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
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
”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
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.