The story behind: AEK Athens

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.

Juventus First Team Review: A beautiful insight into Italy’s most prestigious football club.

Netflix have released the first half of episodes in a six-part series following the Italian giants during the 2017-18 season. WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS 

“Juventus uses it’s past to define it’s future.”

Football club documentaries haven’t exactly been successful in the past. Just look at 2012’s Being: Liverpool.

However, Netflix’s new documentary “Juventus: First Team” is a beautiful insight into Italy’s most prestigious football club. After watching the first three episodes (the rest will be released in the summer), you’ll find yourself understanding the club’s philosophies and ethos. It’s a real eye-opener that is stunning to look at and easy to absorb.

Focusing on the first half of the season, episode one introduces the team and their recent achievements – six successive Scudetti and three consecutive Coppa Italia’s. However, these honours are overshadowed by failures in the Champions League, with two final defeats in the last three years. The club’s aims are simple: more silverware.

We learn during the pre-season how the culture of the club centres around it’s fans. The players see their supporters as family members- making it a tight bond between the two. Six straight wins to start the campaign makes the opening 40 minutes a rather upbeat viewing.

But the show isn’t shackled by Juventus wanting to portray themselves positively, as we see in episode two. The documentary also delves into the struggles and setbacks the club and the players faced whether that be form, pressure or injuries.

Gigi Buffon features heavily in this, which is no surprise given his legendary status at the club and the fact he is nearing the end of his career. Retirement is a question brought up almost every time he is on screen, and it’s interesting to watch as he and others throughout Italy discuss when he should call it a day and what he plans to do next.

The documentary also sometimes shifts away from Juventus and onto other subjects- such as Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia this summer. Much of the side that lost to Sweden in November’s play-off play for Juve, so seeing them in the aftermath was a nice change of direction, and didn’t feel like an unnecessary distraction away from the main focus point.

We are treated to beautiful cinematography of Turin and the Allianz Stadium, making the city look as bright and vibrant as ever. The football pitch looks like a sea of emerald gemstones and really stands out on the screen.

There is a fine balance on and off the field, with unprecedented access to Massimiliano Allegri’s training sessions in Vinovo, the stadium facilities and player’s homes.

We learn a lot about Allegri and his management style. The Italian is very psychological and is constantly talking about mentality. During his training drills, he is always reminding the players to be focused and to think like the opposition, which we see quite evidentially as they prepare for a defining match against Napoli.

Current and past players such as Claudio Marchisio, Gonzalo Higuain, Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved provide us with powerful and insightful interviews that help not only portray Juventus Football Club, but also the joys and struggles of being a professional footballer.

The series isn’t perfect though, and there are scenes that do seem to have been put in for commercial reasons and to fill time. Obviously it’s interesting to see the players doing what they are obligated to do in their contracts, but these segments just seemed to have been put in for the sake of it and without any real meaning.

This is not a history lesson either. After the opening five minutes the focus is very much the present. If you were hoping to find out more about Juventus’ past, then this won’t be where to find it.

The one issue that was frequent throughout is the subtitles. They have a tendency to jump around the screen, whilst introductions of interviewees come in mid-way through a sentence, making it difficult to read and understand at times.

Above all though what helps makes this series tick over is the fact that it hasn’t been plain sailing for Juventus this season, making the narrative much more tense than it could have been had the show been constructed two or three years ago.

If you are a football fanatic that’s fascinated by the day to day life at a famous football club, than this is the show for you. It may even be one that defines the future making of football documentaries.









Real Madrid look ordinary and have no plan B.

Real Madrid’s 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last night capped off a miserable week for the Spanish giants.

Fans and pundits alike were expecting a response from Zinedine Zidane’s side following Sunday’s embarrassing 2-1 loss to Girona.

Instead everyone got the opposite, as a Delle Ali brace and Christian Eriksen strike condemned the reigning European champions to their heaviest defeat in the Champions League since their 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in 2013.

This is only the second time during the Zidane era that Los Blancos have lost two matches in a row, yet it’s already looking a sorry sight for them. They currently sit third in La Liga, eight points behind leaders Barcelona.

Defeat at Wembley was the club’s first in a Champions League group stage match since October 2012, and although they only need one more point to guarantee themselves a place in the last 16, many would have expected them to win this group (which is also contested by Dortmund and Apoel Nicosia).

So what exactly has gone wrong for Real Madrid this season? Injuries have played a part with Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane and Gareth Bale among those sidelined. But there are other superstars currently on the pitch that just aren’t playing to the high standard we have come accustom too.

The often-influential Cristiano Ronaldo has this season looked a shadow of the player that has been competing with Lionel Messi for the Ballon d’Or in recent times. Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have not been as colossal at the back as one comes to expect, whilst Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have failed to unlock defences or stretch the play with their usually exceptional passing.

Because of this, Real Madrid have looked ordinary so far this campaign and have no Plan B to fall back on.

Zidane relies on his best players to perform week in, week out because there is no squad depth. Looking at their bench last night, you’d be forgiven asking who exactly some of those players were. Many of Real’s substitutes often play in the youth side, and aren’t yet ready to challenge for a first team place.

For that reason, players like Karim Benzema haven’t got to look over their shoulder or worry about being dropped, as there is no one waiting in the wings to take their place.

The sale of Alvaro Morata to Chelsea and letting James Rodriguez go to Bayern Munich on loan have both looked more and more costly. Had they remained at Madrid, they would have at least provided competition for places and perhaps got better performances out of others.

