The Grasshopper Who Lost Its Spring

In November 1996, Grasshopper Club Zurich flew to Scotland to take on Glasgow Rangers in the Champions’ League group stage, in a game that I watched from the stands. Led by Swiss icon Kubilay Turkyilmaz, Grasshoppers were looking for all three points as they attempted to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. Having hammered Rangers 3-0 a few months earlier, the team were confident that they could get the result but found themselves taking on a Rangers side with the bit between their teeth who were eager to forget what had been a terrible group stage (they had lost their first 4 games) and get a vital win on home soil. In a highly competitive match, Rangers ran out 2-1 winners with Ally McCoist scoring a brace whilst Andy Goram performed miracles in goal to deny Grasshoppers.  Despite the defeat, both sets of fans were impressed by the way Grasshoppers performed that night and would have been forgiven for thinking that they would be a regular competitor in the Champions League going forward.

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Fast forward 23 years and Grasshoppers are at their lowest ebb following relegation from the Swiss Super League, ending their 68-year stay. Switzerland’s most successful club with 27 titles could no longer dream of electric Champions League nights against Europe’s elite. Instead they are facing up to an uncertain future, one that is less of a dream and more like a nightmare. Financial mismanagement since 2003 and a plethora of changes in the boardroom have contributed to Grasshoppers current situation, one that doesn’t look to be resolving any time soon. In the last 15 years, the Zurich club have had 13 coaches and 8 different presidents and have effectively been homeless after their Hardturm ground closed in 2007. After its demolition in 2008, the proposed plans for the new stadium got trapped in a never-ending tug of war between those politically motivated by visions of grandeur and those motivated by money. Finally, after a decade of frustration for the club and its fans, the city of Zurich approved the construction of the new ground.

Former home - The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

Former home – The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

The lack of a place to call home has hurt Grasshoppers deeply. Forced to play at the Letzigrund athletics stadium, the home of rivals FC Zurich has been tough on the club in terms of trying to connect with their fans but more importantly financially with little revenue coming in because of the ground share at the smaller stadium. The construction of a new ground should solve those issues but it’s not as if that project will be easy to get done, despite it being green lit. Grasshoppers only just managed to get approvals to proceed winning a close 53.8% of the vote meaning that there is still plenty of local distain for the project that could derail it.

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

On the field, Grasshoppers have struggled too. Despite finishing 2nd in the league and winning the Swiss Cup in 2013, they have failed to pull together a consistent challenge leaving the fans to wonder if the club will ever return to its dominant position it once held in the 70’s and 80’s. Their last title 15 years ago seems like an eternity. A failure to unearth the next Kubilay or develop an effective youth progression program has resulted in a mediocre team on the pitch. Added into this a lack of funds to purchase new players and a ground to attract them in the first place, it was always going to be a difficult slog regardless of the manager. But with uncertainty in the boardroom also comes indecision about how the club should be run, its playing style and who should be enforcing that. That led to some baffling appointments as manager/head coach including the hiring of Tomislav Stipic in March of this year. Starring relegation in the face, Stipic was brought in to replace Thorsten Fink much to the disbelief of the fans as Stipic’s resume hardly screamed success. A lack of experience at a top flight team and two relegations at lower league sides in Germany left many wondering how this guy would save them. In the end he lasted only 6 games and was sacked after failing to win any of them. Uli Forte, who led the club in that 2013 season returned much to the protest of the fans who were still bitter about the nature of his departure six years before, but he couldn’t turn around the club’s fortunes with Grasshoppers eventually relegated in early May. He has agreed to stay on as the club looks to bounce back and gain immediate promotion.

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board  (Image from Tumblr)

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board (Image from Tumblr)

The demise of Grasshopper is a startling warning to all the other clubs in the Swiss Super League that even the mighty can fall. Other European leagues have witness similar iconic clubs fall from grace, most notably Glasgow Rangers who suffered a financial meltdown which led to administration and relegation to Scotland lowest tier and AEK Athens who dropped down in Greece following similar financial difficulties. Financial issues tend to be the leading cause of these demises and things may only get worse in the future as teams spend beyond their means with the hope of gaining quick successes both domestically and in Europe. UEFA’s introduction of their financial fair play rules was a vain effort to curb this overspending but has faced fierce criticism of late as Europe’s elite have found clever ways to bypass or take advantage of the federations inability to accurately track and enforce its rules. As a result, the gap between the elite and the chasing pack widens reducing the likeliness of one of them fielding a team capable of going all the way and lifting one of the major trophies like the Champions League. For Grasshoppers, the focus is not to playing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition again but simply to recover. The road to recovery can be a long and treacherous as Rangers and AEK can attest to, one filled with more than a few bumps. But it’s a necessary journey that the club must take if they are to regain what many see as their rightful position back in the Swiss Super League.

