APOEL, the first team from the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus to make the last 16 of the Champions League, has undoubtedly deserved its place in history, for what many regard as a unique, unlikely to ever be emulated, achievement.
The most successful Cypriot football club is being branded as the perfect example of how teams from lesser leagues with a fraction of the budgets of their European counterparts, can challenge the big boys of European football.
Undoubtedly an impressive feat, however talk of APOEL has overshadowed the success of AEK Larnaca, who in any other ‘normal’ season in Cyprus would have been the talk of a country without many notable footballing accomplishments.
In another first for Cypriot football this season, and there have been many, AEK became the first team from the island to make the group stages of the Europa League – including when this competition was in its previous format as the UEFA Cup.
At a time when Manchester United players have described their side’s demotion to the same competition as a humiliation and an embarrassment, for AEK Larnaca, a club that has only actually been in existence since 1994, their participation in the Europa League this season has been their greatest ever moment.
Formed just 17 years ago from the merger of two existing Larnaca clubs, Peroporikos and EPA Larnaca, AEK has only one trophy to its name, the Cypriot cup it won in 2004. Originating from Cyprus’ third largest city with just 70,000 inhabitants, the rise of AEK in the last two years has been nothing short of meteoric.
Less than 18 months ago, the club was playing in the Cypriot Second Division and certainly European football was the furthest thing from the minds of its small but passionate fanbase.
After a decent season back in the top flight in 2010-2011, where they finished fourth and secured the last of the Europa League spots, this year AEK have achieved what many thought was unthinkable for a club of such small stature.
They began the Europa League qualifiers by setting the record for the biggest ever win for a Cypriot team in Europe with an 8-0 thrashing of Maltese side Floriana, before making light work of a tricky tie against Czech cup winners FK Mlada Boleslav as they progressed 5-2 on aggregate.
This was followed by perhaps the greatest result of all, a 2-1 aggregate victory over Norway’s most successful side Rosenborg, a club that has participated in the group phase of the Champions League eleven times since 1995.
Given no chance in a group containing a number of experienced European sides such as Steaua Bucharest, Maccabi Haifa and Schalke, AEK only lost out on a place in the last in the final group game away to Steaua. The Cypriots collected a total of five points, securing two draws – one of them an impressive 0-0 away to Schalke – and a 2-1 victory against Maccabi Haifa on matchday 5.
Sir Alex Ferguson himself will probably not have heard of half he teams that played in the group stages of the competition they will be joining in February, AEK Larnaca being no exception.
However, the man to whom a major part of AEK’s success can be attributed to is no stranger to Ferguson.
Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch legend and one of the greatest players of all time Johan, has been Director of Football at AEK Larnaca since the summer of 2010, a move that was initially treated with bemusement among those that had been following his career in the game. Even Cruyff himself described his move to Cyprus as “a decision a bit out of the ordinary”, but one that he believed constituted a good starting point for his career after his playing days had ended.
“People might think that I’m crazy to go to Cyprus but I’ve always preferred to take a step-by-step approach. This move is part of my learning process,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with the Times of Malta.
Signed by Ferguson from Barcelona after a brilliant Euro 96 with the Dutch national side, Cruyff managed only a total of 34 appearances in a rather disappointing injury-laden four years at Manchester, his last spell at a big European club.
Of his fitness, he once told Four Four Two’s Andy Mitten: “I’m like a bear. I sleep in the winter and I’m wide awake and hungry in the summer – ready to play. I always got injured in November.”
As a player, Cruyff failed to fulfill the promise he showed as a youngster at the start of a career that saw him go from Barcelona and Manchester United to Metalurh Donetsk and Maltese side FC Valetta.
Now, as a Director of Football at AEK Larnaca, he has gone a different route, looking to work his way up to the top, an approach that seems to be working.
In his last season as a professional player, Cruyff had a dual role at Valletta, both player and assistant to his compatriot, head coach Ton Caanen.
Bringing Caanen with him to Larnaca was one of Cruyff’s first moves at AEK. The pair had enjoyed a very good relationship at Valetta and good friends, with Cruyff of the opinion that Caanen was the perfect man for the job.
Despite a very limited budget and little room to maneuver in the transfer market, Cruyff’s contribution and contacts allowed him access to players that a side that had just been promoted from the Cypriot Second Division could only dream of. Dutch international defenders Kevin Hofland and Tim de Cler were snapped up by Cruyff, while former Swansea players Albert Serran and Gorka Pintado joined the club this summer.
Cruyff has proven a great speaker and an impressive negotiator in his role as Director of Football at AEK, with many players admitting that his grand plans for the club as the main factor in convincing them to move to Cyprus.
An example can be seen in the signing of 28-year-old Spanish attacking midfielder Gonzalo García, who spent the last five years before moving to Cyprus in the Eredivisie for Heerenveen and Groningen. The former Real Madrid trainee has often been AEK’s creative spark in midfield this season and has demonstrated a knack for scoring with 5 goals in the Europa League so far if qualifying games are included. García, who once played alongside the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres for the Spanish under 17 side, said that the ambitious nature of the club was one of the reasons behind his move to AEK.
With things seemingly on the right track, after a decent if not great start to the season, a shock came in the sacking of Caanen in November, at Cruyff’s behest. The former Barcelona player admitted that taking such a decision in the middle of the club’s most successful ever season was a huge risk, but maintained that the relationship between the coach and the players had broken down of late and Caanen had to go.
AEK wasted no time in appointing another Dutchman, former Eindhoven and Feyenoord coach Leon Vlemmings, again a Cruyff choice. Vlemmings is said to be a typical Dutch coach and shares Cruyff’s ideas about how the game should be played.
Over the last 18 months it has been made clear that the decisions at AEK Larnaca lie with Cruyff and as long as the success will continue, the club board will see no reason to change that.
The Dutchman may have found it impossible to escape the limelight in his football career so far thanks to his surname, however he has shun the limelight in Cyrpus so far diligently going about his work and without too many thoughtless declarations about the future.
As AEK continues to impress, Cruyff has shown no shortage of ambition on a domestic and European front. The question for him now really is whether the club can take one step further challenge for a league dominated by the big three of APOEL, Omonia and Anorthosis Famagusta.
With the performances of Cypriot sides in Europe of late, the possibility of Cyprus having two teams in the Champions League in the future is a real one, and Cruyff will be looking at the achievements of APOEL in the competition as a benchmark for his club.
It will certainly be no easy task but from his short period in Cyprus so far, Cruyff has not been one to shun away from a challenge, however difficult it may look on paper.
By Nassos Stylianou
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona