Once-proud AEK Athens hit rock bottom

Posted by Chris Paraskevas

GettyImagesAEK Athens fans invaded the pitch against Panthrakikos

One wonders what judgement the Constantinopolitan refugees who formed the club we know today as AEK Athens would pass on the current institution and the troubles it is beset with. They cultivated their Hellenic culture in the neighbourhoods of Tatavla and Galata some 140 years ago, through sport and other pastimes.

Those places now belong to modern-day Istanbul, their previous inhabitants migrating 'back' to Greece in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War, a historical event referred to by Greeks as the Asia Minor Catastrophe. It was back in Greece where former members of Constantinopolitan athletic clubs such as Megas Alexandros and Pera would form modern-day AEK Athens in 1924.

Sadly for those cultural guardians and pioneers of Greek football, their club -- which espouses the values of a complex and plural migrant history -- has been infiltrated and destroyed by hooligans and, at various points, a hierarchy mired in controversy.

Sunday saw the nadir of what has been the darkest chapter in the history of a once-proud football club and a cultural and sporting institution. Faced with the very real prospect of relegation for the first time in its 89-year history, AEK hosted fellow strugglers Panthrakikos in a must-not-lose Greek Super League match, the penultimate of the season.

At the helm of the team was Euro 2004 winner and former AEK darling Traianos Dellas. The central defender had been hastily appointed as manager following the knee-jerk sacking of Ewald Lienen, who oversaw a disastrous defeat away against PAS Giannina the previous weekend. At one stage Lienen appeared to have steered the club away from the drop zone before various factors on and off the pitch pulled his side back into the mire.

In the 87th minute against Panthrakikos, disaster struck as promising young defender Mavroudis Bougaidis turned the ball into his own net. Under normal circumstances, at a normal club, the 19-year-old would have had a few more seconds to lay heartbroken on the pitch as the gravity of his mistake sank in.

Not so at AEK, whose fans decided to invade the playing field, chasing off understandably fearful players and officials. Bougaidis, realizing what might happen to him at the hands of these invaders, quickly sprung up and sprinted for the players' tunnel.

Given what was at stake and the emotion of the situation, AEK begged referee Stavros Tritsonis to restart the match. After a 90-minute delay, during which officials attempted to empty the stadium completely, Tritsonis abandoned the game. Panthrakikos, meanwhile, were already on the way home.

The likely result of the pitch invasion will be a points deduction, following a disciplinary committee hearing next week, that will mathematically relegate AEK to at least the second tier of Greek football. In truth, an away match against European hopefuls Atromitos Sunday was always going to be difficult, and given results elsewhere this weekend, AEK were favourites to go down anyway.

Yet, given the club's modern history, it is tragically appropriate that these ‘fans' are the ones to have directly condemned AEK.

I have written before on these pages about the characters who have come to slowly eat away at the soul of this football institution over the past two decades: from multiple presidents charged with tax fraud to phantom saviours who promised financial backing but left AEK cash-strapped and on its knees.

The fans, however, have never been the focus of discussion, though they have made a considerable contribution to the plight AEK currently finds itself in. They forced the resignation of club legend Dusan Bajevic on more than one occasion, making disgusting threats against his family and then physically assaulting him. It is a wonder he bothered to take the reins of the club three times, given his treatment at the hands of these individuals.

Pitch invasions have been a fairly regular occurrence as well. It happened when they assaulted Bajevic simply because his side lost a pre-season match against a lower-league side three years ago and it happened again when AEK were on the verge of winning the Greek Cup against Atromitos two years ago. Hardly surprising, then, that this would happen in the face of impending relegation.

How can a football club be expected to function properly against the backdrop of such mindless behaviour? It lurks behind every corner and the surrounding tension is visceral.

It isn't helped by the financial and leadership uncertainty that has led to AEK's current malaise. The club's debt has been quoted at 35 million euros. A long-touted takeover of the club by London businessman Keith Harris has finally collapsed. An entire first-team squad was jettisoned for no financial return during the summer. Players haven't been paid wages. An experienced manager was sacked with just two games remaining. Former presidents such as Andreas Dimitrelos have been investigated, and in some cases arrested, on account of the club's unpaid tax bill.

Giorgos Katidis was banned for this fascist salute
GettyImagesGiorgos Katidis was banned for this fascist salute

The backs-to-the-wall mentality that should have permeated throughout the club has failed to materialize. On the eve of his sacking, Lienen spoke of players refusing to perform on the pitch because of the money owed them. He pointed out AEK weren't the only Greek club to be struggling financially within the current economic climate and that players should essentially swallow their pride and deliver on the pitch. Barely a day later and he had departed.

Ignoring the fact that Giorgos Katidis worsened the situation on and off the pitch with his infamous fascist salute, for which he was banned for life from playing for the national team and suspended by his club for the season, a further layer of farce has been added to the situation.

In the wake of the impending and rightful punishment of the club for the pitch invasion, AEK's board has unanimously voted to take action against Tritsonis. That's right: AEK's official statement was not in condemnation of hooliganism, but instead spoke of doing what is necessary to protect and preserve the club's "history".

Incredibly, AEK seem willing to take Tritsonis to court over his decision to abandon the game, and a hearing will take place on the matter this week. The Athenians want the game completed. Police statements will be used as evidence against Tritsonis, who will likely have his credentials as an official attacked.

If a smear campaign and ugly courtroom battle eventuates, it will represent yet another new low for AEK. Talk should be of liquidation, of a Rangers-style rebirth and of weeding out the hooligan elements that have so long poisoned the basic operations of this club. It is a process that could take years and that would necessitate the Athenians spending time in the lower tiers of Greek football. It is undoubtedly the only sustainable and legitimate way forward in the long term.

The endearing images of this now-infamous match against Panthrakikos will be of the fans. The contrast between those who chose to remain in their seats and shed tears at the realization of the situation, and those who are but one cancerous part of a club that in its current state is of little use to itself and Greek football in general.

And the true tragedy of the situation? The manner in which the universal spirit and values of those Constantinopolitan migrants continues to be tarnished.

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