Nassos Stylianou reports from Cyprus, where teams have been successful in the European competitions this season despite their tiny budgets
"This time, we are not here just to have fun." So said APOEL Nicosia coach Ivan Jovanovic in August, after his team had booked their place in the Champions League group stages for the second time in three seasons. However, as Jovanovic and his players received a heroes' welcome as they passed through the airport following the draw with Zenit St Petersburg that saw them qualify to the last 16, they were certainly enjoying themselves.
They had every reason to celebrate. APOEL had just become the first ever Cypriot side to progress to the knockout stage of the competition, doing so with a game to spare. Jovanovic may have taken APOEL's Champions League participation seriously, but he was one of the few. The Nicosia side has undoubtedly been the surprise package of a Champions League group stage that receives plenty of criticism for its predictability, with many questioning the presence of teams like APOEL at the expense of representatives from the more illustrious European leagues.
The reforms introduced by Michel Platini to the format of Champions League qualification in 2009 have made it easier for teams winning the domestic league outside the 12 highest-ranking countries, such as Cyprus, to make the groups. APOEL avoided being drawn against the likes of Arsenal, Udinese, Bayern Munich and Lyon this season. Instead they had to overcome Polish champions Wisla Krakow in the play-off.
In the same week that APOEL progressed to the last 16, two of the other teams that have benefited from the revamp – Croatians Dinamo Zagreb and Belgian champions Genk – were on the end of embarrassing European thrashings, conceding six and seven goals respectively.
The Cypriot champions, however, have never been in danger of capitulating under superior opposition. They have proved the perfect example of how far solid organisation and team spirit can take you on the most modest of resources. "We may be a small team compared to the European giants but we are a team with a big heart," Jovanovic said.
The Brazilian Aílton Almeida has been central to the team's supremely effective counter-attacking strategy. Jovanovic signed the striker last summer for a club record fee of just under £850,000, a fraction of what other Champions League clubs pay on transfers. APOEL's annual budget is estimated at just below £10 million. Their Group G opponents Porto, Zenit and Shakhtar Donetsk have all paid more than that on transfer fees on individual players this season.
Football enthusiasts in Cyprus have been spoilt in the last few years. APOEL's success represents just part of what has been a golden period for local club football. The island has had a team in the Champions League in three of the last four seasons, after Anorthosis Famagusta became the first to qualify for the group stages in 2008. Since then, APOEL have featured twice.
AEK Larnaca, a club that was playing second division football just three years ago, are currently taking part in the Europa League group stage – another first for a Cypriot club. By the end of the season there is the distinct possibility that Cyprus could have two teams in the Champions League in the 2013-14 season. This is a remarkable feat for a country with a population of only 800,000, the smallest with a team in the competition.
While club football on the island is going through a purple patch, the same cannot be said about the national team. Despite a 4-4 draw against Portugal, Cyprus finished bottom of their Euro 2012 qualifying group with just two points. This is in stark contrast to the 14 points they secured in the 2008 campaign, which included a draw with Germany, a victory over Wales and a 5-2 defeat of the Republic of Ireland.
A reason that the success has not been shared by the national side may be that none of these club sides has been reliant on Cypriot players in Europe. In their victory against Porto, APOEL had only three locals on the pitch, from a squad that includes six Brazilians and three Portuguese players.
In the last few years, the influence of foreign managers and players has unquestionably raised the standard of football in the country. The hope remains that these recent achievements in European competition will further inspire young home-grown talent to compete with foreign imports. However, this optimistic viewpoint is not shared by many. Regardless, the achievements of Anorthosis Famagusta, AEK Larnaca and in particular APOEL Nicosia have, in the words of former AEK boss Ton Caanen, "shown that Cyprus is not just a tourist destination – we also play quality football here."
From WSC 299 January 2012