AEK Athens' fall could be a blessing in disguise
By Aris Georgiou
Oil tycoon Dimitris Melissanidis is taking over again at AEK, with a swift return to the Super League and a new stadium in mind for the troubled Athens club.
It must be the merriest relegation ever. After 89 years of history as one of Greece's most successful clubs, AEK Athens are getting ready for their first season outside the top flight, and not even in the Second Division but in the Third! Despite that, there are smiles on the fans' faces, after Dimitris Melissanidis, one of the richest men in Greece, finally came to the rescue of his beloved football club.
Nicknamed ''The Tiger'', because of the dynamic way he deals in his business, Melissanidis' love affair with the traditionally third most popular club in Greece goes back a long way.
A self-made businessman who started with a driving school and now is president of the Aegean Oil group of companies, Melissanidis became a member of the Forbes 500 richest people on the planet in 2009.
He first burst into the Greek football scene at the start of the 90's, becoming AEK's president and overseeing the most successful period in the club's history. With ''The Tiger'' at the helm and former striker Dusan Bajevic as manager, the Athens club won the league title for three years in a row (1992, 1993, 1994), playing a brand of attacking football that friends and enemies alike admired.
In 1995 Melissanidis sold the club to another businessman, Michalis Trochanas, and from then on the fortunes of the club dipped. In 1996, iconic manager Bajevic moved to Olympiakos. The Piraeus' club started their own empire, and AEK steadily declined.
A series of dodgy owners amassed debts in the tens of millions of Euro. AEK' s old stadium ''Nikos Goumas'' at Athens' suburb of Nea Philadelphia, an intimidating ground for every opponent, was torn down in order to be rebuilt for the 2004 Summer Olympics. The plan never materialized though, and AEK remains without a regular home ever since, their former ground of glories now being nothing but rubble.
A revival with former striker Demis Nikolaidis as president from 2004 to 2009 proved to be short-lived. AEK lost the 2008 Greek league title to Olympiacos due to a mere technicality, kick-starting a downward spiral that culminated with relegation. All of these years, the fans called for Melissanidis' return to the presidency, with him being regarded as the only AEK supporter with the financial means to compete with the two other Greek giants, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. But ''The Tiger'' was always reluctant to take over debts that others made, leaving the fans despairing.
Before the 2012-13 season started, AEK were slapped with a transfer ban because of their financial troubles. It was the beginning of the end for their top flight status. A team of inexperienced youngsters was hastily formed, and something that would be considered impossible for 89 years, finally came to be reality. AEK were relegated in the Second Division for the first time in their history amid dramatic scenes in the last two matchdays.
Up stepped to the scene Dimitris Melissanidis.
''The Tiger'' had vowed never to take over old debts, but it seems he won't have to after all! The day after the team's relegation was ensured, Melissanidis took the initiative. Greek media reported that he had the solution on hand. AEK will not be playing Second Division football next year. That league is professional too, and the club's heavy load of debt would remain, undermining any hopes of returning to greatness.
Instead, AEK will fold as a business and start from scratch in the Third Division, reforming again as an amateur club. Thus, the vast majority of the debt will be erased, and the Athens club' could return in two years in the Super League healthier than ever.
But a promise of two seasons in the doldrums of the lower divisions instead of one, is not of course the reason that AEK' s fans are smiling ever since Melissanidis returned.
The reason lies in the site of their old ground in Nea Philadelphia. Reportedly, Melissanidis had made it his life's target to reinstate AEK to their old neighbourhood, and with the support of other rich Greeks like Polys Chatziioannou, rebuild the club's spiritual home.
He even visited Torino a few weeks ago to see Juventus' new stadium and collaborate with its architects for the Nea Philadelphia project. It seems like a new stadium could be built in the empty space in 18 months!
Football-wise, Melissanidis recruited some of AEK' s most inspirational figures to try and make a team to win back-to-back promotions and challenge for the title back in the Super League for the 2015-16 seasons. Dusan Bajevic returned to the role of general director, and former heroes like Traianos Dellas and Nikos Liberopoulos will try to make the most of the roster as members of the coaching team.
Melissanidis himself will probably not be named in the board of directors. He recently won the bid to take over Greece's state gambling agency OPAP, and so he couldn't own a football club officially. The businessman has not said a word in the press about his return to the club.
But the ''Tiger's'' involvement with AEK, is this summer's worst kept football secret in Greece. And suddenly, relegation does not seem quite so bad after all for the mighty AEK...