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UEFA Releases Benchmark Report For Football To Mixed Reviews

The report was released on Thursday (Image from Getty)To most football fans, Thursday was a fairly unremarkable day. Talk about the previous nights Champions league clash between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich grabbed the back pages whilst the shock waves of the David Moyes sacking at Manchester United continue to ripple throughout the footballing world. But Thursday also saw the release of the sixth edition of UEFA’s European Club Licensing Benchmark report. The 109 paged report is hardly bedtime reading for most fans (this one being the rare exception) but inside its pages is a unique look at the general health of football across Europe and it makes for some interesting reading. The report is an accumulation of data about the clubs supplied by them to their respective nations as part of their licensing requirements. To break it down section by section would require more time and inches than this column provides so instead here for your viewing pleasure are the key highlights and learnings.

Supporter loyalty is split between various domestic and European clubs  (Image from UEFA)

Supporter loyalty is split between various domestic and European clubs
(Image from UEFA)

The divide is widening each year

Whilst UEFA is less than inclined to come out and say it, the financial disparity between teams in the top 10% in Europe and the rest is gradually increasing leading to longer term problems. The early indicators can be found in the report – 56% of teams with the highest wage budgets in their respective countries go on to win their leagues whilst the amount spend on players is increasing at a dramatic pace – €10.9billion has been spent assembling Europe’s top division playing squads. Teams are struggling to keep up with more than 200 clubs across Europe spending €12 for every €10 they bring in. This can lead to financial ruin as illustrated by the names of some of the teams banned from UEFA competitions due to financial issues. Glasgow Rangers, AEK Athens, CSKA Sofia and Besiktas have all been guilty of chasing the dream; wanting to compete with the larger clubs in Europe but as a result now face financial ruin. The list year over year is growing and it’s no coincidence (with the exception of Malaga and Rayo Vallecano) that these clubs all  come from smaller nations that don’t reap the benefits of increased tv revenues and heightened commercial interest. The problem is sweeping Europe like a plague with UEFA reacting by introducing its fair play rules as a potential cure. The timing couldn’t be better. In total, 577 clubs applied for the necessary licence to play in UEFA sanctioned competitions but a staggering 18% (102 clubs) were rejected with the biggest reason relating to financial problems.

More clubs than ever are facing punishment due to financial issues  (Image from UEFA)

More clubs than ever are facing punishment due to financial issues
(Image from UEFA)

Its harder to succeed than ever before.

If you thought United were harsh on Moyes, think again. Moyes lasted 10 months but by the averages he only had 7 months left anyway. Managers across Europe are being given less time to find success with the average length of time now at 17 months. That’s seems like a long time but when you drill down in the individual leagues, alarm bells start to ring. The top leagues appear to have more patience than the average with 22 months the norm, however England’s number is slightly thrown off by Arsene Wengers extended 18 year stay at Arsenal. But moving into the leagues outside the top six, the situation is tougher with Greece averaging 4 months whilst Turkey comes in at 7 months. June and December are the busiest months for departures, mostly due to the proximity of the transfer window but frequent changes in management also has a knock on effect on the general stability of a club, leading to more financial problems.

Managerial changes are becoming more frequent  (Image from UEFA)

Managerial changes are becoming more frequent
(Image from UEFA)

Interest in football on the rise

Whilst it’s a mixed bag in terms of attendances at games with some countries suffering more than others, generally more people are watching European football. Interest in the beautiful game is high across Europe at around 78% with regions like Russia, Portugal and Romania seeing a lot of growth. Interestingly the spread of the supporter base across each country is widening with few teams dominating in terms of percentage of its population following one team. Only Benfica (47%), Steaua Bucharest (45%) and Galatasary (43%) pulled in high percentages. Barcelona is by far the most popular team, not necessarily in Spain (tied with Real) but in other markets like Poland, Israel, Hungary and Finland. With this interest affecting gate receipts, clubs are expanding its view on how to bring in additional money to bolster their coffers. Sponsorship money across Europe has grown to €3.3 billion overtaking gate receipts by €0.7 billion. Domestic broadcasting revenue has also increased by 8% to €4.4 billion making it the lion share of all revenues generated.