As a consequence, Zidane now faces the toughest period of his tenure to date. His rotation policy that worked so well last season has backfired on him this campaign. He now needs to work out how he can get his players back on top form, scoring goals and beating every team that comes in their way.

Real Madrid return to La Liga action on Sunday evening when they host Las Palmas, where anything less than a win could spiral the current situation at the Bernabeu from disastrous to catastrophic.

The Pros and Cons of the Athletic Bilbao Cantera Policy.

Athletic Bilbao have produced some great footballing talent in the past. Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera to name just a few. The secret behind Bilbaos excellent young talent is through their Cantera policy. The club is unique in the way it only uses players from the Basque region of Spain. They recruit the hottest prospects that the Basque region has to offer and bring them through the ranks before they move on to bigger and better things.

This policy began back in 1912, however it has had to tackle opposition in order to still function today. During the reign of General Franco between 1939-1975, the Basque people suffered terrible oppression; their unique language, culture, customs and style were all banned because they didn’t fit in with the ideal of a one-nation Spain. Support for Bilbao from the Basque region was a vote against Franco.

The fans of the club adore the Cantera policy. A poll in the 1990s revealed 75% of the supporters would rather see the club relegated than abandon the policy. It brings the club its identity. The fans own Athletic, making that link between the team and the supporters that even more special. Los Leones has never been relegated from La Liga (one of only four teams in Spain to hold such a record). This must mean that the Cantera policy works and it makes the side more successful, surely? Top European clubs import foreign players in order to gain success- but somehow Bilbao still fight strong in arguably the best quality league in the world. They finished 2013-14 in fourth position and made it to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.

But as more plaudits come in to praise the system, it also has its critics. As the club only uses regional players, it is believed that this hijacks their chances of success. They haven’t won a league or cup competition since 1984 when they won both La Liga and the Copa del Rey.

Some of the players to have played for Athletic have caused a stir. The policy of using players that were born and raised in Basque country has seemingly loosened up on occasion. Former Centre back Fernando Amorebieta was born in Venezuela but was eligible to play for Athletic because he grew up in the Basque Country as well as his parents being from the area.

Enric Saborit, now 22 years old, was signed by Athletic in 2008. The unusual thing was that Saborit was born in Barcelona. However, his mother is Basque, and that seemingly gave Athletic the right to pursue the player.

Ander Herrera is another who raises doubts to whether Los Leones kept to their ‘strict’ policy. He grew up in Zaragoza and played in Real Zaragoza’s youth system before playing for the senior squad. He could be signed by Athletic because he was simply born in Bilbao.

What does this say about the club? Do they actually deserve the plaudits of sticking to a system that through this evidence has it’s own loopholes? The game is growing each year, meaning more foreign exports are being driven into the major European leagues, including Spain. Can Athletic therefore keep their policy going?

With Real Madrid and Barcelona splashing out ridiculous sums of money for players, (Madrid spent £85 million on Gareth Bale and Barcelona spent £75 million for Luis Suarez), it seems that the Cantera will not be able to provide Los Leones with a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge. Fans will therefore need to make a choice. Do they want a team that wins trophies? Or do they want a team that keeps to their tradition, their identity and their pride in sticking with the Cantera?

They haven’t been able to keep hold of their prized assets either. Big money moves have come in for star players. Yes, Athletic need the money as the economics surrounding La Liga means that the lesser teams need to bring in as much income as possible through transfers, merchandise and ticket prices. But this means they start each season back at square one. It’s like a cycle. Over three to four seasons they bring up the talent from the Basque country, finish strongly in the league, and then sell their best players.

Ernesto Valverde for me is an underrated coach. He has a clear philosophy and is taking Athletic forward with clear direction and ambition. Currently the side is on a five match-winning run in La Liga. However the club are eighth in the table, ten points behind Villarreal, who occupy the last European place. Had the players Athletic natured in the past stayed in Bilbao, Valverde would possibly have a competitive team up there with Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico Madrid. They would not just be in the fight for Champions League qualification, but genuine title contenders.

So lets look five maybe ten years down the line. Will Athletic start looking down the table rather than up? It’s hard to tell but personally I don’t think much will change regarding their status. They will still produce the class of players that can play at Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid etc. It’s a system that has worked for the club for over 100 years. Nobody can scrap a tradition that’s lasted as long as this. The Cantera has been the heart and soul of Athletic Bilbao. It has produced talents for decades and will continue to do so. Yes they will have a tougher battle with the economics and so called ‘globalisation’ of the game, but the supporters are behind the team and the club will fight to continue their excellent standard of bringing up the best from the Basque country. As I mentioned before they have never been relegated from La Liga. That record speaks for itself.

Could English clubs benefit from this? I believe so. Greg Dyke is always moaning not enough home grown players are playing in the Premier League. There are even talks of reducing the amount of foreign payers in a squad down to 13. If a team such as Southampton kept to a policy like the Cantera then they would be a force to reckon with. They have one of if not the best youth system in the country. Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw are all players to have come from the academy. Had they all been in the same team we would definitely have Champions League football at ST. Marys.

I for one would be proud to be a Los Leones supporter. I love the way the club goes about things and hope that the Cantera system remains to be successful. It for me is how football clubs should approach the game- with the addition of four maybe five foreign players to boost their chances for success in league and cup competitions.

Keep it up Bilbao!