Before arriving at AEK Athens for the 2015-16 Superleague Greece season Ronald Vargas’ decade-long career included league titles in Venezuela and Belgium as well as a UEFA Champions League experience.
But two years earlier, AEK was a club in deep crisis. The 2012-13 Greek Super League season was the worst in its history as an off-field incident saw the club docked three points resulting in a second-last place league finish and relegation.
For the first time in 54 seasons the yellow and blacks would not be playing in Greece’s top flight. But that wasn’t the end of the disappointment as the club’s decision to self-regulate meant AEK’s 2013-14 campaign would be played in Football League Two – three tiers below Superleague Greece.
However, under the guidance of AEK coach Traianos Dellas, the club bounced back quickly earning promotion season on season and the 2015-16 campaign saw the Athens-based side back playing with the big boys.
This is where Vargas began his time in Greece where, for two seasons, the Venezuelan import lit up the league, winning silverware and helping to restore AEK’s dignity. Now in Australia with A-League club Newcastle Jets, Vargas took time out from his pre-season training to speak to Neos Kosmos about his two-year playing experience in the Mediterranean.
“I liked Greece a lot,” he says.
“It’s a very good country and a great city where I was staying in Athens. Before I came to AEK Athens I lost two, maybe three years with injury so I really went there wanting to enjoy playing football as I much as I could.
“The quality of football in Greece is good. It’s a very strong competition. In every league it’s very different, so you try and adapt yourself. But in Greece it was good. It’s not a surprise because in international competitions like the European Champions League and the Europa League, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and PAOK are strong.”
In 2006 at the age of 17, Vargas made his senior football debut with Venezuelan club side Caracas where he won two championships and was named as the league’s top player in 2007-08.
Vargas has 18 caps for his country and in June 2008 scored in Venezuela’s 2-0 win over Brazil helping his nation make history by beating their South American rivals for the first time. Then, at the beginning of the 2008-09 campaign, Vargas moved to Europe to play in Belgium with Club Brugge for a transfer fee of €1.5 million.
After gradual improvement, the number 10’s break-out season came in his third year when the skillful attacker ended up being the Belgium League’s second top goal scorer.
Those performances earned Vargas a move to Anderlecht in 2011-12 where he won three league titles and a Super Cup but unfortunately an ACL injury limited him to just 23 games in three seasons.
Looking to start again, Vargas spent the 2014-15 season with Turkish club Balikesirspor and says the 25 games he played that term were crucial to getting his fitness back.
“Turkey was something new for me,” he says.
“The league has a lot of big players and most of them are in the big clubs who pay a lot of money for them.
“I was there for nine months and it was good because I played many games. In Belgium I came from a big injury and I was out for many months. What I was looking for was to play as much as possible and get my game condition back. We didn’t do that well in the season because we were a small team but it was a very nice experience there.”
With his injury troubles behind him, Vargas then joined AEK Athens the following season and made an instant impact on his Super League debut scoring against Platanias Chanion. But just a few months later AEK’s coach Dellas resigned and was replaced by Uruguayan former Chelsea star Gus Poyet.
And Vargas says that having a fellow Spanish speaker allowed him to make the transition to Greek football easier.
“Absolutely,” he says.
“Before he came, the Greek coach Dellas was very good also. But with Gus Poyet coming in and with both of us from South America speaking the same language, it was very good. My first season with AEK was very nice, also the atmosphere that the fans brought was very, very special.”
Vargas’ performances in the league helped the newly promoted side challenge for the top three places. ‘Ronito’ as Vargas was affectionately known, endeared himself to the AEK Athens faithful for the number of match-winning goals he produced in some of the club’s biggest games of the season.
“It was amazing,” Vargas recalls. “I was lucky to have scored in a number of derbies. It did a lot for me and my career and for the fans, the club and for everyone there because it was a club that was coming from the second division.”
That season Vargas netted 11 goals in the league with the most memorable being the penalty he scored in the famous 1-0 win over Olympiakos in front of the 31,110, predominately delighted, AEK Athens fans.
“It was a goal that you never forget,” he says.
“Because of how huge the pressure is and the atmosphere of the fans and how much they want you to win. Normally Olympiakos is one of the best teams but I had the chance to score against them in this game and to also score against Panathinaikos and PAOK. It was a really amazing time. You never forget because of all the rivalry that the fans have.”
AEK finished in third place in the Greek Super League that season which also earned them a spot in the Europa League. Vargas’ contribution didn’t end with the league as he helped AEK make the final of the Greek Cup with the Venezuelan’s winning goal against Levadiakos helping the club reach the semifinal.
The Cup final saw AEK Athens take on Olympiakos and Vargas’ two assists in the decider saw the yellow and blacks beat their cross-town rivals again 2-1. Looking back on his first season with AEK, Vargas says the newly promoted club achieved great things.
“We did very well,” he says. “I can honestly say that about my first year with AEK. But in the league Olympiakos were stronger. They were very, very good and they won by 30 points. But we won the Cup against them and it was a really, really nice time there for me.”
However, Vargas’ second season in Greece didn’t reach the same heights as his first. The Venezuelan international only made 16 appearances in the league with seven as a substitute. So, after his two-year Greek odyssey ended, the attacker looked to Australia for the next challenge.
“Now that I am 30 years old I just want to play football, I love this sport,” he says.
“I don’t want to be in a team where I am not selected sometimes or where I cannot play. That’s why I decided to go my own way. Coming to Newcastle Jets is another new adventure, a new experience. I will try and do my best to adapt myself to this league and to my teammates and I really hope that I am able to do this.”