Amid the flurry of Champions and Europa League matches wedged in between league matches this season, you might have noticed club names like AEL Limassol, APOEL, Apollon, and Omonia – the big four of Cypriot football.
Maybe you batted an eye when you saw APOEL take on Barcelona and Ajax—and come away conceding just a single goal each time. Solid performances from these small Mediterranean island clubs against big names in European competitions mean that it’s time you got familiar. Their supporters are fierce, their spirit is huge, and they’ve proven they’re ready.
Spurs fans will remember the Europa League clash in August 2014 against AEL Limassol, in which the Spurs won both matches of the leg. The second leg in north London in late August featured a large contingent of yellow-clad AEL supporters who made a terrific amount of noise for the team they’d travelled over 3,000 km to support.
That match was broadcast all over the world, which was great news for the Cyprus side whether they knew it or not. AEL keeper Pulpo Romero was handed an unexpected chance to play his first Europa League match after the nose of teammate Karim Fegrouche collided with Kyle Naughton’s knee in the fifth minute. Romero’s first task was to save Harry Kane’s penalty kick, which he did beautifully.
Romero, who arrived in Cyprus from Spain in 2012 to play for AEK Larnaca before moving to AEL in 2013, told me:
My debut in the Europa League was unforgettable–saving a penalty in my first action of the game. [White Hart Lane] was an incredible stadium to play in, and it was a nice experience in my career. No one likes to come on for an injured teammate, but keepers have to be ready all the time.
His teammates have echoed similar sentiments. Ahead of Spurs’ arrival in Cyprus for the first leg in early August, AEL captain Marios Nikolaou told the press:
This game will be an experience for us all and a challenge. We know [Spurs] are a great side but we certainly don’t fear them – we will look them in the eye.… We were handed a tough draw, but that is football and we need to be ready.
The other Cypriot Europa contender this year is Apollon FC, who managed a smooth 3-2 victory over FC Zürich in September at home in Cyprus capital city Nicosia, securing the lead with Zürich’s late own goal. Apollon saw defeat at El Madrigal in a 4-0 loss to Villarreal last week, but there is still plenty of room in this group stage to shine.
In the Champions League, the other Nicosia-based side in Cyprus, APOEL FC, was handed a tough draw, too—their group featured three heavyweights: Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and Ajax. (In July, AEL Limassol saw a Champions 1-0 win against FC Zenit, but lost on aggregate. That knocked AEL out of Champions action in the qualifiers round, but they were still to go on to Europa.)
APOEL lost only 1-0 to Barcelona in September. It was a breathtakingly close defeat considering the gulf in club sizes. APOEL again proved their mettle in a 1-1 draw against Ajax on 30 September in a nervy, well-defended battle that could have easily gone either way. Ajax boss Frank de Boer said ahead of the match:
APOEL have good players who play good football and they also have experience because the average age of the team is 28, with many different nationalities. We all saw them against Barcelona and how good they were.
Romero agreed when I asked him if this was true across the island’s first-division clubs. He said:
The four or five teams that finish at the top of the league have good players with experience in this league, or in other first divisions in countries like Spain, Portugal, or France. The top four or five teams have good budgets and they fight to get into Championship league every year.
Both APOEL and Apollon have complicated groups, but they are doing well. We’ll see their chances in the next games.
Cypriot clubs, which have twelve teams in the top flight with two in promotion/relegation, aren’t strangers to campaigns in Europe. As Romero pointed out, the top four or five that qualify for European action tend to be the same power houses. Here’s a look at the top four clubs:
As mentioned, APOEL have pulled an extraordinarily tough Champions group this year but have held their own. APOEL could easily be AEL or Apollon, so their foothold in this group is fairly representative of the top clubs in the Cypriot first division.
Russian side FC Zenit hadn’t faced AEL before last summer, but they faced APOEL in a 2011 Champions league clash and the results were painful. Zenit suffered a 2-1 defeat at home in St. Petersburg in the first leg, followed by a 0-0 draw.
