Apoel Nicosia’s European progress excites exile March Burchill
By reaching the last eight of the Champions League Apoel have lifted Cyprus, impressing exile Mark Burchill in the process
ACCORDING to Mark Burchill, Apoel Nicosia could have sold 200,000 tickets for this week’s first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid, not bad considering that the total population of Cyprus amounts to little more than a million. Unlike the masses who queued in vain for a brief last week, or even the desperate souls who slept overnight in the club car park, the former Celtic striker will be one of 22,000 in the GSP Stadium on Tuesday evening to witness a match like no other in the country’s history. “I have friends in high places,” he smiles.
That Burchill, who plays for Enosis Paralimni, is so keen to be there says a lot about the occasion. Having already become the first Cypriot team to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League, Apoel Nicosia went a step further by beating Lyon in the round of 16, the upshot of which is that no one, not even an exiled Scot playing for one of Apoel’s rivals, wants to miss the visit of Jose Mourinho and the team who have conquered Europe nine times.
“People support their own teams, like everywhere else, but because Apoel have done so well, the whole country is totally behind them,” says Burchill. “It’s like Apoel have become a national team rather than a club. In Scotland, if Celtic were to get this far, I’m not so sure Rangers people would be supporting them, but here, it’s a smaller place, and every single person, from babies to grannies, is over the moon.
“Which is as it should be because this is the best thing that has ever happened to Cyprus. Bar none. They have never, ever had an occasion like this, whether in sport or anything. For a country of this size to have a club play as well as they have and get this far. . . I’m delighted for them.”
Apoel have won 21 league titles in their homeland, and two years ago became only the second Cypriot club to reach the group stages of the Champions League, but this season they have done more for their Mediterranean island than anyone dared to imagine. After negotiating qualifying rounds against Skenderbeu, Slovan Bratislava and Wisla Krakow, they topped a group that also included Zenit St Petersburg, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, before beating Lyon in a penalty shootout.
Burchill, who played against them in November, knows Apoel inside out. Only two weeks ago, when he was injured, he watched from the stand as his team-mates succumbed to them courtesy of a solitary late goal. The 31-year-old Scot is full of admiration for the patient, passing game drilled into them by their Serbian coach, Ivan Jovanovic.
“They don’t really have a secret other than their coach, who has been there for four years now. He has given them a set pattern of play, and every single player knows that he has to stick to it. Sometimes he takes six or seven players out for league games, but the team plays exactly the same as it did in the Champions League. He’s a top coach, and I’ve no doubt he will go to one of the big European leagues very soon.”
Which is not to say that Apoel are without talented individuals, several of whom Burchill picks out as ones to watch. Nuno Morais, the former Chelsea player, tidies up in front of the back four. Their captain is Constantinos Charalambides, the best player in the Cypriot national side. And Ivan Trickovski, a Macedonian forward, was linked with Rangers last summer.
None, though, is quite so important to Apoel as Ailton Almeida, the best of several Brazilians at the club. “He can hold the ball up, he’s quick, strong, and I’m very, very surprised that he’s playing in Cyprus. I’ve heard that Tottenham and Bayer Leverkusen are interested. I believe he can play at that level, I really do. He’s a top, top player, the main man for them.”
This is a golden era for club football in Cyprus. In 2008, Anorthosis Famagusta became the first of their teams to reach the group stages of the Champions League. Apoel followed a year later, and improved on that this season, with Real Madrid’s visit providing something else again.
Also this term, AEK Larnaca became the first Cypriot club to reach the group stages of the Europa League, a minor miracle given that they were only formed in 1994. The man behind their meteoric rise is Jordi Cruyff – son of Johan – who became their sporting director two years ago when they attracted only a few hundred spectators in the second division.
All of which has improved Cyprus’s co-efficient to the extent that they are now 16th in the UEFA rankings, two places above Scotland. Burchill, who moved there 18 months ago to put behind him a frustrating career in the UK, says that he has been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the football.
“I’ve been really impressed by the league. It’s much better than I expected. To have a team like Apoel is great, but there are three or four others fighting with them for the league title. That shows how strong it is. Scotland is not as strong as it was ten years ago, but Cyprus has got ten times better since then. It’s on the up, and it’s only going to get better.
“The football is completely different. It is less physical, more tactical, almost like chess, and there is not one long ball played. They try to learn from the big countries here. They don’t have the football tradition that Scotland has so they’re open to anything. Their coaches go to Spain to get better. I’ve learned more about tactics in the last two years than I did during the previous 15 in Scotland and England.”
Burchill, whose club are based close to the holiday resort of Ayia Napa, lives in Larnaca, where his children go to school, but he has been back in Scotland to do his coaching badges, and never loses touch with his homeland. When Kilmarnock, one of his former clubs, lifted the Scottish Communities League Cup, he pointed out on Twitter that he had recommended Dieter Van Tornhout, scorer of the game’s only goal, to the Ayrshire club.
He will watch with interest today’s Old Firm derby at Ibrox. Despite making his name with Celtic as a teenager, he insists that he takes no pleasure from the Rangers crisis. “I must admit, we’ve become a bit of a laughing stock in other countries. People say to me, ah, you’re from Scotland ... Rangers ... and then they have a laugh and a joke. It’s embarrassing that one of our clubs have got themselves into a situation like that. I’m devastated about it. I call ho me to my mates, and they’re like ‘whatever’, but you notice it more when you are living away from home. I want Rangers back on their feet, playing European football as quickly as possible.”
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