second league game.
What is obvious from this tale is that you should never rub a Greek up the wrong way, because they might never forgive you. Bajevic worked valiantly for the cause, but ultimately he was never going to succeed in the sort of atmosphere where you get coffee and chairs thrown at you.
The hooligan element prevailed, and this is an example not only of the power of supporter opinion in Greece, but also of the shotgun approach to hiring and firing managers. What you get is a hilariously stupid video of fat men chasing a coach, and a team who might be on an upward trajectory, but cannot be particularly stable. All in all, it's just another plot twist in the drama that is Greek football.
James writes regularly for IBWM and is also site editor for the excellent ArseSpeak