AEK, a needed model example

With three rounds of play remaining in the Greek first division and nothing settled, would it be premature to talk about a phenomenal AEK side? Considering the club’s dire circumstances at the beginning of the season, the answer is no. Threatened by bankruptcy ahead of the current season and consequent relegation to amateur league competition, while also burdened by the departure of unpaid key players, the historic club’s administration was more involved with pressing legal issues rather than competition matters. The prospects for the team, acquired by retired star player and devoted club fan Themis Nikolaidis in the pre-season, appeared limited. Yet AEK lies just one point behind league front-runner Panathinaikos and is a title contender. «If we don’t disintegrate, our objective will be to remain in the first division,» Nikolaidis had remarked after taking over at AEK’s helm as president. As one of his first steps, Nikolaidis secured the services of an internationally established coach, Fernando Santos from Portugal. A previous tenure with the club, under a previous administration, had ended bitterly for Santos and was followed up by a short yet controversial stint with Panathinaikos. As its next move ahead of the season, the club signed mid-caliber local players such as defender Christos Kontis and midfielder Simos Krassas, as well as the foreign players Bruno Alves, Vladan Ivic, Alessandre Soares and Paulo Assunsao, who have made a difference. Nikolaidis, who ended his playing career last season with Atletico Madrid, convinced an Athens court to wipe out an overwhelming part of AEK’s debt last November to save it from looming bankruptcy. AEK’s players were rid of uncertainty and Santos could now focus on playing matters alone. The club also hired ex-AEK player Ilia Ivic as team manager to give the club an administrative leadership based on real playing experience. Nikolaidis, in another key move, offered Greek international Costas Katsouranis the club’s captaincy to hold onto the disgruntled professional with arrears in pay. Liberated from all restraints, Santos was given a free hand to operate as he wished. Well acquainted with the fickle nature of coaching jobs in Greece, Santos began the year declaring «we’re going to try and build for next year.» In doing so, he kept all wrangling at a distance. Winning the title will not be easy, but, whatever the outcome, nobody can deny AEK’s success this season – on many levels. Attendance figures have risen and families have returned to the club’s games. Nikolaidis stands as the only club president who threw a fan out of the stadium and barred future entry after the fan tossed a plastic bottle onto the pitch. For genuine soccer fans, this season’s AEK led by Nikolaidis is a badly needed model example.