Broadcast and Sponsorship revenues are growing faster than anything else  (Image from UEFA)

Broadcast and Sponsorship revenues are growing faster than anything else
(Image from UEFA)

Players are benefiting regardless of league

With player wages combined across Europe now hitting €9.2 billion, it’s not hard to see where all the revenue generated is going. Wages have rocketed across Europe by 50% in the last 5 years with the less wealthier leagues feeling more of the pain. Unable to cope they have been forced to flog their highest paid stars to Europe’s top six leagues, which is illustrated in the reports transfer section which backs this theory up. Half of the worlds transfer spend can be attributed to the English, Spanish and Italian top divisions. The players however don’t appear to mind as they move to richer playing fields and broader contracts. Most of the players signed for €1m+ were given a four or more year contract with commercial and sponsorships components now added in as standard. How long this model continues will be based on how effective Platini’s financial fair play rules are at enforcing change. The alarming truth is that Europe’s biggest clubs (with the exception of Arsenal and Bayern Munich) are posting net losses due to increased costs and rising wages. The clubs below them are by in large self-sufficient with 88% posting positive cash balances. Fiscal responsibility comes in many shapes and forms and it appears as though clubs are starting to learn how to live by their means.

The top 3 leagues make up most of the transfers  (Image from UEFA)

The top 3 leagues make up most of the transfers
(Image from UEFA)

The UEFA report is not meant to be alarming, its sole purpose is transparency, refreshing especially at a time when FIFA is struggling to do just that. The report can be accessed by anyone and is meant to be absorbed, dissected and understood at various levels. It should heed some warnings especially for those clubs who haven’t quite found a way to live on a strict budget but it should also raise some eyebrows with the various leagues as they look to adapt to the ever-changing face of football. Adapt or die is the phrase mostly commonly used and in some cases it might be the only way to persuade them to do so. I recommend you look at the report yourself and make your own mind up. After all data can be interpreted several ways. I’ll let you decide if European football is on the up or on its knees.

You can find the report here: http://www.uefa.org/protecting-the-game/club-licensing-and-financial-fair-play/news/newsid=2091784.html

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Why Chasing The Champions League Dream Can End In Financial Ruin

AEK relegated (Image from Getty)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.

The Prize every club wants - Champions League Trophy  (Image from UEFA)

The Prize every club wants – Champions League Trophy
(Image from UEFA)

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.

Rangers brought in Laudrup to help with their Champions League ambitions  (Image from Getty)

Rangers brought in Laudrup to help with their Champions League ambitions
(Image from Getty)

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.

AEK Record signing Roger Guerreiro  (Image from AFP)

AEK Record signing Roger Guerreiro
(Image from AFP)

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.

2013 Winners Bayern Munich  (Image from PA)

2013 Winners Bayern Munich
(Image from PA)

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.

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April Round up – Goals, Gaffs and Guardiola

A Newcastle fan punches a horse (Image from Getty)May is the one of the most exciting months in domestic football. As the season draws to close, fans are poised on the edge of their seats waiting to see if their team is successful in winning the league, avoiding the drop or lifting the cup. For the first time since their famous win in 1997, Borussia Dortmund are looking forward to the Champions League final at Wembley on the 25th May, where they will face either Barcelona or fierce rivals Bayern Munich. The odds are firmly stacked against the Spanish side who trail 4-0 from the first leg but miracles do happen. Back in the Premiership, the fight for the title is over with Manchester United beating Manchester City to the post and picking up their 20th title, an english record. All eyes are now focused on the bottom of the table to see who will join QPR and Reading in the Championship next year. Newcastle, Wigan, Aston Villa and Sunderland are in a vicious dog fight with all four clubs desperate to avoid the drop.

