Somewhere lost between Lionel Messi cementing his place as one of the best ever, Real Madrid sulking along, and Bayern Munich acting like one of the veritable big boys in Europe, small Cyprus side APOEL has been one of the biggest stories in the tournament.
It is the first team from Cyprus to make it this far in the UEFA Champions League, becoming everyone’s favorite Cinderella team after defeating Lyon in the Round of 16. The team was founded at a candy shop, and is impossible to hate. Of course, the clock, by all accounts will strike midnight when Real Madrid takes the field on Tuesday.
But, who exactly is APOEL and how did it get here?
While obscure in the rest of the world, APOEL is a legend in its own right back in Cyprus. It is one of the original teams that founded the Cyprus Football Association in 1929. In the league it is a local powerhouse: it has won 21 league championships, and recorded impressive wins, including a record breaking 17-1 win against Aris (perhaps the most recognizable club from Cyprus due to its foreign signings).
It did not find European success until the 21st century, when it first advanced to the second round of the UEFA Cup in 2002. The success continued later in the decade, making it to the playoff stage during the 2010-2011 Europa League.
This year APOEL managed to churn along in one of the easiest groups in the Champions League, with the highest “powerhouse” in its group being FC Porto. It managed to advance to the Round of 16 and there faced another (relatively) easy draw against manageable Lyon.
In later years, the team has begun to invest more in foreign talent — specifically Brazilian and Portuguese players — that have given the team a spark to put it ahead of its rival Aris.
Unfortunately, this magical run could end up hurting the team in the long run.
While it may give the team a spark in promotion and probably yield a marketing craze (APOEL jerseys may become the “hispter” soccer jersey of the year), it will likely lead to a massive exodus of talent. With players being seen on the biggest stage of club soccer, they are hounded by bigger teams in Europe looking for the next great promise. This will reap great benefits for the team economically, but it also means it probably won’t find itself in a position like this for many years to come.
It’s been an admirable run for APOEL, and a perfect example of a club taking advantage of opportunities (and not using their size or resources as an excuse). The run ends now with Real Madrid ready to steamroll it on the way to the semifinals, but APOEL will be a greater hero in Cyprus simply for stepping on the field with Real Madrid — even if they managed to win by ten goals.
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