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Sunday, September 9, 2012
AEK haunted by mistakes of the past

Chris Paraskevas

There is a Persian proverb, which says that there are four things every person has more of than they know: sins, debt, years and foes. For every president of AEK Athens over the past decade and perhaps even before it, no saying has better encapsulated their plight at the helm of one of the most schizophrenic, mismanaged and fascinating football clubs in the world. For this is a club with a history that stretches back beyond its official conception 88 years ago in Athens. It was borne out of the Greek community of the city of Istanbul, which was then known as Constantinople. Since being formed in 1924 as the Atheltic Union of Constantinople - for which the acronym 'AEK' stands - the club has established itself as one of Greece's most famous sporting institutions. But for all the golden periods, that have brought a total of 11 league titles and 14 Greek Cup triumphs, there have been some considerably dark chapters in AEK's history. Most of these have come in the past 20 years, during which fans, presidents and players have at various points all been culpable for mistakes that have caused embarrassment and in some cases irreparable damage. This is a club that counts amongst its fans people who engage in the business of hurling items that range from scooters to portable toilets at whoever risks their ire. One of their former presidents, Makis Psomiadis, was famous for three things: his favoured cigar, defrauding €11 million from AEK's accounts and arriving at the house of iconic player Demis Nikolaidis with a gang of bodyguards and threatening physical violence. In 2004, that very player would end his playing career prematurely and take over as president. His team of investors would strike a deal with the Greek government that would write-off a significant portion of the club's crippling debt. Had Nikolaidis not succeeded, AEK would have suffered the indignity of relegation to the fourth tier of Greek football; instead, they were allowed to pay off the remaining debt over the long-term, in manageable instalments. The agreement is commonly referred to as "Article 44" by the Greek press, and whilst Nikolaidis was hailed as a saviour at the time of his takeover, he would eventually be forced out by the same fans who once adored him as a player. Making the mistake of assisting the police with their investigation into hooliganism, his relationship with the club's largest fan group, Original 21, quickly soured as a result, eventually leading to his resignation. His legacy would forever be a restructuring of the debt that once threatened to tear AEK apart, as participation in the UEFA Champions League and the financial windfall from it allowed for the illusion of a well-run business. The arrival of Brazilian superstar Rivaldo and a number of other high-profile players also meant AEK were legitimate challengers on the pitch. Yet the same government agreement that once allowed the Athenian outfit to rub shoulders with the likes of AC Milan in Europe is arguably the cause of their current malaise. According to vice-president Andreas Dimitrelos, AEK's current debts stand at €35 million. Dimitris Melissanidis, the oil and shipping tycoon who has long been touted as the man to rescue the club from this plight, had previously quoted a figure of €60 million. What is not in dispute is that AEK have endured their worst start to a league campaign in 49 years. In actual fact, AEK have simply lost the first two games of the current league season, which would hardly represent a catastrophe even for some of the biggest clubs in Europe. Yet when you consider the context of the defeat, it is reflective of an almost inescapable financial situation. Over the summer AEK conducted a fire sale of virtually their entire first-team squad in an attempt to address the mounting debts. Players of international pedigree were not only allowed to leave the club on free transfers but in most cases were paid compensation for previously unpaid wages. As a result, new manager Vangelis Vlachos has been left with a collection of players who are sorely lacking in either quality or experience, and two unsurprising defeats have resulted. Further complicating matters for Vlachos were the transfer restrictions imposed on AEK during the off-season, punishment for their inability to pay various debts owed. The situation that faced AEK in the build-up to the current domestic campaign is alarmingly similar to that which it faced under Nikolaidis' leadership eight years ago. They came within a whisker of being relegated to the semi-professional landscape of Greek football before being handed a lifeline just one day before the start of the season when they were granted a license to compete in the 2012-13 Greek Super League. One wonders whether the tax office and governing body for sport would have been quite as lenient had seven other clubs not been in a similar state of uncertainty but the Athenians have nonetheless been allowed to limp on in the top tier. Once again they are under the stewardship of yet another former player and icon, Thomas Mavros. Made honorary president of the club during the summer, he appointed Vlachos as coach - having played alongside him during one of the club's golden ages - and has been searching for investors. As always seems to be the case with AEK, however, phantom saviours from both at home and abroad have failed to make good on promises and rumours of interest. The club meanwhile continue to suffer from the financial mismanagement of previous regimes and the overspending which was encouraged by the government write-off negotiated by Nikolaidis. While at the time it was lauded as a necessary move to secure AEK's future, one wonders whether ultimately it has done more harm than good; a period of living beyond their means has finally caught up with the club, which is now even struggling with the 'manageable' payments demanded by "Article 44". After a period which saw European adventures and famous domestic campaigns, reality has hit AEK particularly hard during a time of economic austerity in Greece. With barely a recognisable first-team player in their current squad, one wonders whether relegation is a legitimate worry for the team. Never in their history has the Persian proverb which started this article been so applicable to a club with proud Byzantine roots. Years, foes, sins and debt plague AEK in many forms at the moment but it is the latter which will be of most concern to an administration which - at least from the perspective of Mavros and Vlachos - has seen far happier days for the black and yellow half of Athens.

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