On the Move - Mario Gotze  (Image from Reuters)

Champions League Final bound – Mario Gotze
(Image from Reuters)

Last month we took at look at two of those teams – Sunderland and Newcastle, focusing on two key stories, Sunderland’s appointment of controversal manager Paolo Di Canio and Newcastle’s recent slump which has left them dangling in the bottom half of the table. Di Canio got off to a flyer with unexpected wins against Everton and Newcastle before being cruelly brought back to earth with a bump by a rampant Aston Villa. Newcastle, who lost the Tyne Wear derby 3-0 have had a bad month, both on the pitch and off it. On the pitch, they crashed out of a winnable Europa League after defeat against Benfica then saw their domestic form slump as well picking up only 5 points out of a possible 15 during April. Off the pitch, the Tyne Wear derby was marred by the return of the english hooligan with Newcastle fans rioting after the match and one fan even punching a police horse. They were not alone in a month to forget for English football followers as fans of Millwall, Stoke, Bradford and Portsmouth all contributed to tarnishing the beautiful game’s reputation.

New Sunderland Boss Di Canio  (Image from Getty)

New Sunderland Boss Di Canio
(Image from Getty)

Also leading the charge in setting a bad example was Liverpool’s Luis Suarez who was banned for 10 games following an incident against Chelsea where he appeared to bite the arm of Branislav Ivanovic. The striker was slammed by his manager and the club for his actions before dramatically performing a U-turn and defending his actions, insisting it wasn’t worth a ten match ban. Very strange indeed. It could have been a lot worse for Liverpool, just look at AEK Athens who are now having to fight for survival without influential young midfielder Giorgos Katidis, now serving a ban for performing a nazi salute as a celebration. The incident which happened in March has not help AEK’s plight as they desperately tried to avoid the drop. However Sunday’s defeat in the final game, and a three-point deduction handed down for fan violence has resulted in AEK being relegated and dropping out of the Greek Super League for the first time in their history.

Suarez sinks his teeth in  (Image from SkySports)

Suarez sinks his teeth in
(Image from SkySports)

As AEK dismiss their manager following relegation, other teams across Europe are gearing up to follow suit. In a piece we called the six degrees of managerial separation, we predicted a chain of events that would start with Real Madrid and exiting manager Jose Mourinho and end back at Real with their new potential coach. See if you agree with us on our predictions. One manager who has already been confirmed is Bayern Munich’s new head coach, Pep Guardiola who has already started his revolution by signing Borussia Dortmund winger Mario Gotze. The player arrives for a record german transfer fee and kicks off what is sure to be a transformational time for the Bavarian club. Another club preparing for a transformational season is Cardiff City who led by Scot Malky Mackay celebrated last month with promotion to the Premiership. Cardiff will want to avoid the same fate as many promoted teams who find the move to difficult and end up back in the Championship after only a year. We looked at what Cardiff need to do to avoid the drop in their first season in England’s top division.

Going in the right direction - Cardiff win promotion  (Image from BBC)

Going in the right direction – Cardiff win promotion
(Image from BBC)

Also making the news last month was the never aging story of Nigerian footballer Taribo West, who Serbian officials are now pursuing over allegations that he lied about his age to gain a contract with Partizan Belgrade. It would appear that he is not the only player to have done this with other players from the same region reported to have done this. Two players who don’t need to do this just yet are Esbjerg’s Youssef Toutouh and Utrecht’s Mike van der Hoorn who made the news in April but for different reasons. Toutouh took the plaudits in April with a stunning effort against high-flying Randers whilst Van Der Hoorn felt the heat due to a clumsy error in Utrechts 6-0 defeat at the hands of AZ Alkmaar. Both players have exciting careers ahead of them so we are sure this won’t be the last time we hear from them. Also featured a crazy Bulgarian coach ripping up a referees cards, a goal from a goalkeeper, Bebeto’s resignation from the CBF and a look at Hamburg’s tactical woes in what proved to be a busy month. May is likely to throw up more interesting stories so please keep checking the blog and enjoy!

