When UEFA created the Champions League in 1992 from the bones of the former European Cup, the mission was simple – to build the world’s most prestigious club competition that would attract huge audiences and even larger sponsorships, all desperate to see the best teams in Europe compete against one another. They succeeded, but in doing so created a monster that twenty years on would see the richest clubs getting richer and lesser clubs going to the wall. The problem was, that the draw of Champions League football and the promise of riches beyond most clubs wildest dreams, created a false economy that clubs banked on when they planned for each new season during the summer months. With the Champions’ League group stage starting in September and guaranteed revenue totaling €8.6m per club spread out over the six games, the need to qualify for the groups heaped unnecessary pressure on the clubs in the qualifying legs. Chasing the dream season after season is now taking its toll as clubs face financial ruin caused mostly by the purchasing of Champions League style players. Leeds, Rangers and now AEK Athens have all been through troubled times, resulting in the latter two declaring bankruptcy in an effort to stay alive.
It was in 1994 that Rangers faced AEK Athens in the two legged Champions League qualifiers. Rangers were banking on beating Athens and reaching the coveted group stages so spent just over £5million bringing in Danish winger Brian Laudrup and French defender Basile Boli, who only three months earlier had won the Champions League with Marseille. Unfortunately for Rangers, the gamble didn’t pay off as AEK proceeded to the group stages following an aggregate win, becoming the first side in Greece to ever do so. But less than 20 years later, AEK Athens have followed Rangers into financial ruin, which for the Glasgow club resulted in their relegation to Scotland’s third division. Athens too are heading towards Greece’s lower divisions having being first relegated from the Super League for the first time in their history and now due to mounting debt have asked to be relegated again to the lowest division so that they too can be reborn as Rangers have been.
It is indeed dark days for one of Greece’s oldest and most prestigious clubs but has been a long time coming. Like their Scottish counterparts, who failed to learn their lessons from 1994 and brought in players like Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Lorenzo Amoruso, Paul Gascoigne and Tore Andre Flo for exuberant amounts of money, Athens too were guilty of spending beyond their means. Roger Guerreiro, Vasilios Tsiartas and Carlos Gamarra were brought in over the years as the club tried to stay ahead of the competition in Greece and competitive in Europe. Nobody could have predicted the 2007 world financial crisis or its effect on global currencies but for clubs already spending well beyond the profit margin, it came as a bullet to the head. AEK’s problems were intensified by corrupt figures at the club embezzling money but the truth is that the damage had already been done.
Since the switch over to the Champions League format, the trophy has been won 50% of the time by four of the biggest clubs in world football – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. The other ten winners are not small clubs either with the likes of Inter and AC Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool and Juventus picking up the trophy. Only on three occasions – Ajax in 1995, Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and a Jose Mourinho inspired Porto in 2004, has the trophy been won by a so called smaller club. In addition, with a change in format in 1999 that saw runners up of Europe’s largest leagues also given access to the tournament, which was then followed by third and four placed teams in latter years. The result of this change was that it became even harder for teams like AEK Athens, Rangers and Leeds to qualify for the group stages as the standard of teams they faced in qualifying dramatically improved. In the last ten years of the competition since 2004, clubs like Dinamo Zagreb, Steaua Bucharest, Rapid Vienna and Rosenberg have been limited to only a handful of group stage appearances, whilst other clubs like Ferencváros, Hajduk Split and IFK Göteborg have failed to even feature once.
For AEK Athens, qualification to the Champions’ League group stages is the last thing on their minds at this time. With the prospect of playing in Greece’s lowest division and for the very first time as an amateur club, survival and avoiding financial foreclosure is their main objective. With the return of former owner Dimitris Melissanidis, one of Forbes top 500 wealthiest people on the planet, to the helm early last month, the future looks brighter for Athens. Alongside manager and former Greek defender Traianos Dellas, Melissanidis wants to rebuild the club from the ground up, focusing on developing the youth players at the club who he sees at its future. The long term hope will be to return to Greece’s Super League as a revitalized, stable and debt free club within the next five years and eventually back to where they feel they belong, the Champions League. However this time you can be assured that AEK have learned their lesson and won’t fall into the same trap as before by chasing the impossible dream.