AEK on road to recovery
Friday, 2 December 2005
by Paul Safferfrom Athens
The recent trials of AEK Athens FC are enough to give a chill to any football fan. But having stared into the abyss at the start of 2004, they were rescued by folk hero Demis Nikolaidis and although life has not been easy since there are more than a few glimpses of hope.
In January 2004, with AEK seemingly spiralling towards bankruptcy, Greek international Nikolaidis launched a takeover bid for the club he had served with distinction at the peak of his playing career. He was the head of a four-man consortium, also containing Nikos Koulis, who had 20 years experience in management consultancy and company restructuring in the United States.
Koulis told uefa.com: "I had been an AEK fan for a long time, and in the previous ten years their management had ranged from benign mismanagement to outright fraud. The liabilities had mounted to €180m in debt, including €100m in fines and penalties for manipulating the books. I got involved because I liked the team and it was my area of expertise."
While it has not been a smooth road since - the new board's attempt to protect the club from their creditors took until November 2004, several months longer than hoped. But rather than disappearing AEK remain one of Greece's leading sides and are becoming an administrative model for others to follow. At the centre has been Nikolaidis, an idol on the pitch, and now off it.
"He combines two aspects that do not usually come together: he was a talented player beloved by the fans, happy to give up lucrative opportunities to play for AEK, and also a very bright person, well read, with leadership talents," Koulis said. "It would have been impossible without Demis's ability to mobilise people and create a dream. He also put in his own money."
Supporters certainly responded in style. "We had a spectacular response from the fans," Koulis said. "Before the average gate was 6-7,000, then it went up to 29-30,000." It also changed the atmosphere at matches.
"Greek soccer is plagued by violence, and one thing we established early on was to work with fans," he added. "Last year we were the only team not penalised, and we attracted families and turned games into a fiesta. Financially this was attractive and much better than we hoped. There is a thirst among Greek fans to attend games trouble-free."
The team responded well too and despite losing almost all their previous squad, save for loyal captain Konstantinos Katsouranis, they only just missed out on a UEFA Champions League berth. "Last year was a wonderful experience, this year is back to Planet Earth but much better than it was," said Koulis. Indeed, the club was punished for crowd trouble at newly promoted Atromitos FC and will be again after incidents last weekend at Levadiakos FC, though AEK on principle refuse to appeal the decisions and identified the perpetrators. Their UEFA Cup campaign ended before the group stage and former owners ENIC have challenged AEK's bankruptcy protection in a hearing scheduled for mid-December.
However, they are second in the league and Nikolaidis is continuing to take the club forward, with plans in place to build a new stadium. Their former Nikos Goumas arena has gone, and with Panathinaikos FC they are lodging in the Athens Olympic stadium, built for athletics rather than football. Koulis said: "The stadium was demolished without a permit, so we have been without it for two years. We are talking to the government about getting some land for building a UEFA-standard stadium, with parking and easy access.” They are also to build a training centre in the Aharnes district of Athens.
Thinking has always been long-term for the AEK board. “Demis said in the first press conference that it would be three difficult years, but our objective to build a team that will be competitive in Europe in five years' time - rather like FC Porto, that's the dream. The first step is to stabilise the finances. Then to develop through the academies players we can sell. The only areas we have increased our budget in are security and academies.”
But when success comes, AEK are determined that it will be on the European as well as the national stage. "Greece is still parochial, but the market is not just Greece, Athens or Attica, it is Europe," Koulis said. "If we finish above Olympiacos [CFP] and Panathinaikos but then get eliminated in the first round of the UEFA Champions League that would not be a success."
He concluded: "We need to succeed on three fronts: financially; the infrastructure, having our own training facilities and stadium and marketing; and football, having a team that can take on the [AC] Milans and Manchester United [FC]s of this world, sometimes winning."