A newly-promoted side is proving to be this season’s sensation in the Cypriot First Division. AEK Larnaca, formed in 1994 from the merger of EPA Larnaca and Pezoporikos, spent a year in the second tier before gaining promotion last summer.
Twenty-three games into the current campaign, the club from the island’s south-east lie an impressive third in the league – a degree of progress the management are understandably satisfied with.
"Our head coach Ton Caanen and I are very happy with our performance over the first half of the season," the club's director of football Jordi Cruyff told FIFA.com. "We only have a small budget, but we’ve still managed to put together a good team."
The son of Dutch legend Johan, Jordi hung up his boots last summer, bringing to an end a playing career that included spells at Barcelona and Manchester United. In his current role at Larnaca, the former midfielder is starting what he hopes will be a lasting career in football administration.
"My decision to go to Cyprus was a bit out of the ordinary," he explained. "When I called time on my playing career, I wanted to see where my future lay. Right now, I’m enjoying my job here as director of football. It gives me an insight into all the aspects of the game, and I feel I can build something here once we have the structures in place. It's a big challenge for me and, at the same time, a learning curve, which will be very helpful for my future career."
The Amsterdam native had no problems adapting to life in the coastal town of some 80,000 inhabitants: "The mentality in Cyprus is very close to Spain, so I feel very much at home here. I had no trouble getting used to this place and not a lot has changed for me since I moved."
Cruyffʼs first executive decision was to install compatriot Caanen into the hot-seat of the 2004 Cypriot Cup winners. The collaboration was not altogether surprising, though, with the former Dutch international having already enjoyed success working as assistant coach to the 44-year-old Caanen at Maltese side Valletta last year.
The decision was to prove a masterstroke. With three matchdays left before the end of the regular season (the Cypriot top-flight has championship and relegation play-offs) the duo are focusing not only on the former, but also on plans for next season – testimony to their far-sighted approach.
"We want to reach the play-offs, and to do that we have to finish in the top four," said Cruyff. "We’re also in the quarter-finals of the cup. So let’s see where we go from there. In any case, we’ve already achieved more than we set out to. Planning is also under way for next season, when we’re hoping to add more depth to the squad to avoid the injury problems which have affected us this campaign."
One of the pillars of the current side is Kevin Hofland. The former Netherlands international, who enjoyed spells at Wolfsburg and Feyenoord among others, joined Larnaca at the start of the season and is now team captain.
"Kevin is not just our key man, he’s the team’s heartbeat," said Cruyff of the defender who has scored four times this season. "For me, he’s the best player in this league, and consequently the top clubs in Cyprus are after him. That said, we want to keep him. He wanted to join a side where he could play an important role, and he can do that at Larnaca."
The club's fans certainly want to keep their best players on the island. "Our fans know where we’re coming from, and their numbers are very encouraging," said Cruyff. "Last season we had 500 or 600 at home games - now we get up to 8,000.
"They always show their appreciation, whether we win or lose. Of course, expectations will be higher next year and there will be more pressure, but that’s why I’m here. We want to keep developing the team and the club, and we’re on the right path."