“The very idea and club of AEK is dying," shrilled the AEK Athens supporters’ club Original 21 in December, but even the most pessimistic of fans wouldn't have predicted the clubs demise would continue so rapidly, beginning with the sacking of Vangelis Vlachos in September after only three months in the job.
Greek Cup winners in 2011 and stalwarts of European competition for the previous 20 years, AEK’s position as one of the forces of the Hellenic game came to an abrupt end with relegation from the top flight this month, for the first time in the club’s illustrious 89-year history. And, as with the passing of so many greats, the club’s potential for failure was in evidence even from the season’s beginning, as it struggled to attract investors to ease the club’s crippling debt.
Before a ball had even been kicked, AEK were expelled from European competition in June 2012 due to UEFA licensing restrictions regarding their finances and handed a €150,000 fine, forcing them to sell the majority of their experienced players to raise funds. AEK found themselves in the unaccustomed position of looking up at the rest of the table instead of peering down. And without the additional money Europe’s elite competition provides, club president Andreas Dimitrelos was fully aware of the size of the hole his club had landed in, leaving memories of thrilling draws with Real Madrid’s Galacticos in the 2002 Champions League, a rose tinted memory and no longer an optimistic aim for the season, after their place was handed to European debutants Asteras Tripoli.
"It is a black page in the history of AEK," Dimitrelos told a press conference in June following UEFA's decision. "We have a debt of €35m (£23m) and €23m (£18.5m) of this is owed to the state".
Forced to shed almost an entire first-team in the summer to secure a domestic league licence and preserve their top-flight status, and restricted to only buying domestic players under the age of 22, newly appointed manager Ewald Lienen faced a momentous challenge. Greek international midfielder Grigoris Makos was one of the first to leave in a €465,000 move to 1860 Munich, but such was the crippling state of his former club’s finances that he took €165,000 of the fee due to a debt of unpaid wages dating back to last season. Former Chelsea and Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen’s contract was terminated by mutual consent and he left for Cercle Brugge and a similar deal was agreed with Colombian international midfielder Fabian Vargas who moved to Independiente.
It was the sale of the talented 21-year-old defender Kostas Manolas to rivals Olympiacos on a free transfer though that irked the AEK fans enough to protest. And on Friday 14th December, this ill feeling was evident for all to see when the supporters’ club Original 21 occupied the struggling Greek club's training facilities in protest at the failure of the administration to secure new investors and reverse the club’s decline. "The very idea and club of AEK is dying," a statement from the protesters said. "We have decided to put an end to the rape of our dreams by making an occupation of the club's offices and training centre in Spata” the club’s multi-million pound training complex. "We want to put an end to the attack, the humiliation and shaming of our childhood love as a prostitute of Greek football. We now take matters into our own hands by giving an ultimatum to those who are primarily responsible for the misery of AEK."
An immediate remedy for the supporters’ malady wouldn't arrive though, and it was a group of fans who ultimately contributed to their own club’s downfall. A brief resurgence in the New Year helped them temporarily escape the relegation mire thanks to victories over Panionios, OFI Crete and FC Xanthi. It wasn't enough to save Lienen’s job though and he was given his P45 after seven months in charge and was replaced by former Sheffield United centre-back Traianos Dellas.
Prior to that, a moment of celebratory madness from 20-year-old Giorgos Katidis on March 16 would symbolically signal the end of AEK’s mini-renaissance, as the club would fail to win another game all season, taking just two points from their last eight games. After the scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory over Veria, Katidis celebrated with a Nazi salute to fans, resulting in a lifetime ban from the national team, a five game suspension and $50,000 fine, to which he replied with an unbelievably naive twitter statement: "I am not a fascist and would not have done it if I had known what it meant". The Greek football federation described it as "a severe provocation" that insulted "all the victims of Nazi bestiality", but Lienen didn't see it the same way: "He is a young kid who does not have any political ideas. He most likely saw such a salute on the internet or somewhere else and did it without knowing what it means".
The club escaped a points deduction for the incident, however, such a penalty would befall the club the following month, for which players could understandably blame marauding fans and those exuberant supporters could equally blame the profligate players. A relegation battle against Panthrakikos on April 14 would provide the setting and Mavroudis Bougaidis' own goal four minutes from time worsened his side’s plight, which was exacerbated by the invading fans incensed with their club’s desperate descent, who forced the players to sprint for the cover of the changing rooms. The game was eventually abandoned by referee Stavros Tritsonis due to the “unusually catastrophic state of the pitch and surrounding area”. Panthrakikos were awarded a 3-0 win, while AEK were docked three points – suspended until the season’s end on appeal – ensuring the club’s slim hopes of survival rested on a win against Atromitos on the final day of the season and a lenient Greek FA. The club which AEK so comfortably swept aside in the 2011 Greek Cup final though inflicted a cruel revenge on Dellas’ team with a narrow 1-0 win to condemn the eleven time league winners to life in the second tier.
Without significant investment though to aid the club’s revival in the grand 69,000 capacity Olympic Stadium and forced to start the next league season with a two point deficit, Athens appears to have fallen. A look to the club’s badge though which features a double-headed eagle clutching a sword, suggests the phoenix will once again rise, but the club’s initial battle will not be on the pitch, but instead in the boardroom.
Read more from Dan at Three Match Ban.