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AEK Athens Inch Closer To The Edge Of Despair

AEK AthensWith only two games left to play in the Greek Super League season, five teams are caught up in a relegation dog fight to see which one will join Kerkyra in the football league next year. Among them is AEK Athens, who as one of Greece’s oldest and most prestigious clubs, find themselves staring oblivion in the face for the first time in their illustrious history. Ravaged with debt, unable to play its players and struggling in the league, AEK’s glory days look like they are coming to an end. Its dark days for the once Champions league regulars who have played host to some of Europe’s biggest clubs – Liverpool, Juventus, PSV, Ajax and Real Madrid. Now sitting a single point above the drop zone, AEK could find themselves going out of business if they were to fall into the financially constrained lower divisions.

AC Milan Rino Gattuso challenges Julio Cesar of AEK Athens during Champions League Clash (Image from REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)

AC Milan Rino Gattuso challenges Julio Cesar of AEK Athens during Champions League Clash
(Image from REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)

Greece is suffering from financial turmoil and its football teams have not been left affected. 90% of the clubs in the Super League now operate on vastly reduced budgets, with most having to make significant cost cutting measures last year as the financial crisis took hold, to stay afloat. Transfers are down across all the clubs with only $5.7 million being spent combined by the 16 clubs this season. What makes that figure so remarkable is that five years after Greece shocked the football world by winning Euro 2004, the combined transfer fees in 2009 reached $63 million. But Greek clubs have long been living beyond their means with exuberant transfers and unaffordable wages. Added into that poor business management, corrupt officials and owners and a weak economy, it is no wonder the league is now suffering. Athens “suffering” is rumored to be around the $35million mark with further debt owed in unpaid taxes to the government. As yet they have not come looking for that payment, but it is only a matter of time. Chaos off the pitch has affected events on it, but nothing has been done to prevent rot from setting in.

The financial crisis gripping Greece is now affecting its football teams (Image from Getty)

The financial crisis gripping Greece is now affecting its football teams
(Image from Getty)

Athens had an opportunity yesterday to pull themselves away from the relegation zone, as they faced up to PAS Giannina in a re-arranged fixture. But Athens failed to take their chance and lost the match 2-0 with goals from PAS defender Nikos Korovesis and midfielder Fotis Georgiou. Trailing by two goals at half time, AEK’s German coach Ewald Lienen made two changes bringing on Portuguese midfielder Furtado and Greek youngster Valentinos Vlachos in an effort to haul Athens back into the game but the duo were unable to make the difference. That has been the story of AEK’s season so far, often trailing in matches and unable to introduce the spark needed to get them back into the game. In 28 matches this season, AEK have failed to score in 12 of them, and just as damning have only kept seven clean sheets. Weak at the back and limp up front, AEK look like a shadow of the club they used to be. The once powerful club, who over the years has had great players like Rivaldo, Traianos Dellas, Andreas Stamatiadis, Mimis Papaioannou and Demis Nikolaidis on their books, now relies on inexperienced younger players and journeymen.

Former AEK star, Rivaldo (Image from AP)

Former AEK star, Rivaldo
(Image from AP)

With only two games left, speculation has started over who will stay up or who will go down. The smart money would be on Aris to be relegated, as they face two tricky matches against Asteras Tripolis and Xanthi but Aris have been known  to pull off stunning results when they had to – beating Panathinaikos and drawing with runaway champions, Olympiakos this season. Fellow strugglers Veria face difficult games against Platanias and Panathinaikos but again have taken points off of both teams this season. With OFI a point ahead of AEK, they are not seen as one to watch but they two must secure some points in their remaining two games against Atromitos and Asteras Tripolis if they are to stay in the league.

Running out of time - Ewald Lienen (Image from PA)

Running out of time – Ewald Lienen
(Image from PA)

Ultimately AEK’s fate lies in next Sunday’s crunch game with fellow strugglers, Panthrakikos. A win would all but secure them their league status, a draw would take it to the final week and a defeat would leave their fate in the balance. Having lost the last time the two sides met to a single goal by Marama Vahirua, the odds are stacked against the Athens side. It has been a season to forget with results on the pitch often overshadowed by events off of it. Political scandal followed financial disaster followed player scandals, most recently with Greek under 21 captain and rising AEK star Girogos Katidis being suspended by the club and then the FA for performing a Nazi salute as a goal celebration (as covered in a blog last month). With two games left to focus on, Lienen and his players will know that two wins will be enough to secure their place for next year. Anything less could well spell the end for AEK Athens as we know it.

