Celtic will be looking to overcome revitalised Greek outfit AEK Athens as they continue their bid to qualify for the 2018/19 Champions League group stages.
The two sides meet in the third qualifying round on Wednesday evening with the first leg taking place at Celtic Park (kick-off 19:45).
While most British fans will know plenty about the Bhoys – many can be forgiven for not knowing a single thing about their opponents.
AEK – who dominated Greek football in the 1990s – are looking to put the difficulties of the past decade behind them. After a couple of years in the lower tiers of Greek football, the Athens-based outfit secured their first Superleague title for 24 years last season. It’s been a roller coaster ride for their supporters, and victory over the Scottish champions would solidify the notion that the Club are heading back towards the good times once again.
Here’s a closer look at their rise, fall and rebirth.
Formation and early years
AEK Athens – nicknamed Kitrinomavree (The Yellow-Blacks) or Dikéfalos Aetós (Double-Headed Eagle) – were founded in 1924 by a group of Greek refugees from Istanbul in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War.
The Club’s popularity rose significantly throughout the 1920s, with AEK seen as a positive symbol for immigrants in the city. Another factor was the influence of their first President Konstantinos Spanoudis, a known associate of the Greek Prime Minister at the time, Eleftherios Venizelos.
In 1928, AEK broke away from the Greek Football Federation (EPO) alongside fellow sides Panathinaikos and Olympiakos to form an alliance known as POK. They would organise friendlies against each other and other European Clubs rather than participate in domestic football. However, the conflict ended a year later in 1929, and they all re-entered the EPO.
They won their first Greek Cup in 1932 after beating Aris Thessaloniki 5–3 in the final. They then went on to win the league and cup double in 1939 – before retaining the league title a year later.
European football achievements (1968-2003)
Celtic fans will need to be aware that of all the Greek sides to have competed in Europe, AEK Athens have been one of the most successful.
In 1968-69, they became the first Greek club to make it through to the European Cup quarter-finals under the guidance of Serbian coach Branko Stanković.
During the 1977-78 season, AEK beat Dynamo Moscow, Derby County, Red Star Belgrade and QPR as they made it through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, before being eliminated by eventual winners Juventus.
The Club then became the first Greek side to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League in 1994-95 after beating Rangers in the qualifying round. In 2002-03, AEK went through the group stages unbeaten – drawing all six games in a group that included European giants Real Madrid and European regulars AS Roma. Despite failing to come out of the group, their courage and positive performances won many admirers.
Nikolaidis becomes AEK’s saviour
The Club began to struggle off the field at the turn of the century. In 2004, Boyhood fan and star player Demis Nikolaidis was reportedly assaulted by then President Makis Psomiadis’ bodyguards. He left the Club on a free that summer, before Dušan Bajević resigned as manager due to the hostility shown to him by AEK supporters.
Nikolaidis formed a new supporters’ club in 2004 and following strong backing, bought the Club and became President. He managed to clear the outstanding debt the Club owed the Greek judicial system, thus saving the Club. His passion drove crowds back through the turnstiles, and they once again qualified for the group stages of the Champions League in 2006-07. The Greek side just missed out on qualifying for the last 16, but did manage to beat eventual winners AC Milan on an infamous night in Athens during the group stage.
Court case controversy and relegation
In 2008, AEK finished the Greek Superleague in first place. However, they lost the title to rivals Olympiakos due to a court decision in the Piraeus club’s favour. AEK had been found guilty of fielding an illegible player earlier in the season, and the decision sparked outrage. It all went downhill from here for AEK, as the club’s financial problems worsened due to the Greek economic crisis.
With a lack of resource, the titles began to dry up for AEK, and when fans stormed onto the pitch in 2013, the Club were docked three points and condemned to relegation for the first time in their history.
Regeneration and return to the top
AEK decided that summer to self-relegate themselves and start again from scratch in the third tier of Greek football. The move proved to be a masterstroke, with back-to-back promotions secured (including an undefeated season in the Greek Football League).
In their first season back in the top flight, they won the Greek Cup (a first trophy since 2010-11) and secured European football with a third-placed finish, they however lost the subsequent Europa League qualifying match to Saint-Etienne.
Last season saw the Club qualify for the group stages of the Europa League – their first appearance at this stage for six years. They went through the group stage unbeaten – including two 0-0 draws with AC Milan, and qualified for the round of 32. In April they secured their first title for 24 years, solidifying their return as one of Greece’s biggest football clubs.
Current squad – players to watch
Marinos Ouzounidis joined the Club as manager in May, following the departure of Manolo Jiménez. He won the Cypriot title with APOEL in 2007 but has yet to win another honour since.
AEK have lost some of their key players this summer, but Argentine loanees Lucas Boyé and Ezequiel Ponce could cause Celtic’s defence problems if given the opportunity, whilst Ukrainian centre back Dmytro Chygrynskiy used to be on Barcelona’s books.
Striker Marko Livaja netted eight times for the Greek side last season, whilst 24-year-old goalkeeper Vasilios Barkas is considered one of Greece’s future stars.
Notable former players and managers
Jack Beby: A former English goalkeeper who played for Leicester City and Bristol Rovers – managed the Greek side between 1948-1951. He introduced professional standards, which had never been seen in Greece before – including shirt numbers and the WM (3-2-2-3) formation used frequently in Britain at the time. AEK enjoyed success with Beby at the helm as they won the Greek Cup in 1949 and 1950.
Dimitris Papaioannou: all-time goalscorer and record appearance maker. He scored 234 goals in 480 games for AEK Athens.
Kostas Nestoridis: The striker went on to score 141 goals in 226 appearances for AEK Athens and formed a devastating partnership with Papaioannou through the late 50s and early 60s.
Thomas Mavros: One of Greece’s greatest ever strikers and a goal machine, Mavros scored 174 goals in 277 appearances between 1976-1987.
Dušan Bajević: He is one of the most controversial figures in the history of the club. He was a successful player, loved by AEK’s fans, who gave him the nickname “Prince”. He featured 106 times for the Greek side, scoring 65 goals before going on to manage the club on three separate occasions. During his first spell as manager, he won three consecutive league titles in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
Stylianos Manolas: The defender spent the entirety of his club career at AEK Athens, making 447 appearances for the Club between 1974-1998. He captained the side during their most successful period in the 1990s.
Rivaldo: The Brazilian legend spent a single season at the Club, scoring 12 goals in 35 games.
So to sum it up…
With 31 domestic honours to their name, AEK Athens may not be as easy an opponent as some Celtic fans expect. The defending Greek champions have a history of upsetting the odds in Europe and will be determined to do that again by winning this tie. After many years of hurt, this could be the fairytale ending for AEK Athens supporters and Greek football as a whole.