Diego Buonanotte got out of his car, a permanent smile on his face as 300 football fans crowded his vehicle. On the 15th of August Diego signed a two-year contract with newly-promoted AEK Athens.
His name usually doesn’t ring a bell with many football fans. He is just 5’2” tall, and even as an attacking midfielder has never been statistically an assist machine.
But he has serious pace, an eye for goal and the off-the-ball movement to do wonders. He was instrumental in Málaga’s rise as a club, and their deep run in the 2012-13 Champions League. And he is now in Greece to lift AEK from the ashes.
Meet the club that, just two years ago, were an amateur club in the third division of Greek football.
A long, rich European history
On arrival, Diego said that “AEK are a very big club”. He wasn’t joking. AEK play in a stadium whose capacity is 75,000 – more than double the next biggest football stadium in the country.
In 1968-99, they reached the quarterfinals of the European Cup, and in 1976-77 reached the semifinals of the UEFA Cup. But the best of AEK Athens was surely on display in the 2002-03 season, when they went a staggering eleven European matches unbeaten. Oh, and that tally includes Real Madrid.
First, AEK played Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League third qualifying round and defeated them 3-2 and 1-0, thus entering the group stage. Facing Belgian champions Racing Genk, Italian runners-up Roma and defending champions Real Madrid, AEK were destined for the bottom of the table.
But AEK had other ideas, holding Genk to a goalless draw in Belgium and then repeating the trick at home against Roma.
When Real Madrid came to Athens no one expected AEK to even compete. Instead, Casillas, Salgado, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, Raúl González, Luís Figo, Claude Makélélé, Esteban Cambiasso, Fernando Morientes and Steve McManaman all watched in horror as AEK were 3-1 up within half-an-hour.
Real Madrid eventually scored twice to level the scores, but what was more surprising is that they hadn’t learnt from their mistakes. At the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu they threw away a 2-0 lead as AEK scored twice – Costa Rican attacking midfielder Walter Centeno played the role of hero in the last minute. Which prompted the English commentator to remark “what a story!!”.
AEK again came back down from 1-0 to 1-1 against Genk and against Roma, with Walter Centeno again the hero in the latter match.
Six matches and six points from that group, and limiting Real Madrid and Roma to nine – not bad for a team that people expected nothing from in the first place.
But the run wasn’t over, as AEK were in the UEFA Cup Round of 32. Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa had also competed in the Champions League and had beaten Manchester United by a staggering 3-0 score line. Their solid run was smashed for eight goals to one over two legs, with AEK dominating from start to finish.
AEK eventually were knocked out, but not without a fight. And ironically, Málaga were the ones to do it. After a fierce 0-0 draw, AEK were finally beaten at their own home in a tight contest, where Málaga nicked a one-goal victory.
What a story.
Success and controversy
AEK are one of the most successful clubs in Greece, having won eleven championships in their long and proud history. However, they have always been in the shadow of Olympiakos, who have won a staggering 42 championships and will surely bag one more this year too.
But those 42 championships have not been without its controversy.
The 2007-08 campaign saw Rivaldo (yes, that Rivaldo) brought into the club (ironically from Olympiakos), who guided AEK to the championship. At the end of the season AEK had amassed 68 points from 30 games and Olympiakos had 67.
The season was over, and AEK had been awarded the trophy.
And then it was cruelly snatched from them.
The Greek sports court deemed that bottom-placed Apollon Kalamaria’s 1-0 win over Olympiakos was not legal as Apollon had fielded an ineligible player. Therefore, Olympiakos were awarded the three points – and the title.
What was surprising is that the Hellenic Football Federation had actually issued a registration for the player beforehand. What wasn’t surprising is that Olympiakos have got away with such decisions repeatedly – match-fixing cases included.
Rivaldo was understandably unimpressed:
A team that was not good enough to win the title on the pitch does not deserve the trophy.
It was unfortunate, for AEK were deserved champions. They had the best defence and attack record in the league, the most wins and the least draws too.
It was unfortunate, for AEK was runners-up for the third time in a row.
It was unfortunate, for AEK would never be the same again.