Remaining Fixtures:

  14/04/13 AEK Athens vs. Panthrakikos    
    Aris vs. Asteras Tripolis    
    Veria vs. Platanias    
    OFI vs. Atromitos    
   21/04/13 Panathinaikos vs. Veria    
    Xanthi vs. Aris    
    Asteras Tripolis vs. OFI    
    Atromitos vs. AEK Athens    
    Panthrakikos vs. Kerkyra    
         

Super League Table:

Tables and Fixtures by Soccerway.com

For more on the crisis facing greek football, read this great piece by George Tsitsonis in Inside The Game: http://www.insidefutbol.com/2013/03/22/inside-the-game-financial-crisis-takes-toll-on-football-in-greece/81752/

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Greece Bans Player After Nazi Salute

Some players find it hard to contain their emotions after scoring which has led to the trend of over celebrating. Backflips, knee slides and shirt removing are some of the many methods used to show the adulation of hitting the back of the net. But occasionally some players take it a step too far and spark controversy like in the case of Robbie Fowler. In 1999, the former Liverpool striker was fined £60,000 by his club for bringing the game into disrepute after he celebrated scoring against rivals Everton by going down on his hands and knees and simulating snorting cocaine using the chalked white goal line as a substitute for the drug. Similarly Paul Gascoigne found himself in hot water at Rangers when, after scoring against arch rivals Celtic in 1998, he proceeded to simulate playing the flute, a Loyalist symbol, much to the annoyance of the travelling Catholic Celtic support.

Thin white line - Fowler (Image by Jack Dawes)

Thin white line – Fowler
(Image by Jack Dawes)

The latest player to join this illustrious club is Greek midfielder Giorgos Katidis. The 20-year-old AEK Athens player is at the centre of a media storm after his goal celebration on Saturday during Athens game against Veria. With his side drawing the match 1-1 with less than six minutes left on the clock, Katidis got his toe onto a wayward shot by teammate Giorgos Koutroumbis to put AEK into a 2-1 lead. Katidis, with the emotions pumping through his veins proceeded to run towards the Athens fans and removed his shirt. What he did next has shocked the game as he threw up his right arm and making a Nazi salute.

Error of Judgement or deliberate? (Image from AP)

Error of Judgement or deliberate?
(Image from AP)

As his teammates ran to celebrate with him, quick thinking AEK Athens coaching staff pull his arm down but it was too late as thousands of pictures and videos of the salute had already been taken. The pictures have gone viral and cause outrage across the world with many condemning the actions of the player. Forced to act, the Greek FA ( Hellenic Football Federation) have come out publicly blasting the player for his actions and now banning him for life from playing for any Greek national team. In a statement, the FA deemed his actions to be “inappropriate” and “in bad taste”:

The action by the player to salute spectators with a Nazi salute defies common sense, profoundly shows disrespect to all the victims of Nazi atrocities and injures the peaceful and deeply human character of football. The Greek football federation condemns unequivocally and categorically such actions. We will take all appropriate steps “to preserve the peaceful nature of football and to promote the values of solidarity, cooperation and respect that it professes.

Surprisingly the club has come out defending the player with German coach Ewald Lienen claiming that the player had no knowledge of what the salute meant and had seen it on the internet. He talked about how distraught the player was in the dressing room after the game, when he realised what he had done. He went on to say that Katidis is a young kid who does not have any political ideas and this was unlike him. However AEK has yet to confirm if the player still has a future at the club, stating only that he will appear before an internal disciplinary committee before being sent away on an extended break until a decision can be made about his future.

Katidis playing for Greece Under 21 (Image from Getty)

Katidis playing for Greece Under 21
(Image from Getty)

Katidis appears to be regretting his actions, immediately taking to Twitter that night to defend himself, simply posting: “I am not a fascist and I would not have done it if I had known what it means. I know the consequences and I would never have done it.” Unfortuanetly the damage may be too severe for Katidis to save his footballing career. A star for Greece’s youth teams and a former Under 19 captain, Katidis must now face up to the realistic possibility that he will never play for his country again which will be devastating to the player. However he must live with his actions, and take the punishment given to him. Over time, the feelings and media frenzy will die down to a simmer and Katidis may eventually be able to resurrect his career once more.

To see the video and judge for yourself, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXnqosj9UVo

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