Finally, belatedly, embarrassingly, Themistoklis Nikolaidis has left AEK – just about. Cult hero, European champion, enigma, underperformer, victim, symbol, savior, failure: the unique transformation of the former AEK favourite and Greece international from player to president has been a controversial one, met with undying support and uncertainty in equal measure. As the reign of ‘Demis’ finally comes to an end, the future of the Double-Headed Eagle becomes as uncertain as the fates of its displaced migrant ancestors were some 80 years ago…
Whatever the individual’s opinion about Demis as the head of AEK’s administration, one cannot deny that his time at the helm of the Athletic Union of Constantinople has been an often colourful one for supporters, neutrals and rivals alike. From the manner in which he spectacularly rescued the club from possible relegation to the fourth-tier of Greek football, to the way in which he oversaw the rise of the side from predicted mid-table domestic stragglers to Milan-beaters, right up until the rather bizarre circumstances surrounding the end of his five year tenure - his presidency will not be quickly forgotten.
The most regrettable aspect of his leaving isn’t necessarily that he is leaving. In any case, his resignation won’t kick in until May of 2009 – after the end of the Greek Super League season – which makes the announcement of his leaving all the more questionable.
During his press conference – which he himself had organised – Nikolaidis seemed to be fixated on emphasizing the fact that the announcement of his departure wasn’t supposed to be a shock in light of the fact that, at the beginning of his tenure, he had clearly established that he would only stay at the club for five years. Next May will signify the end of those five years of service and so, logically, he will leave the club.
Simple? Perhaps Not
Before I begin what may seem to be the inevitable inquisition and conspiracy-laden rant of the naïve journalist, let’s face it, most of us really don’t have any experience with the board-room politics, particularly in a business I imagine can be made as convoluted by the football ideals it supposedly serves. Thus, it is vital to emphasise that the ideas being explored aren’t so much a search for the indefinite truth as they are for the multi-layered meanings and factors that surround the administrative change at the club.
On that note, it seems logical to firstly ask exactly why Nikolaidis decided to announce his resignation only a few days before the club’s crucial UEFA Cup Qualifier against AC Omonia. A pre-season that has almost been rendered meaningless by the complete destruction of the core nucleus of the previous squad, has suddenly transformed into something of an Armageddon for the Kitrinomavri.
What makes the resignation embarrassing from the perspective of the club and its fans is that it was sparked by something as simple as a newspaper article. Anyone who deals with the Greek sports media on a daily basis would be familiar with its fickle nature, and so the fact that a single report was the catalyst for such an announcement must surely show a lack of discretion in the board-room. This might in itself suggest a lack of unity and understanding between the club’s leaders.
There is a sense of awkwardness about the ill-timed announcement, compounded by the sudden announcement of Rivaldo’s exit from the club.
Ignoring the player’s relationship with the president – who apparently speaks Spanish – the Brazilian’s impending move to Uzbekistan serves symbolic purposes if nothing else. Quite frankly, the exit of the midfielder will have little impact on football matters, following a one-year stint during which his influence waned and seemed to serve his own personal desire for revenge and self-satisfaction, rather than the benefit of the club and his team-mates.
His exit perhaps represents a sudden shift in the standing of Nikolaidis amongst his administrative peers and, most surprisingly, amongst the fans who once adored him. As player and president, Nikolaidis commanded the title of 'savior' amongst followers of the Dikefalos Aetos. Such a rapport with certain elements of the fan-base was one of the foundations upon which he rebuilt confidence in a club decimated by corruption and financial insecurities.
The off-season has seen that relationship dissipate - arguably the result of the crystallization of the club’s lack of financial power, relative to its main Athenian rivals. Whilst Panathinaikos have reinvented themselves financially and Olympiakos have continued to consolidate an already richly talented squad, AEK have released two current internationals - club captains Traianos Dellas and Nikos Lyberopoulos - whilst selling arguably one of the most talented defenders in European football in Socratis Papastathopoulos. In return? The ageing legs of Angelos Basinas and Sotiris Kyrgiakos. Both are excellent acquisitions, but they have ultimately been financed by the release of the club’s best, in contrast to both PAO and OSFP, who attract the best to consolidate their best.
It is important here to highlight the relationship between Nikolaidis and Rivaldo, the man he persuaded to join AEK in quite spectacular fashion. The adulation of fans for the Brazilian echoed their love for the president and the combination of the two was essential. As long as the fans loved one, how could they not love the other?
Is it here that Rivaldo’s departure was sealed? To see his board-room ally fall out of favour might not have seemed particularly promising for the Brazilian from a personal perspective and might have been the main factor in his exit.
In any case, it represents the total capitulation of the unity and strength which were the underlying principles of the resurrection of the club under Nikolaidis. One wonders whether a board-room split or a lack of confidence the club’s leaders had in each other was the reason the ‘story’ was leaked out to the press.
Whatever the reason for the announcement itself, Nikolaidis’ fate had, in my humble opinion, been sealed by the disaster that was last season. High-profile, wage-inflated summer signings in the form of Martin Rodolfo Arruabarrena and Rivaldo were intended by Nikolaidis to end a 14 year wait for the Greek title. In essence, the president took a gamble: win the title, secure Champions League football, bolster the club’s finances and build for seasons to come or, alternatively, spend big, fail and lose spending power next season. The latter was obviously the outcome.
So, I am suggesting that Nikolaidis, despite his claims, was at one stage in his presidential life not simply intending to leave the club after having rescued them when they were avoided by financial backers like the plague. Nikolaidis must have seen last season as his chance to write himself into the history books as the man who finally brought that elusive Protathlima back to AEK, hence securing for himself legendary status and the right to rule for virtually as long as he wished. His ambition and love for the club is not in question. His foresight and business acumen is.
The Result of his Decisions?
From a football perspective, what should have been a season for rebuilding the squad entirely with one of Greece’s youngest and most talented managers will now be plagued with uncertainty. Donis’ future is anything but safe now that the man who appointed him is on his way out of the club. Will the new leaders stick with the former Larissa manager?
If they don’t, what does that spell for the players he's brought into the club? Surely their minds will be racing with such thoughts, though AEK fans will be hoping that they are instead focused on the upcoming tie with AC Omonia and an opening day derby-match in the league against Panathinaikos on Sunday - the importance of which cannot be understated.
When the dust eventually settles after the departure of Nikolaidis – however long it may take to settle – AEK would be wise to find for itself investors who, despite not having the love for the club that Demis carried with him to every engagement, will also not bring with them the financial limitations which ultimately restricted the direction Nikolaidis could take the club. Such lack of power confirmed the inevitable end of his reign. Where Vardinogiannis and Pateras can at least compete with Kokkalis as financial figureheads, Nikolaidis by his very nature has little chance.
From that perspective, the end of his presidency is perhaps more a reflection of the characteristics of financially-founded modern football, rather than those of the football-loving individual.
Adiós Demis y gracias por las memorias.