They held onto anything they could; their shirt collars; their scarves; even their fellow human beings. Their hearts were pounding, the adrenalin rushing through their bodies like the wind upon a windmill. They looked on nervously. This man, who’d been to the World Cup in South Africa with Brazil, was stepping up. He looked confident, but the stadium prayed and hoped; hoped that his trusted left foot would this time let him down; so that the dream may be complete.
European nights always produce something special, and this night was no different. After all, the planet’s greatest player, Lionel Messi, was leaving bewildered Germans in his wake with a five star performance at the Nou Camp. But the real dream was happening far from Cataluña. Miles away, at the GSP Stadium in the heart of Cyprus’ capital, Nicosia, APOEL Nicosia were bringing a Champions League dream to life.
It seemed an age since Gustavo Manduca had scored to cancel out Lyon’s one goal advantage from the first leg. Manduca scored on 7 minutes, and the game itself then turned into a spectacle, with both teams piling on the pressure, but defenders on both sides, notably Cris (Lyon) and Paulo Jorge (APOEL) standing their ground. 90 minutes later and the aggregate score was still tied at 1-1. The match went into extra time.
Extra time could still not separate the sides, and so, the game went into penalties. For APOEL however, extra time had brought with it a casualty; the night’s goal scoring hero, Manduca, had been sent off. But this would eventually prove a minor blemish on an otherwise perfect night.
Penalty shoot-outs are always tense, but the APOEL players seemed calm. This however did not stop the nervousness of the crowd from engulfing the tiny GSP Stadium. The players however let their minds rule their hearts, and their minds assured them that it was possible. The manner in which they dispatched their first three penalties showed the confidence and belief they had in themselves. The manner in which the crowd celebrated each penalty that was scored enhanced that belief.
Lyon, for their part, were doing their best to try and silence the crowd, by scoring their own penalties. But when their hero of the first leg, Alexandre Lacazette had his penalty saved, the pressure spread across the French camp as it had done, years ago at Waterloo when Napoleon had finally sensed defeat in the air. And after APOEL scored their next penalty, up stepped Michel Bastos for the French club. He seemed relaxed, and surely nobody was in the mood to doubt the Brazilians usually lethal left foot. But APOEL goalkeeper, Dionisis Chiotis wasn’t to know this, and he dived low to his left to deny the Brazilian, and in the process deny Lyon further participation in the Champions League.
The cacophony of noise that coupled the celebrations that followed can only be synonymous with that of the coliseum at the height of a gladiatorial battle. The Cypriots in the crowd were out of their minds. The APOEL players jumped and hugged each other in delight. They had done the impossible; they were through to the quarter finals.
There was no argument as to whether APOEL deserved it or not. They had, on the night, played the better football. The APOEL players were all comfortable on the ball, passing and moving it around in a manner similar to that ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy that FC Barcelona has come to popularize. To have thought anything but an APOEL win would have been tantamount to mental treason. In the end, they got what they deserved.
But far from this being a brilliant display of beautiful football by the Cypriot side, there was also the sense of all things good that make football such a grand sport. The images of the fans in the stands, waiting with bated breath for their beloved team to do what had been deemed improbable by others, invoked the sense of hope that football gives to millions across the world. And during the penalty shoot-out, the image of a boy, celebrating APOEL’s first two penalties, screaming his lungs out and his arms outstretched, showed the unavoidable symbol of victory and the undeniable reality that dreams do come true. For Lacazette’s penalty miss, the TV Directors captured the moment of a woman, holding her APOEL embroided scarf in her hands, then squeezing it with joyous delight at the sight of the save. That image for me captured the universality of football; that it transcends all things that human beings are foolish enough to quantify into race, gender and religion.
All round though, the sight of the APOEL fans in celebratory bliss was far more delightful than that of the images shown on news channels whenever Cypriots are subject to the political battle of territorial control over their country by Greece and Turkey. Far from it being a great football achievement by APOEL, the message it sent out into the world about a lowly considered country such as Cyprus is bound to be talked about for years to come. For me, this surely should make it into the 100 greatest moments in football history.
So though I missed out on watching Lionel Messi become the first ever player to score 5 goals in a Champions League match, I can not argue with what I got to see instead.
After all is said and done, the night can be summed up by one banner that was held up high, proudly, by an APOEL fan all through the tension and drama as it transpired ,
“We believe, – MORE!”