The miracle of Apoel Nicosia

Al Jazeera's Lee Wellings visits Cyprus to find out what Apoel Nicosia's run in the Champions League means to the club.

    Apoel players celebrate after shocking Lyon to become first Cypriot team to make quarter-finals [Reuters]

    The eyes of veteran sports writer Andreas Paphitis widen as he talks to me at the clubhouse of Apoel Nicosia FC. He's never experienced anything like this before - a club from Cyprus in the last eight of the Champions League, for the first time in history.

    They have come through 14 games including a penalty shoot out against Lyon - now they have a crack at Real Madrid.

    That's the Real Madrid who have been champions of Europe nine times. For whom Cristiano Ronaldo cost more than ten times more than the entire Apoel squad put together.

    In the clubhouse Apoel have many trophies of their own - but this success has come at domestic level in Cyprus. Some of these trophies were lifted by the club's most respected ex-player, Andreas Stylianou. Now a director at the club, he too is in a state of disbelief.

    "All of Cyprus is asking themselves - is it a reality that Apoel is amongst the eight of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea. So it's strange for us. It's like a dream"

    Former Apoel player Andreas Stylianou

    "All of Cyprus is asking themselves - is it a reality that Apoel is amongst the eight of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea. So it's strange for us. It's like a dream," he told Al Jazeera's Lee Wellings.

    Andreas is a nervous watcher of football - so this season has been quite an experience as the club have shocked the likes of Porto, Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon. Even when Apoel are winning, Andreas has found the tension so unbearable he's gone to his car halfway through games and left the radio switched off.

    It wasn't like this when he was captain of Apoel and the Cyprus national team. He admits the ambition then was sometimes just to keep the score down. He was captain in a famous match in 1975 when Malcolm Macdonald scored all five goals in England's 5-0 win.

    Such inferiority is unthinkable to this Apoel team - with a heavy Brazilian and Portuguese contingent amongst the Cypriot and Greek players. Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic has taken ordinary players and produced extraordinary performances.

    There are no big stars - but some talented players who are shining in the spotlight. Like Ailton the Brazilian striker.  He talks to me about how proud this unbelievable cup run has made the fans...

    "Yes and not only for the fans of Apoel"  he expands, "but the whole of Cyprus. It's a very small island and no-one at the beginning of Champions League thought we would reach this point. One of eight best in Europe against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals."

    Divided capital

    This is almost certainly the finest moment in Cypriot football history - but Ailton has diplomatically avoided one group of people who aren't delighted.

    I spoke to him after a fierce goalless draw against bitter local rivals Omonia Nicosia. There was antipathy and venom across the stadium, split equally between the green of Omonia and the yellow and orange flavoured Apoel fans.

    Most Omonia fans told me they will cheer Real Madrid. Others refused to talk about it.

    A divide like this is not unusual in Nicosia. The capital is literally and politically divided into Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot territory. There is no mixing after a 'green line' was drawn in 1974, so called because of the colour of a diplomat's pen as he marked the map.

    Now a football club is marking it's own territory - rubbing shoulders with Europe's elite.

    There is no guarantee this will happen again - no wonder there has been such a scramble for tickets. Less than 23,000 can have a seat for the first leg (Tuesday March 27) so some who slept in cars and queued for hours to get tickets were left disappointed.

    Whatever happens over two legs in Nicosia and Madrid the achievements of this team, and the time they took on Jose Mourinho and co, will never be forgotten.

    Inside this clubhouse, across the island of Cyprus and beyond.

    Lee Wellings is Al Jazeera's London Sports Correspondent.

    Follow him on Twitter: @LeeW_Sport

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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