No Greek myth: AEK eye European success
When Filippos Verias, the first Greek team to play an European final, were vying for silverware against Danish powerhouse Skjern Handball in the EHF Challenge Cup 18 years ago, AEK Athens HC were not even on the map.
A newly-minted side, founded only in 2005 but with great ambitions, AEK have quickly become one of the best teams in Greece.
Their step-by-step approach has seen them progressing to the Challenge Cup final in 2017/18, which they lost to Romanian outfit Potaissa Turda 59:49 over two legs, and to the semi-final the following year.
This season, AEK are in the quarter-final of the EHF European Cup Men, with a double-header against HC Neva SPb coming up on Thursday and Friday. Both matches start at 18:00 CET and will be streamed live on EHFTV.
AEK have recently become one of the top teams in Greece, finishing on the podium in the domestic league for the last four seasons and winning the championship for the third time in 2019/20. They are unbeaten this season in six games and challenging for another title.
“AEK are a destination for all aspiring players now. Since this summer, which came with big transfers, I am proud to call AEK the first Greek team which states that they are aiming for an European trophy,” AEK coach Dimitris Dimitroulias said.
Their European season have also been a treat to watch. A 78:25 aggregate win against Kosovar side KS Prishtina in Round 3 of the EHF European Cup was followed by a crucial doubleheader against CSM Bucuresti, the EHF Challenge Cup winners in the 2018/19 season. After a 28:23 loss in the first leg, AEK bounced back and secured a 52:51 aggregate win to progress to the quarter-final.
It was mainly due to their roster and the experience displayed by several players, chief of which is goalkeeper Thomas Bauer. The Austrian shot stopper has represented his national team both at the EHF EURO 2020 and at the Men’s World Championship 2021, also boasting stints in the German Bundesliga and the French Starligue.
“Playing in big cities, at great teams, really boosted my career and my family life. Athens is a vacation destination for many, but it seemed a good choice in the middle of the current health situation and a transfer market that did not yield very good options,” said Bauer.
The Austrian goalkeeper was worth his weight in gold during the second leg against CSM Bucuresti as he saved 20 shots for an outstanding 47.6% efficiency, that basically lifted AEK to a crucial 29:23 win.
Now, the Greek side is facing Neva from St. Petersburg in the quarter-final.
“Eliminating CSM, we knocked out a big favourite for the trophy. So that also leaves us in contention, right? And it is fine by me, because I love trophies,” said the 35-year-old goalkeeper, who played in Austria, Germany, France, Norway and Portugal, before settling in Greece.
AEK are a destination for all aspiring players now. Since this summer, which came with big transfers, I am proud to call AEK the first Greek team which states that they are aiming for an European trophy.
AEK might have an outside chance to repeat the sole Greek trophy win in Europe - when AC Diomidis Argous won the Challenge Cup in 2011/12.
Seven different nationalities – Greek, Serbian, Spanish, Brazilian, Croatian, Austrian and Bosnian – are represented in the squad, with 15 Greek players and four Spanish players forming the core of the team.
“This is for sure the best team I have ever coached, judging from the players that are in the team and the expectations. Whilst I am a young coach, I have experience in many different situations,” added Dimitroulias.
While injured left wing Cristian Ugalde, a silver medalist at the EHF EURO 2016 and bronze medalist two years earlier, is the most experienced player in the roster, no other player has scored more goals for AEK in this European season -16 - than Greek wing Dimitros Tziras.
Yet this does not look like a problem for AEK, rather an advantage.
“Some of the guys even speak German, I speak Portuguese with Patrick Toniazzo, I pretend to speak Spanish, I can say some nasty words in Serbian and if I am really angry, I will speak French or Norwegian, so nobody can understand me,” Bauer said, laughing.
While there might be differences between the players, they are still united by the one thing that matters most for all. Winning. And AEK did plenty of that this season, conceding only one loss in 10 games.
The Greek side are still alive in all competitions they take part in.
“I am not the guy to make everyone happy, but at the end of the season I want to lift three trophies. That would be a huge honour, a present for all AEK fans and for Greek handball in general,” concluded Bauer.
But what about the next tie, against HC Neva St Petersburg? Confidence is brimming.
“I do not want to sound arrogant or play down our opponent, but we are favourites,” the AEK coach said. “And this can be a problem, because we play better as the underdogs. I keep telling my players that being favourites can make us feel good, but also responsible. It is often more difficult to stay at the top, than reaching it.”
AEK’s ambitions are, therefore, certified by their results and roster, which enabled them to aim for their first European trophy. But they are also keeping an eye on the future.
“I can only be clear about our ambitions: we want to play in the EHF European League Men next season. We have one target this season: winning the EHF European Cup,” Dimitroulias said.
“But next season, we want to make the next step. Handball is a team sport and requires a team effort. We win or we lose together.”