Nordic leaders in Cypriot sights

Cyprus is a seductive destination for Norwegians, who emigrate there to bask in its enchanting lifestyle, glorious weather and benefit from the countries’ dissimilar tax rates. The money is overwhelming on them earning bragging rights over their hosts on Friday, when the teams meet in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying.

Cyprus have scored just once in five meetings with their forthcoming guests, which all ended in defeat, while Norway are the Group H leaders, having won in Iceland and at home to Portugal. Furthermore, Angelos Anastasiadis’s squad is exclusively comprised of players based in their homeland; Egil Olsen can count on men from the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie.

But this Cypriot side is gaining a reputation for upsetting the odds. In their final three qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, they drew 1-1 away to Montenegro, overwhelmed Bulgaria 4-1 at home and then put up a heroic effort in a 3-2 loss in Italy.

It will be difficult because Norway will be confident having won their opening two qualifiers. They are a very well-organised side.
Angelos Anastasiadis, Cyprus coach

The latter was a prelude to an even more heroic performance in their next competitive fixture. Indeed, nobody gave Cyprus a chance when they flew to Portugal to begin their improbable mission to reach Poland/Ukraine 2012, but a late Andreas Avraam goal secured them an equal share of eight goals in Guimaraes.

“I expected an exciting game and it delivered,” said Anastasiadis afterwards. “Fortunately we managed to get the equaliser and take a reward for our efforts. It is a very good start to the campaign but we must look to build on this result.”

That point elevated Cyprus 20 places to 43rd on the latest FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking. However, having reached their highest all-time position on the global ladder and proved they can compete with the likes of Italy and Portugal, expectation is rife that they can augment there progress against Norway.

“It will be a difficult game because Norway will be confident having won their opening two qualifiers,” resoned Anastasiadis. “They are a very well-organised side.”

Central to their chances of breaking down the Scandinavians’ rearguard will be a pair of veteran forwards. Michalis Konstantinou, 32, set up Efstathios Aloneftis for the opening goal before putting Cyprus back in front on 11 minutes in Guimaraes, while the 56th-minute introduction of 33-year-old Yiannis Okkas ignited the minnows: he scored a well-taken goal to make it 3-3 and proved a source of torment to Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho thereafter.

They were born a year and eight days apart, on the south of the island. Both become pathfinders in their homeland by excelling in the Greek Super League. They then played together for Olympiacos and were briefly reunited by Nicosia giants Omonia last year, before Okkas joined rivals Αnorthosis Famagusta. They remain two of the greatest-ever players and the top two leading marksmen in the history of the national team.

And while they may be on opposite sides on the club front, Konstantinou and Okkas can still form a profitable spearhead at international level. They will hope to prove this to the many Norwegians expected to populate the Antonis Papadopoulos in Larnaca, which is where the latter was born.

That is not the only reason why Friday’s match will be a special occasion for Okkas. For if, as expected, he plays, he will become the first Cypriot to wins 100 caps. Helping to undo a team that has beaten France, Iceland and Portugal in their last three outings, and to disappoint his homeland’s many Norwegian residents, would be the perfect way to celebrate joining the century club.