AEK may be OK after the Greeks bear gifts

AEK's flag will outnumber opposition fans in 2013-14
AEK’s flag will outnumber opposition fans in 2013-14

Greece is a troubled nation: debt-stricken, socially uneasy and lurching from crisis to crisis. There’s no telling where it might end, but the odds are stacked against it making a full recovery. Indeed, the most likely scenario is that the future will resemble something like the distant past. That’s a daunting prospect when you’ve been used to importing German cars in their thousands.

On the football field, Greek football peaked with the shock of all shocks that was the 2004 European Championship triumph in Lisbon. If that is still hard to believe, for fans in the crisis-torn Greek capital the decline of AEK Athens has become somewhat representative of the nation’s plight.

AEK are one of the “big three” in Athens, alongside Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. They have won the Greek title 11 times, the last occasion being 1994, and they’ve been Greek Cup winners 14 times. In recent years, they have been a fixture in the top five, but last season, disaster struck on and off the pitch.

In stark contrast to recent events, a club that has been brought to its knees by financial crisis, scandal and relegation for the first time in its 89-year history, has been told that it will receive a new stadium courtesy of the local government. The Attican government has pledged to provide the club with EUR 20m towards a stadium at its traditional home at Nea Filadelphia. In a country that is all but bankrupt, it does seem a strange and misguided gesture.

AEK were relegated last season after having points docked for an especially nasty episode of crowd violence. The club’s financial state is so bad that they have filed for bankruptcy and voluntarily dropped to the third level of Greek football, which equates to amateur status. AEK’s story is a very high profile example of how the country’s economic disaster is affecting Greek sport – crowds have slumped and clubs cannot gain the credit they need from banks. With unemployment high and disposable incomes dramatically down, attendances in the Super League have dropped to an average of less than 5,000. AEK, traditionally one of the better supported clubs, have averaged around 10,000 in their borrowed home of the Olympic Stadium.

The promise of a new stadium, coupled with the return of shipping magnate Dimitris Melissanidis, may prove to be the catalyst for AEK’s revival. Melissanidis aims to clear the club’s debts but will aim to keep the first team squad together for 2013-14. Some of the club’s past squad are taking legal action over non-payment of wages, adding to the turmoil.

The crowd trouble in the April meeting with Panthrakikos, which led to three points being docked in 2012-13 and a further two  next season, was bad enough, but AEK’s name was also dragged through the mud by 20 year old midfielder Giorgos Katidis, who threw a fascist salute after scoring a goal against Veria. He received a lifetime international ban for his action and looks set to go into exile in Italy. Interestingly, Katidis claimed he didn’t know who Hitler was!

AEK may have a long way to go back, but they will be a giant club in the circles they are about to move in. Interim president, Kostas Nestoridis has promised AEK fans, however, that within two years, AEK will be playing back in Europe. That’s a bold promise when they have to win two promotions to get back in the Super League! By the time that happens, what shape will Greek football be in?….more importantly, what shape will Greece be in?

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