It must have felt like a dream for many Anorthosis fans. Their unknown club rocked the football world by beating Rapid Wien and Olympiakos Piraeus to reach the group-stage of the Champions League.
At first, I considered their results to be a fluke. A smaller side got lucky and eliminated arrogant opponents, who underestimated them. Anything can happen in the knock-out stages of the qualifiers, right?
Experts all over the world expected Anorthosis to finish dead last in a group with the reigning Italian champions, Internazionale, the strong German side Werder Bremen, and the dark horse of the group, Panathinaikos of Greece.
Anorthosis was bent on proving the experts wrong as they had a flying start to their Champions League. They managed to keep Werder Bremen goalless and earned draw at the Weserstadium, then went on to beat Panathinaikos 3-1.
The Cypriot fans must have felt as if they were Cinderella at the prince’s ball. The smallest club in the group had made its debut on the highest level and was already rocking the boat of the established order.
The team’s excellent mix between experience and youth was proving too hot to handle for many of Europe’s self-proclaimed finest. It wasn’t as if these other teams underestimated Anorthosis. After their excellent start to the Champions League season, everyone knew the Cypriot team would not be a push-over.
Besides former Greece captain Traianos Dellas, and former Real Madrid winger Sávio, the club boasts no well-known players. The team’s strength lies not in it’s individual skill, but in it’s ability to play as a cohesive unit in which players cover for each other, covering up each others weaknesses and enhancing each others strengths.
Unfortunately, unlike so many fictional fairy-tales, this tale did not have a happy ending. The team lost in the away match to Inter Milan, drew 3-3 with the Italian giants at home and blew a 2-0 lead to end up with a 2-2 against Werder Bremen. A win against the Germans would’ve secured a spot in either the second round or the UEFA Cup for Anorthosis.
In a situation that resembles a Hollywood movie, everything would be decided on the last day of the group-stage. Anorthosis could qualify for the second round of the Champions League, the UEFA Cup or they could be eliminated from Europe all together.
When the team won or drew away against their Greek neighbors in Athens, they would’ve secured the continuation of their European adventure. When the Greek side won, Anorthosis would be heavily reliant on the result of Internazionale against Bremen. When the Italians won or drew the game, Anorthosis would be safe. If the Germans won however…
The build-up to the match wasn’t exactly a quiet one, as the city of Athens was wrecked by severe riots. The club itself was disrupted when the Board of Directors complained to the police that President Andreas Panteli was embezzling funds. He was forced to resign, eventually being released by the police without charge.
In Athens, Anorthosis battled bravely against Panathinaikos and proved to be at least the equals of the Greek side, until the Cypriot side was forced to substitute Albanian goalkeeper Arian Beqaj. The Albanian had recently recovered from an injury but turned out to lack fitness. He pulled off a few amazing saves in the first hour of the match, but his replacement Zoltan Nagy was less fortunate.
After about 69 minutes of play, Panathinaikos’ Dimitris Salpingidis raced down the right and sent over a cross which French Anorthosis midfielder Cédric Bardon could only direct into the path of Panathinaikos skipper Georgios Karagounis on the edge of the box. The midfielder’s low strike squirmed under the body of Nagy to prompt roars of relief among the nervous home crowd.
The brave Cypriot side, who had battled so valiantly throughout the tournament, who had overcome so many set-backs, who had come back several times after being a goal down, this side was now unable to pull off one last come-back.
Combined with the 2-1 score-line in Bremen, this means that Anorthosis’ European aspirations ended in an anti-climax. When the team had qualified for the group stage of the tournament, manager Temuri Ketsbaia stated that "from now on we don't care who we get".
However, I’m quite sure he would’ve preferred a happier ending to this fairy-tale run by the Cypriot giant-killers. Many fans will have started dreaming about a prolonged stay amongst Europe’s elite, at least for this season. It wasn’t to be.
Fairy-tales don’t last, but this one has been a very good one while it lasted. Chapeau Anorthosis, for brightening my Tuesday and Wednesday evenings with your inspirational performances.