When Greece won UEFA EURO 2004™, it seemed inevitable that midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis would be on his way to one of the continent's richest leagues. After all, not only had he announced himself on the international stage, but his club AEK Athens FC were in the midst of a takeover, with heavy debts meaning unpaid wages.
But when the 2004/05 season began, Katsouranis was still at AEK despite several attractive offers, having agreed a new three-year contract while most of his team-mates from the previous campaign had acted on their frustration and left. In the fevered atmosphere that saw AEK's gates quadruple as fans flocked to support the club under new owner Demis Nikolaidis, Katsouranis - who joined in 2002 from Panahaiki GC - adopted a special place in supporters' hearts.
Fifteen months on, the 26-year-old makes no secret of the fact he came close to cutting his losses during that turbulent summer. "I was thinking about leaving," he told uefa.com. "And I would have done if [the current board] had not taken over. These people, and of course Demis Nikolaidis, saved the club from bankruptcy. Before then this team was beset with thousands of problems and nobody was taking responsibility."
Despite radical changes to the squad in the first season under Nikolaidis, players, fans and club staff came together to create a carnival atmosphere at every AEK game. Led by captain Katsouranis, the team responded with some heroic performances, only missing out on UEFA Champions League football on the final day of the campaign. "Everyone connected with the club was united for one purpose: the team," said Katsouranis. "First we had to make the club financially healthy, and then to make sure everything was well organised."
UEFA Cup exit
Season two of the new era has been something of a return to reality for AEK, with elimination from the UEFA Cup against FC Zenit St. Petersburg symbolising a tough campaign. Katsouranis is philosophical, though. "Yes, we were disappointed but not as much as you might imagine," he said. "It was not a disaster for the team. Football is a game with happy times and disappointments."
Still, AEK are again showing good form in the Alpha Ethniki, Sunday's 3-0 victory against arch-rivals Panathinaikos FC taking them third in the table, only two points off the lead. The captain believes a lucrative UEFA Champions League return is a realistic target. "AEK are a big team," he said. "I think this time we have the potential to finish in the top two."
Achieving that may provide consolation for missing out on the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals, after Greece failed to qualify. Katsouranis, however, is looking further into the future. "Of course we are not happy we are out of the World Cup but now we are thinking only of [UEFA] EURO 2008™," he said.
UEFA EURO 2004™ was a victory for coach Otto Rehhagel's committed, pragmatic style, and Katsouranis is confident it can set the tone for further Greek successes. "Mr Rehhagel changed the way Greek teams play and I think many other teams will follow that lead," he said.
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