As the UEFA Champions League moves into the final round of group fixtures, fans, experts and media commentators alike begin the customary debate over the highlights of the competition to date. It is fair to say that Europe's elite club contest sometimes only sparks into life once the knockout round begins in the new year, but this season, one performance stands head and shoulders above the rest, namely APOEL Nicosia’s stunning success so far.
Drawn into Group G with Zenit, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, the club from the Cypriot capital have already made history as the nation's first-ever qualifiers for the last 16. “To be frank, it's a massive surprise to everyone, myself and the whole team included," midfielder Konstantinos Charalampidis told FIFA.com.
“Our boss Ivan Jovanovic, who’s been in charge for four years now, has made a huge contribution to our success. On top of that, we have first-class players with magnificent character, and terrific team spirit as well. Thirdly, we’re always well-prepared physically and mentally. And let's not forget our fans, our 12th man, who give us such inspiration and energy in every match."
Depending on the result in Tuesday’s final fixture against Shakhtar, the Cypriots could yet win the section, but what does Charalampidis expect from the next round? “That's where we meet one of the 16 best teams in Europe, so I honestly have no particular preference," said the APOEL captain. "All our potential opponents are difficult and just as good as each other. Time will tell what we ultimately achieve. We just have to stay focused and give it our best shot."
In their domestic league, the reigning Cypriot champions have picked up the pace after a patchy start to the campaign. The nation's most successful club are up to third, two points off leaders Omonia, courtesy of a three-game winning streak. Nevertheless, the man fondly nicknamed Mpidis by the home faithful is only partially satisfied with the season so far, sensing that the club's European commitments have negatively affected their performance on home soil.
“Obviously, there's a huge difference between a Champions League match and the Cypriot league," he said. "In Europe, we're playing huge clubs in massive stadiums packed with thousands of fans, and our opponents always come at as. Here in Cyprus, there's a much more defensive approach. In our home league, I think we may occasionally have lacked the passion we've shown in Europe."
The 30-year-old is well placed to analyse his club's current situation, as he falls into the much-travelled category of player. After starting out with APOEL, he switched to Greece in spells with Panathinaikos and PAOK Thessalonica, before trying his luck with German second-division outfit Carl Zeiss Jena. In 2008, he returned to his home club in the town where he was born.
“My heart belongs to APOEL," he explained. "It was my first club, and I joined at the age of eight." However, Charalampidis cannot yet say whether he will see out his career in Nicosia: “Only God knows everything and what the future may bring. I just try to improve all the time, so I can still have the wonderful feeling I get from playing football for as long as possible."
National pride, Brazil dream
However, Charalampidis is not presently wasting any thoughts on what might happen at the end of his career. Instead, he is hoping to emulate his club’s historic achievement on the international stage, as the Cypriots chase a maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup™.
“I'm sad we've never managed to qualify before," he said. "I've always wanted to take part in a major tournament, but unfortunately it's not happened up to now. Basically, Cypriot players just don't get enough playing time with their clubs."
Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania and Iceland bar the way to a spot at Brazil 2014. Charalampidis remarked: “I'm incredibly proud when I pull on the national jersey. The feeling you have when you hear the national anthem can't be described in words."
The world will have to wait and see whether Cyprus can pull off as big a surprise in FIFA World Cup qualifying as APOEL have achieved in Europe this term. Come what may, Charalampidis and the men from Nicosia have already shown that anything can happen in football, and fairytales can become reality.