The Unfulfilled Expectations and The Next Day
by Marios Antoniou
Marios Antoniou writes about the current status of the Cypriot National Team and the future that awaits.
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Just a couple of months ago, Cyprus were stuck to a goalless draw against Estonia in Nicosia for World Cup qualifying and if you know about how Cypriots take pride in their GSP fortress, you will realize why they were disappointed. If we speak about the dynamics in the qualifying group, Estonia is the only team that theoretically is on the same level with the Cypriots. Putting aside Gibraltar, which is the weakest team of the group, and considering that Belgium, Bosnia, and Greece have much stronger squads, the draw was a bad result. Even if Cyprus were the better team throughout the match, even if there were important absences (Efraim, Pieros), there are no excuses to not win that game. But we did not win, so how did the Ethniki get to this point and what can be expected next?
After very good performances in the Euro 2016 qualifiers under the guidance of Pambos Christodoulou, better results were expected. Cyprus just missed out on 3rd place, which would have resulted in a playoff spot, with a defeat to Bosnia in Nicosia. The draw against Estonia was like a drawback, everybody thought that the Ethniki would prevail, however the result brought disappointment because of the expectations that were set.
One thing that we need to understand is the difference between the national and the club level. Especially when we speak for Cyprus, a country which holds first place in expatriates and is the league with the oldest average age of players in Europe. If we remember a few years ago, the lack of local players drove the association to proceed with naturalisations of foreigners in order to cover up the problem and field an average team.
We have surpassed that problem, if we see that 13 out of the 23 players that were in the squad that faced Estonia were under 25 years old, meaning the team has a future. Moreover there has never been a squad with so many players that are currently playing abroad. The combination of youth and experience that is gained by playing in foreign leagues, will result in new characteristics that we have never seen before in the national team. It is surely a slow process, but it is the right one.
There is plenty of talent as well as the realization that the acquisition of ready foreign players by our teams will just bring temporary results. Maybe the numbers are still against the local youngsters, but we saw plenty of them show their skills on the pitch and were quickly called to the national team (Ioannou, Katelaris, Panayiotou).
The national team was always coached by mostly Cypriot managers and only 7 coaches since the creation of the national team were not Cypriots. From 2001 when Serbian Momcilo Vukotic took over, then followed by Greek coaches Aggelos Anastasiadis (2005-2011) and Nikos Nioplias (2011-2013), the national team faced a variety of problems, the biggest being the lack of new local players. Many times the coaches mentioned the significance of the problem but they were not head and little attention was paid to this.
During Nioplias’ period, the association had to proceed in the naturalisation of Portuguese defender Dossa Junior and French midfielder Vincent Laban in order to strengthen the team. That move was commented in many different ways, even if the players were in Cyprus for many years and had proven themselves both on the club and national level. Junior and Laban were two great additions and they still provide the best of services to the national team, however the problem was evident that no Cypriot players had the ability to play at the national level.
Pambos Christodoulou was hired in 2013 and everybody was expecting to see results from the best Cypriot coach in recent years. Pambos knew exactly what was going on, after coaching Doxa and Olympiacos Nicosia, he drove AEL Limassol to the championship title after almost five decades. Pampos realized that the most important thing needed was to re-gain the support of the Cypriots.
With his passion, a new effort started and with the support of the fans he regenerated the Cypriot national team, bringing them extremely close to the Euro 2016 qualifying playoffs. Everybody wanted Pampos to stay with the team, however he did not agree to the terms with the association and stepped down to eventually return to AEL.
He was replaced with another successful Cypriot coach of recent years, Christakis Christoforou. For many years, Christakis coached the ladies team of Apollon and created the most successful women’s soccer team in Cyprus. He took over Apollon’s men’s team, leading them to the Cypriot Cup title against their city rivals AEL and to two consecutive qualifications to the Europa League group stages. However, after being sacked at Apollon he had a catastrophic year with AEL. A few months after, he left from AEL and took over the national team with the tough task to keep up the good work of Pampos and bring even better results. Again we go back to where we began, the expectations.
The fans expected Cyprus to compete much better against teams like Bosnia and Greece and to have a good chance to defy the odds in the fight for 2nd place. As of now, Cyprus have only one win, against Gibraltar. It will be an expectation for the team to put up a good fight and performance against Bosnia and Greece when they host their opponents in Nicosia.
Christakis has also been criticized for some of his choices as well as not calling up Stathis Aloneftis. The experienced left-winger had a great year with APOEL, however he was disappointed when he was not called up by Christakis at the beginning of the campaign. He was then negative to accept the recent call-ups he received. Many said that Cyprus lacked a player with the characteristics of Aloneftis, speed and excellent one on one skills, against Estonia.
Christakis might need to work on creating a family environment and give more confidence to his team, while also protecting them from criticism that is heard because of the unfulfilled expectations. After the Estonia draw, many people demanded the return of Pampos, however he took over as coach of Omonoia.
The current main priority of the team is to stay united and continue to work at the same pace. In the meantime, we might need to lower our expectations. We also need to realize that success is not something that comes easy and we must support the team during this “slump.” One of the biggest successes during Euro 2016 qualifying was that the fans came back to support the team while for many years very few people cared for the Ethniki. The point is to continue what has already been built as this team has a future. Although qualifying for the World cup seems an unrealistic task this time around, this team will soon manage to jump to a level where reaching a major competition will be an attainable goal.