|APOEL Nicosia defied the odds against Lyon and gave the Cypriot nation reason to cheer [Reuters]
No one gave tiny Cypriot club APOEL much of a chance to get past a vastly more experienced Lyon and book a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Maybe that worked in APOEL's favour as they conjured up what local fans are hailing as a miracle by handing the French giants a stunning loss in a penalty shootout and notching what many see as the small Mediterranean island's greatest sporting triumph.
"People believed in this miracle, 90 percent of fans have said that APOEL going through was difficult but possible,'' die-hard APOEL fan and former fan club president Alecos Karolides said.
"For us, it's as if we've already won the Champions League. From this point on, it doesn't matter what happens"
Former fan club president Alecos Karolides
"For us, it's as if we've already won the Champions League. From this point on, it doesn't matter what happens.''
The win turned Nicosia's downtown into a sea of orange early as thousands of fans decked out in their team's colours broke out into wild celebrations.
Many honked horns in APOEL flag-festooned cars while the intersection in front of the team's clubhouse spontaneously turned into a massive street party where fans danced, chanted, and lit orange flares.
APOEL had been the tournament's biggest surprise in years even before Wednesday's game. The club with a budget of just $13 million had already become the first Cypriot team ever to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Now it seems to have advanced farther than any of the rich English clubs this season - unless Chelsea can overturn a two-goal deficit against Napoli at home next week.
"I wasn't afraid at any time during the course of the match. I believed that we would advance after the end of regulation time,'' APOEL defender Savvas Poursaitides told local radio station Radio Proto.
"We are a very good team and with these wonderful fans beside us, we're not afraid of anything... All the players believed that we could beat (Lyon).''
'You can advance'
APOEL were again helped by the 23,000 screaming fans that inundated Nicosia's GSP stadium - the biggest on the island of less than a million people - who rhythmically chanted "You can advance" during the game.
The players responded.
Gustavo Manduca netted early to level the score at 1-1 on aggregate. And with neither side able to break the deadlock in extra time, APOEL goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis proved the decisive factor by pulling off two diving saves to block penalties from Alexandre Lacazette and Michel Bastos.
"Chiotis was the hero, he was the shiniest example of this team's spirit,'' Karolides said.
APOEL official Takis Antoniou said Chiotis and the coaching staff had studied the Lyon players carefully to memorise which side of the net each player favors in shootouts.
For Cypriot fans, this was the biggest sports triumph on an international stage since tennis player Marcos Baghdatis reached the 2006 Australian Open final before losing to Roger Federer.
|Gustavo Manduca scored the equaliser that led to a penalty shoot-out [AFP]
The accolades poured in Thursday, from the top of the island's political hierarchy to football officials.
Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias congratulated APOEL on an "historic achievement.''
"APOEL continues unimpeded from success to success, promoting first and foremost Cyprus and Cypriot football,'' Christofias said in a letter to APOEL President Phivos Erotokritou.
"You've made us all proud.''
Christofias also praised coach Ivan Jovanovic for his professionalism and talent, crediting him as the "architect" of APOEL's success.
Parliamentary speaker Yiannakis Omirou said APOEL's "magical journey" was the most important chapter in the history of Cypriot football.
Official opposition DISY party leader Nicos Anastasiades echoed the sentiments, saying APOEL's feat has made all Cypriots proud.
The Cyprus Football Association said APOEL's accomplishments has made it Cyprus' ambassador to the world.
"We share the joy which you have given us with your successes and we look forward to living similar moments in the future,'' the association said in a statement.