Tough love

Olympiakos’s Champions League qualifier against Anorthosis did not go to plan for the Greeks. Paul Pomonis reports on Cypriot joy

The elimination of Olympiakos in the third qualifying round of the Champions League at the hands of Cypriot champions Anorthosis Famagusta was greeted in Greece with the traditional mixture of disbelief and outrage reserved for national sporting disasters: “Grief and unending sorrow”, “Crime and punishment” screamed two Olympiakos-friendly Athens sport papers. Although Anorthosis were grudgingly recognised as worthy winners, they were offered scant credit for their qualification, which was instead blamed on Olympiakos’s “bad luck” and “fatal mistakes”. As Anorthosis veteran Stefanos Lyssandrou noted: “It is as if Olympiakos were alone on the pitch.” Even at the hour of Cypriot football’s biggest triumph, the Greeks chose to completely ignore their “brethren”.

Not that there is anything new in this attitude. Greeks care surprisingly little about Cyprus. This is particularly evident when it comes to football: while most Cypriots follow closely the Greek League few, if any, Greeks respond in kind. Despite the string of recent Cypriot successes at club and national-team levels, perceptions of Cypriot football in Greece continue to be shaped by the disastrous participation of the island’s clubs in the Greek league from 1967 to 1974. In an era when Greece’s military regime dreamed of incorporating Cyprus in their state, the Cypriot champions were invited to participate in the Greek League for the following season, but they only finished above the bottom two places on one occasion.

Traditional disdain as well as their own absurd megalomania meant that Olympiakos failed to acknowledge the progress their Champions League opponents had made in recent years. In fact, since Temuri Ketsbaia took over as coach in 2004, Anorthosis had been making progress towards the Champions League and UEFA Cup group stages, and it can be argued that the only reason they had so far failed to do so was UEFA’s extremely unfair seeding and ­preliminary‑round systems.

Despite losing 3-0 in the first leg in Larnaca, Olympiakos stubbornly refused to learn from painful experience, approaching the return leg with an insouciance that prompted the Athens sport daily Goal to ask: “Why so much optimism?” Far from melting in the “Karaiskaki Stadium cauldron”, as had been predicted by the Greek media, a spirited Anorthosis team comfortably held on to their home-leg advantage to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, a first for Cypriot football.

That they managed to do so despite having being the target of a systematic intimidation campaign throughout their stay in Athens only added to the Cypriots’ sense of pride. Anorthosis chairman Andres Panagi observed that the Greeks had been worse than the Turks in their treatment of his team. This was very poignant statement indeed from the chairman of a club that were forced to flee their home town of Famagusta by the Turkish army in 1974.

If reaction in Greece was one of shock and embarrassment, in Cyprus, a country where the dearth of sporting success goes hand in hand with national insecurity, enthusiasm led to extravagant excesses. The measured tones of congratulatory telegram from President Dimitris Christofias (“Anorthosis triumph made us all proud”) were soon drowned by delirium: “Small Cyprus showed that it possesses the biggest Hellenic heart,” wrote the match correspondent of the daily Simerini. “Small Cyprus proved that it is a much worthier bearer of the Hellenic Flag and that in Cyprus we know how to honour our ideals and our blood.”

Irrespective of the Greek Cypriots’ national fantasies, what Anorthosis’s qualification amply demonstrated was the inherent unfairness of the Champions League qualification system: the Cypriots had to consecutively knock out the Armenian, the Austrian and the Greek champions just to reach the same stage as CFR Cluj, a team they had knocked out of the UEFA Cup only last season.

Still, after reaching the groups, Anorthosis can look forward with justified optimism. The additional Champions League income is estimated as anything between €5.4 million and €10m, which for a team with a €3m annual budget could prove critical. Anorthosis’s success may not have the far-reaching consequences on the international scene that Greek Cypriot politicians seem to believe, but it will most probably alter the shape of Cyprus football for years to come. Ketsbaia was being candid in his post-match interview at the Karaiskaki when he declared: “It feels like having won the Champions League. From now on, we can all relax and just enjoy the ride.”

From WSC 260 October 2008