Back in August, APOEL’s fans were crushed. The Champions League draw for the group stages was set — and the tiny Cypriots had not drawn Real Madrid.
Fast forward to March 16 and the draw for the last eight of the Champions League. Again, APOEL’s fans were crushed. This time, they had drawn Real Madrid.
This is the story of the competition’s most unlikely quarterfinalists. APOEL is a club from the tiny island of Cyprus, a nation with little more than 800,000 inhabitants. It’s smaller than Delaware. And yet, APOEL’s run to the final eight has given hope to small clubs all across the world. They have proved that a place among the elite of world soccer does not have to be the stuff of dreams.
Last summer, it was regarded as wildly unlikely that APOEL could even finish third in their group and grab a Europa League spot. The best case scenario for the club was to get a chance to play against some of the continent’s best players, make a little money, and visit some nice, big cities along the way. Thus, the fans hoped for Madrid. The weather is nice, and the food is too.
Now, the team from Nicosia with an annual budget of around $12 million — barely enough to match Jose Mourinho’s salary —are facing an epic test. The fans realize that with Madrid, their fairytale European campaign is probably nearing its end.
It’s not a stretch to say that APOEL got here in the first place thanks to UEFA boss Michel Platini. Determined to create an easier path to the Champions League for teams from smaller leagues, Platini instituted a number of controversial reforms. Those have been heavily debated, but they allowed APOEL to surface in 2009, when they made the group stages.
That experience proved invaluable for APOEL in two ways. Foremost, the Cypriots were able to clear their debt, managing to keep hold of their coach, Serbian tactician Ivan Jovanovic, and their best players. Then, buoyed by the promise of playing in the big show, they were able to add Brazilians of Gustavo Manduca and Ailton Almeida to their roster. Between them, the duo has scored a total of 12 of the team’s 18 goals in the competition, counting the qualifiers.
But goals are not APOEL’s forte. The defensive minded squad have averaged less than a goal a game in their 8 matches since making the group stage. Instead, they have charmed fans with their discipline in the back — and surprisingly, it hasn’t been dull. APEOL have put on several battling displays and the fact is, they ended up topping a group that included two-time European champions FC Porto.
The crowning moment of their campaign came in the last round, where APOEL took a thrilling penalty shootout victory against a vastly more experienced Lyon side. Egged on by 22,700 passionate fans, APOEL shocked everyone by going forward. APOEL stunned Lyon by running at them from them and were rewarded when they scored in the first ten minutes. It is not unfair to say that they were perhaps a little unlucky not to win the game in normal time.
APOEL have used their modest resources to great effect, with a work ethic that has allowed them to overcome a modest budget. ‘Example A’ would be how goalkeeper Dionisis Chiotis played against Lyon. Penalty kicks are a lottery, but in that shootout, Chiotis made his own luck.
Chiotis saved two penalties and guessed correctly on four out of five of the spot kicks. How? Meticulous preparation. Chiotis revealed after the game that he had studied DVD’s of all of Lyon’s penalties over the last three years.
“I believed that I would save a penalty, I was certain of it and I did it,” Chiotis said, simply.
While the question surrounding the club has been ‘how far can they go,’ APOEL have never been short of confidence. Their motto in the Champions League has been to ‘fight to win by giving everything on the pitch.’
It is unlikely that this spirit and fight will prove to be enough against mighty Real Madrid. But as Jovanovic’s men have shown time and time again this season — APOEL can make the unthinkable happen.