At the turn of the year, AEK Athens were on the brink. In the relegation zone and with €35 million worth of debt hanging round the club’s neck like a noose, one of Greece’s traditional ‘Big Three’ was in real danger of extinction.
Yet the team from the Greek capital started to put results together to move out of the bottom two by mid-March under the stewardship of German coach Ewald Lienen.
But then one by one, things started to go wrong.
On March 16th, 20-year-old attacking midfielder Giorgios Katidis scored a late winner against mid-table Veria. It should have been something to celebrate as it lifted AEK up to 11th in the table which was their highest position in a turbulent season.
But instead it was marred in one of the least expected ways possible.
To celebrate the goal Katidis’ right arm rose in a Nazi salute, puncturing the optimism that had been swelling over the previous two months, while curtailing his own career in one fell swoop. Far right symbolism is particularly emotive in Greece with the electoral rise of Neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn.
But what goes up, often comes down. As Katidis’ arm went up, AEK’s fortunes plummeted and they failed to win again before the end of the season.
But the trauma did not end there. Lienen was sacked and replaced as manager by Euro 2004 winning-defender Traianos Dellas at the start of April with the task of inspiring a great escape.
But the match that ended AEK’s eternal stay in the Greek Super League was the 1 – 0 home defeat to Panthrakikos, courtesy of an own goal.
But it was not the result itself that would prove detrimental for the 11-time Greek Champions.
It was an own goal from the club’s own supporters. Irate fans invaded the pitch three minutes from the final whistle and proceeded to chase their own players off the pitch. In the video below you can see the panic on the players and coaching staffs’ faces as the fans went on a rampage that left two Panthrakikos players and two policemen injured.
As a result of the fans’ actions, the Greek FA docked AEK three points which confirmed the Athenians’ relegation from the heavens of the Greek top flight to the underworld of lower league football.
The club launched an appeal against the decision and before it was quashed this week it was always unlikely to be overturned which means they will have to face up to their first ever relegation, which will see them start next season on minus two points.
With unmanageable debts, no permanent home ground, instability at boardroom level and a squad full of journeymen and youngsters who will not provide any revenue when sold or released, the club may have to cede their immortality and fold as they may not be able to even afford to play in the second tier.
If they do end up “doing a Rangers”, they will have to start life in the third tier, a prospect that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Despite their large fanbase, the economic problems in Greece mean it could be a long odyssey back to the pinnacle of their mythical status in the Greek game.