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 soccer club from Cyprus is one game away from achieving an unprecedented level success on the small Mediterranean island.
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, European soccer's governing body, and the team's annual budget is about $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 affected the team's bottom line. APOEL President Phivos Erotokritou said the club has so far pocketed $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 $1.35 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.