Rarely does a minnow like APOEL FC make any noise in the UEFA Champions League. Teams from small nations like Cyprus enjoy dramatic qualifier matches and then are brutally brushed aside by the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal in the group stages. However, this club with a stadium that seats only 23,000 spectators has not only emerged from their group, but they have now defeated Lyon and are in the last 8 of the tournament.
I must confess that I had yet to know a thing about APOEL FC before this year, but now their quest seems nothing short of a dramatic underdog story fit for a movie. APOEL was actually in Champions League two years ago when they finished last in their group that included Chelsea, Porto, and Atletico Madrid. Although they did not win a single game, they did draw three (one at Stamford Bridge) and each of their three losses was only by a single goal. They proved to themselves that they could be competitive against serious opposition.
This season has been far more impressive. They finished top of their group, beating both Zenit St. Petersburg and Porto. In the round of 16, they overturned a 1-0 deficit against Lyon and won in dramatic style with a penalty shootout. They are making history and defying all odds in their current run.
The run will become much more difficult at this point, however. Teams like Lyon and Porto are Champions League regulars, but they are rarely on the level of contenders. It will be curious to see how APOEL FC fares against a Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. Eventually, they will have to face a major team. But they have proven that they are at least up to the challenge. Although their home stadium is small, it is loud and the team performs brilliantly. Their home fans energize the team and they play extremely organized football where they take their few chances as they come and make the most of them.
How has this after-thought of a team managed to pull upset after upset this year? It starts with the management. The club is run like a successful business. There is no manic owner or ridiculous transfer fees. The club runs on an $11 million annual budget. They have invested in foreign talent which includes a plethora of Brazilians. They have developed the club from the ground up and have now advanced further in the tournament than Manchester City. Such occurrences boggle the mind but do show that soccer is played on a field with hard working men. No matter how much money you throw at the best talent, the teams that fight and truly want to win are often the teams that do.