While the lengths that supporters go in their adoration of football legends is no secret, the Maradonian Church the prime example, the ‘House of Platini’ – part restaurant, part museum and part one man obsession with the former Juventus midfielder – in a village with a population of roughly 1500 residents, is just plain random.
The walls of this small establishment are plastered with over 10,000 photographs and a total of 700 frames and posters of the three times Ballon d’Or winner in action, a truly overwhelming but ultimately rather disturbing sight. The man behind this randomness introduces himself as Philippos Stavrou ‘Platini’, a 49-year-old Michel Platini enthusiast and restaurateur.
In the adjacent room to the restaurant, Philippos houses the ‘Club Platini’ museum, where he will not allow anyone to enter without supervision. It is here all the Platini memorabilia that Philippos has amassed over the years is kept, most objects on display having been signed by the man himself when he visited the restaurant on a trip to Cyprus in 2009.
Speaking to Philippos, he declares the day of the Frenchman’s stopover as one of the greatest of his life and expresses his gratitude towards the man he considers “not only the best player of all time on the pitch but a gentleman off it” for making the effort to visit and taking the time to regularly respond to his correspondence. However, right now Philippos is certainly one of many Cypriot football fans singing the praises of Michel Platini.
In one of his controversial pet projects as President of UEFA, Platini’s changes to the format of Champions League qualification in 2009 may have been treated with disdain from illustrious teams finishing fourth in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga to name but a few, however this change has transformed Cypriot football, and in particular APOEL Nicosia.
Two thirds of the way through the Champions League group stages, APOEL sit proudly top of Group G on eight points, 4 points above 2004 competition winners Porto, three more than the side ranked eleventh in Europe, Shakhtar Donetsk and one above Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg.
APOEL, Cyprus’ most successful football club having pipped their much hated rivals Omonia Nicosia to a 21st domestic championship in May, are enjoying their second appearance at the group stages in the three seasons since Platini’s reforms. Before 2009, only one Cypriot team, Anorthosis Famagusta, had made it beyond the qualifying rounds.
Under the new rules, clubs from top ranked countries face each other in the last qualifying round, leaving clubs like APOEL to battle it out with the champions of lower ranked countries for a place in the group stages.
The way the old seeding system worked meant that clubs qualifying as champions of middle ranking leagues would more than likely fail at the final hurdle and miss out on the chance to play Champions League football. At the time, Platini questioned whether this was really fair.
“We want to add some of the other countries to the competition and to do that we have to take some of the others away. I’m not sure that the fourth clubs from Spain, Italy and England are more important than the champions of Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark,” Platini said back in 2009.
Seeing the likes of Dinamo Zagreb, Genk and Viktoria Plzen, the other teams to benefit from the changes, all bottom of their respective tables at the half way stage must be hard to swallow for Italian side Udinese, who lost out to Arsenal in the play-off tie.
However, the success story for Platini’s reforms in this year’s competition has come from the unlikeliest of places, Cyprus. In their two qualifying campaigns, APOEL did away with Danish champions Copenhagen in 2009 and this year sent Wisla Krakow packing.
While APOEL may lose both their remaining games, the fact remains that the 2009 changes to the qualification system allowed APOEL to gain Champions League experience in the first place.
The sight of Anorthosis Famagusta reaching the groups in 2008 and APOEL’s first Champions League campaign the following year gave Cypriot football clubs a real belief that instead of a rather ambitious project, getting into the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition is an achievable objective.
This of course has not been without its pitfalls. An overzealous Omonia side in 2010, having seen their rivals succeed; spent vast sums of money in salaries bringing in players that they believed would help them emulate the achievements of their rivals. Failing miserably, the club with the largest fan base across the island, find themselves in financial turmoil at the moment and are facing legal battles after cheques issued by the club intended to finalise the wages owed to a former player bounced.
However the story of a club lacking a financial Plan B should they fail to reach what most would consider overambitious objectives, is common to most of the major European leagues and must be seen a mere side note to the benefits that Platini’s changes have brought about to the game in Cyprus.
The money APOEL got from their first Champions League campaign, where they finished bottom of the group despite away draws at Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, and the uncharacteristically – for a Cypriot club – careful way that it has been reinvested into the team, has been crucial in allowing them to develop their squad.
The Nicosia side have managed to attract players from the Greek league with a point to prove such as Gustavo Manduca, Marcelo Oliveira, Sanel Jahic and centre back Kaka who played in last season’s Europe League final with Braga, with the prospect of Champions League football.
APOEL’s Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic has also managed to keep his best players and has built his team around former Chelsea midfielder Nuno Morais and Benfica youth team player Helio Pinto, as well as last year’s Player of the Season in Cyprus, Ailton – who has impressed with his performances in the competition.
The transformation in Cypriot football has also been felt elsewhere. AEK Larnaca, under the guidance of Director of Football Jordi Cruyff, the former Manchester United and Barcelona midfielder and son of Johan, are playing in the group stages of the Europe League this season, another first for a Cypriot club. The Larnaca side have brought former Dutch internationals Tim de Cler, Kevin Hofland and one time Real Madrid trainee Gonzalo Garcia on board, setting a new record for the highest ever European win for a team from Cyprus with an 8-0 thrashing of Maltese side Floriana back in July.
With Cyprus leading the way, the door has now been blown wide open for teams from ‘lesser’ footballing nations to provide the European elite with a stern test in the group stages of the most attractive club competition in the world. While a few glaring failures may come along the way, Platini’s changes have made such a feat possible. In the following years, Philippos Stavrou may find competition around Europe in paying homage to Michel Platini, albeit in a more conventional way.
By Nassos Stylianou
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona