LONDON, ENGLAND – A couple of years ago at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea finished off their Champions League group phase with an underwhelming 2-2 draw. It wasnt particularly significant to the vast majority of the crowd. Chelsea were already qualified, already confirmed as group winners, and the coach Carlo Ancelotti, at the time - felt able to play an experimental team, resting some key performers and promoting some fringe players. The significance was felt, though, in the away end, where thousands of Cypriots made their own carnival as their team, APOEL, relished their Champions League experience.
As far as Chelseas supporters were concerned, APOEL were just one of those novelty acts you come across in the Champions League occasionally. Over the years a few lucky gatecrashers have made it to Europes ultimate footballing party. Remember the likes of FC Thun, Artmedia Bratislava and Molde? But here we sit, two seasons down the line, and APOEL are not only back, they are in the last eight of the Champions League. They have gone way further than a host of clubs with huge European pedigree such as Manchester United, Porto and Ajax. They are in the hat for the quarterfinals with Barcelona, AC Milan and Benfica. Not too difficult to spot the odd one out there. Michel Platini, UEFAs president, has done his bit for the smaller nations by engineering the qualification route to make it easier for unfashionable teams to get into the Champions League. But APOEL still needed to negotiate three rounds of pre-qualifiers, which they sailed through. To give it a bit more perspective, they were ranked by UEFA as 77th in their club rankings at the start of the competition. Now they are in the last eight. It is the kind of turn up that makes sport so compelling. However outlandish, there is always the tiny chance of a miracle.
Cyprus is an island with a population of just over one million whose inhabitants are passionate about football. Many ardently follow the big overseas leagues, and until one of their own managed to qualify three years ago, the Champions League would be an occasion for fans to gather round their televisions and enjoy. To actually have a Cypriot team in the quarterfinals is absolutely phenomenal. The president of the country, Demetris Christofias, sent a letter of to the club congratulating them for making us all proud. APOEL fever has taken over. They took 5000 fans to France for the first leg of their tie against Lyon. The second leg could have sold out several times over in Nicosia. It is easy to fall in love with this fairy story. All the more so when there is so much about modern football that is quite difficult to like. That APOEL's progression was confirmed the day after Chelsea played their first game in the aftermath of the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, with Fernando Torres turning down the chance to break his barren scoring run by preferring not to take a penalty, somehow demonstrated the yin and yang of football these days. APOEL have an annual budget of around $11 million, which covers wages and transfer fees. Just as a point of comparison, Chelsea were reported as having spent $37 million to hire Villas-Boas ($21 million as compensation to previous club Porto and $16 million as a pay-off to Ancelotti). Chelsea are currently on their eighth coach in as many years. Obviously, the millions Roman Abramovich has put into Chelsea dwarfs the finances at a club like APOEL. Besides, football is about a lot more than balance sheets, so that should not be the only way in which we judge everything. But for Platini, who has never hidden his distaste for the kind of billionaire funding some fortunate clubs are backed by, the journey made by a club like APOEL is extremely meaningful.
Their success is an example of inspired management, well thought out investment, and clever team building. Their recruitment policy, of buying in bulk (particularly from Latin America and Portugal), is proving successful. Most of their players are not good enough to be considered for their national teams, but they have written history with a club that has exceeded the wildest dreams of everyone who backs the club. Ivan Jovanovic, their Serbian coach, summed it up beautifully after they defeated Lyon on penalties. "Nothing makes you happier than seeing so many people rejoice from your achievement," he said. "We never believed that we would be where we are today. But when you have players with so much confidence, then it is possible. When you have a stadium filled with fans like ours, then it is possible." For making the impossible possible, football owes APOEL a huge pat on the back.