The long road to the 12th Championship

The long road to the 12th Championship

AGONAsport’s Greg Gavalas looks back at AEK’s long wait for their 12th Greek championship and the club’s first League title since 1994.

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It's been a long, hard road for AEK and their fans since winning their 11th Championship in 1994 during the Dusan Bajevic era which saw AEK win 3 successive championships in 1992, 93, and 94.

Older fans will remember the day, for some it was the beginning of their AEK chapter and for others, they never saw it or experienced it.

In 1995, Panathinaikos won a good, hard-fought Championship and for those that remember, that was a special Panathinaikos team. The Prasini would go on to the UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals and come within one game of the final, bowing out to eventual champions Ajax Amsterdam in an era of much more parity around Europe.

From 1996 onwards, it was the Olympiacos show that in reality hurt Greek Football. One team winning 19 out of 21 Championships is not good for the game in any country, but Socrates Kokkalis and Victor Mitropoulos (EPO president at the time of the mid late 90's) didn't care and the league was monopolized.

From an AEK angle, the 90's were good times, despite the last Championship of 1994. AEK had very good teams and the Kitrinomavri were actually the first Greek team to participate in the Champions League group stages the next season. AEK would go on to win the Greek Cup in 1996 and Super Cup and Greek Cup again in 1997, beating Panathinaikos in both finals.

Housing players such as Timor Ketspagia, Christos Kostis, Christos Maladenis, Demis Nikolaidis, Tony Savevski, Refik Sabanadzovic and Akis Zikos, AEK reached the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup twice.

The Enosis would win the Greek Cup again in 2000 and some forget that AEK were very close to winning the League in 2001/02, when they finished equal on points with Olympiacos only to lose out on goal aggregate. However, they would get their revenge on the reds in the Greek Cup final.

That was followed by a cast of stars in the 2002/03 season. It was the season Dusan Bajevic returned to the club and that had a very mixed reaction after he coached Olympiacos. Despite that, the team was filled with great players like Kostas Katsouranis, Ilia Ivic, Grigoris Georgatos, Theo Zagorakis, Walter Centeno, Michalis Kapsis, Vassilis Lakis, Vasilis Tsiartas, Ioannis Okkas, Nikos Lymberopoulos, and Demis Nikolaidis - many of them would help Greece to the EURO 2004 title. This is the team that would go onto finish undefeated in their Champions League group drawing all 6 games with Real Madrid, Roma, and Genk.

Amazingly, this group of players failed to win anything that season and at the end of it, we started to see the cracks of poor off field management with Makis Psomiadis.

In 2003, AEK's traditional home, the Nikos Goumas in Nea Filadelfia, was knocked down, a daw that brings a tear to AEK fans.

Despite the off-field drama, which included the Nikolaidis era, the former player tried to take AEK and Greek football to a new, modern level the Greeks were sadly not ready for, which included security measures that hold individuals accountable for their crimes – instead Demi was branded a "dog" as this meant he was throwing his "brothers" to the police.

Given what has happened to this day in Greece, one wonders what would happen when reason overcomes feelings and reactions.

Despite all this, AEK were still competitive and finished runner up in the league a few times whilst beating AC Milan in Athens in the Champions League in one of the best moments for AEK in Europe in recent times.

In 2007/08 AEK were controversially denied their 12th title housing a the team that included Brazilian Rivaldo, Rodolfo Arruabarrena, and Ismael Blanco. With caretaker and former player Nikos Kostenoglou at the helm from February, AEK finished top of the league but a court case between Apollon Kalamarias and Olympiacos went in favor of the Piraeus club. Apollon had beaten Olympiacos 1-0 during the season but the court decision, which involved an illegal player on the Apollon match sheet, saw the Reds awarded a 3-0 win and the 3 points essentially handed them the league title. 

Dramatized seasons would follow. After losing the Cup in 2009, in one of the best finals of all time, AEK would win the Cup again in 2011 for the 14th time however, it was the last title before very tough times were to come. In June 2013, AEK would be relegated to the 3rd division of Greek Football, the Football League 2, due to financial trouble.

In a real show of character, AEK would win the 3rd division and then the 2nd division championship the following season for a quick return to the Super League for season 2015/16.

After rebuilding their squad, AEK would win their 15th Greek Cup with a very popular 2-1 win over Olympiacos. The team that had come from the 3rd division just three seasons ago had left a message to all of Greek Football, and with Dimitris Melissanidis at the helm, finances were good.

With a stable squad and some key loanies, AEK did a remarkable job this season, going undefeated in the Europa League and tasting just 2 defeats in Greece. In the league, AEK are 20 games without defeat and Manolo Jimenez has put a very strong, consistent team on the field. This team has gone undefeated in all derbies against Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, and PAOK this season.

The 2017/18 season has been one of the most competitive seasons in a long time, with Olympiacos failing to dominate like in recent years and we saw 4 teams battle it out, that would decrease to 3 teams and then to 2 teams with PAOK and AEK fighting for the title.

Off the field drama really hurt PAOK when they were in the driver's seat for the Championship, but AEK proved that a level and focused head will get you your goals and that’s exactly what the team and staff have done. The fans have also been well behaved and it was a great scene at the Olympic Stadium to see 67,000 AEK fans watch the game with Levadiakos to celebrate the 12th title in club history.

Two games to go and we may see the Apollon game, which is scheduled for the last match day, be played at the OAKA which will make for a huge fiesta with the much anticipated silverware to be held up.

AEK must focus now on signing a good team for next season as PAOK and Olympiacos will be hungry for success. For now, key moves involve the resigning of Lazaros Christodoulopoulos (contract ends this season) and Sergio Araujo (playing on loan from Las Palmas).

In the meantime, it's time to vast in the glory of the well-earned 12th Championship in the club's history and look forward to more in the near future.

The Greek Cup to be played with PAOK means AEK have a chance to win the double for the first time since the 70's. A win over PAOK would be the icing on the cake to a very successful 2017/18 season.

by Greg Gavalas
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