Only two years ago APOEL defeated Olympique Lyonnais 1-0 in a UEFA Champions League round on 7 March 2012. According to UEFA.com, APOEL goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis said of that match:
We’ve achieved something no one would have thought possible at the start of the season. Things are getting serious now. We need to wait to see who else gets into the quarter-finals, but there isn’t one team we would prefer to play – just let’s avoid Barcelona.
(They lost 8-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.)
Next up for APOEL’s Champions run is Paris Saint-Germain.
In October 1979, Ajax handed FC Omonia their coats in a cringe-worthy 10-0 defeat in the Champion Clubs’ Cup. But in what UEFA.com’s Cypriot reporter John Leonidou wrote might have been the greatest upset in European history, Omonia turned it around a month later in the second leg to defeat Ajax 4-0.
Although the recent match between APOEL and Ajax did not see this kind of goal count or win, the fact that APOEL drew was a reminder that Omonia wasn’t a one-off.
Apollon, based in the southern city of Limassol, has been a mixed bag of wins and defeats over the years. However, its presence in European competitions is steady despite its most recent Europa league performance—the 4-0 loss to Villarreal last week. Apollon saw its biggest European competition win in 1993 with a 4-0 victory over Hungarian side Vác FC in the UEFA Cup first round second leg.
Subsequent years weren’t as kind – Apollon suffered an 8-0 defeat in 1996 from Stockholm side Djurgårdens IF in the UEFA Intertoto Cup group stage. When Ajax drew with APOEL last week in Cyprus, the Amsterdam side might have remembered their UEFA Cup first round visit in 2001, when they won 3-0 over Apollon for an aggregate 5-0 win. Apollon still has work to do in this year’s campaign when they face German side Mönchengladbach in October.
As John Leonidou puts it:
AEL Limassol FC’s 1-0 win against FC Zenit [last summer] was another reminder that Cypriot sides are a force to be reckoned with in Europe.”
Unlike the Zenit visit in 2011 to APOEL, the Zenit of this year is coached by André Villas-Boas, which goes to show that big teams with big names and big managers shouldn’t dismiss smaller clubs.
Romero said that AEL always aims to qualify for Championship. “Everybody knows the importance of going to Europe again: high level of play, the money, and the experience.”
If the solid spirit of their European performances hasn’t convinced you to pat attention to Cypriot clubs, then the image of the exuberant traveling Cypriot supporters at the European matches should. Football support in Cyprus is fierce.
A 2012 Sporting Intelligence article listed Cyprus as one of the top countries – number three, in fact – in terms of fantastic football supporters (the top five countries are, in this order: the oddly surprising Faroe Islands, Iceland, Cyprus, Scotland, and England). Sporting Intelligence noted that ‘Cyprus has one of highest levels of attendance at domestic football in the world when size of population is considered’.
Romero told me:
The fans here are impressive. The atmosphere they create at the matches is incredible. Especially AEL supporters. In Cyprus, you can see football is in the street in the cafes…it is part of the culture.
Gate 3, the AEL ultras group, has quite a catalogue on YouTube.
Frank de Boer said before his Amsterdam side visited APOEL on the island last week:
We know they have a fanatical following and the fans are close to the pitch.
To be sure, fan incidents have caused some recent domestic matches to be played behind closed doors, and in July the Cypriot government voted to require fan cards—registered ID cards that serve as a match ticket – for entry to first division matches.
The card is, as one might imagine, hotly contested by the pyrotechnic-loving ultras (Gate 1, the Apollon ultras, mounted a protest on the day of the vote), but time will tell whether this system combats hooliganism as intended.
Fan incidents aside, Cyprus football has much to offer – it’s rather as shame it doesn’t get more league coverage around the world for its first division campaigns. It is somewhat difficult to find fixtures, league tables, and domestic match reports in English unless one is familiar with the English Cyprus news outlets. Hopefully the fine spirit and form we’ve seen in European competitions will gain greater pundit notice–so Cyprus can take its rightful place in the mass of quality European football.
Maybe Apollon defender Giorgos Merkis put it best after a 1-0 Apollon win over Legia Warszawa in a March 2013 Europa league group stage clash:
These are magical moments. We secured a massive win because we believed we could do it.