Cypriot club closes in on Champions League success

Founded inside a pastry shop in the heart of the capital’s old

Venetian-walled city, a nondescript football club from the small

Mediterranean island of Cyprus is one game away from savoring the

sweet smell of success.

APOEL Nicosia is unbeaten through four matches in the group

stage of Europe’s top club tournament, and at least a draw against

Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg would make the it the first

Cypriot team to reach the competition’s knockout round.

”We’re living a dream. Everybody’s living a dream on our

team,” said APOEL striker Ailton, a Brazilian who is the team’s

most expensive signing. ”Everybody believes very much in what

we’re doing, in the objectives we have. We really believe in

ourselves. We really believe that we can win.”

And that’s a lot to ask.

APOEL is ranked only 77th by UEFA, the governing body of

European football, and the team’s annual budget is about ?10

million ($13.5 million) – a paltry sum compared to what other top

teams spend each year.

”APOEL has proved that such successes can be achieved on a

modest budget,” Cypriot Football Association President Costas

Koutsokoumnis said. ”It’s not a matter of how much you spend on

players, but about long-term planning and keeping a coach on for a

few years to build the team.”

But APOEL’s success in the Champions League has already had an

effect on the team’s bottom line. APOEL President Phivos

Erotokritou said the club has so far pocketed a ?12 million ($16.18

million), and more is in store if APOEL advances.

Then there’s the boost to the APOEL brand. Team marketing

manager Phivos Papadopoulos said orders for APOEL merchandise from

a new online shop have come from as far afield as Brazil, Canada

and Ghana.

The financial boon has even spread to local businesses, with

cafes and betting shops in Nicosia drawing in customers who want to

watch the team on television.

”The fans feel that we can beat anybody and that confidence is

transmitted to the players,” said Alekos Karolides, the

37-year-old head of the Panhellenic Association of APOEL

Supporters, which has 1,500 registered members.

APOEL – an acronym for Athletic Football Club of Greeks of

Nicosia and pronounced ah-poh-EL – is no stranger to success, at

least at the domestic level. The club, which was formed in 1926

when a group of Cypriots met amid the smell of baklava at a sweet

shop in the center of the city, has earned 21 Cypriot league titles

to go along with 19 cup victories and 12 Super Cups.

But nothing can compare to success in the Champions League,

where clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Manchester

United have turned themselves into global brands.

”It’s a bar that teams now measure themselves by,”

Koutsokoumnis said. ”If you said this was possible three years

ago, they’d have called you crazy.”

APOEL opened this year’s group stage against Zenit, beating the

Russian club 2-1 at home. After a 1-1 draw at Ukrainian club

Shakhtar Donetsk, APOEL drew 1-1 at two-time European Cup champion

FC Porto. Another win over Porto at home put the Cypriots in first

place in Group G with eight points, with the top two teams to

advancing to the last 16.

”This team has character and tremendous self-confidence,”

APOEL captain Constantinos Charalambides said. ”There’s no fear at

all when this team walks onto the field.”

Much of team’s success can be attributed to Ailton. The

Brazilian cost the club ?1 million ($1.35 million) – the most APOEL

has ever spent on a single player – and he has scored a string of

clutch goals in the Champions League, including a late winner

against Zenit.

”Of course we have much respect for every team. We know that

they have some big players,” Ailton said. ”But, I mean, inside

the field sometimes it’s much about motivation and this motivation

I think we have found in these games.”

The players also credit coach Ivan Jovanovic, who in turn says

in was their desire to win that has made APOEL successful.

”We’re showing that we’re truly determined to get the result we

want,” said Jovanovic, a 49-year-old Serb who never won a title as

a player but demands success from himself as a coach. ”We’re not a

team that entered the group stage to play defensively and to only

wait for what the opponent it going to do.”

Things weren’t always so positive at APOEL.

Debt and management troubles had plagued the club before its

breakthrough year in 2009 under Erotokritou, the team’s president.

That was the year APOEL first made it to the group stage of the

Champions League, albeit earning only three points from its six

games.

Despite the last-place finish, the injection of money allowed

the club to pay off debts and buy players.

”We know who we are,” said Erotokritou, who leads with a

hands-off approach because he says he doesn’t understand the sport

very well. ”We’re a small team from a small country, but we moved

forward step by step. … Luck doesn’t come by itself. You have to

create your own luck.”

Lucky or not, here they come.