APOEL Nicosia’s 0-0 draw at Zenit St. Petersburg last November was greeted with jubilation by the Cypriot side’s sextet of Brazilian players. Emptying buckets of ice in the dressing room and turning them upside down, they began beating out a hypnotic rhythm, the team singing along in unison as midfielder Marcinho climbed on top of a table, danced a victory jig and orchestrated the chants.
The reason for the impromptu concert was simple: courtesy of that goalless draw on Russian soil, APOEL had become the first ever Cypriot team to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, a success in which their boys from Brazil have played a very important part.
“We always try to get an atmosphere going but people don’t always join in. Some of the guys can be a bit standoffish,” said Marcinho, recalling the evening’s festivities in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “They couldn’t help themselves that night, though. It was a special moment. We’d just made history and everybody felt like partying.”
Even APOEL’s stern-featured coach Ivan Jovanovic joined in the fun, though Marcinho admits to being a touch wary every time he tries to lead a drum session: “He [Jovanovic] is a strict coach and he doesn’t like things like that. He prefers people to stay focused. Every time we win though, we feel like relaxing, and slowly but surely the message is getting through to them.”
While getting into the party spirit might still be a problem for Jovanovic and the rest of the squad, language is no longer a barrier in a side containing four Portuguese players in addition to the six Brazilians, making Portuguese the tongue of choice at team get-togethers.
The fact that at least three Brazilian and two Portuguese players have featured in every one of APOEL’s 12 Champions League matches this season shows the importance of the group to the team as a whole, with as many as eight of them appearing together in some games. They have been making some big contributions too, not least the Brazilian Ailton Almeida, the scorer of seven goals in the competition to date, and compatriot Gustavo Manduca, twice a goalscorer in the group phase.
APOEL’s band of international brothers have punched above their weight in Europe’s premier club competition this season. After safely negotiating three rounds of qualifying they found themselves drawn in an evenly matched Group G containing three sides widely tipped to finish ahead of them: Zenit, FC Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk.
“The fans were sad when they saw the draw,” added Marcinho, formerly with Sao Caetano and Santos, and six seasons a player with Maritimo of Portugal. “Everyone thought we’d be the punchbag in the group phase, and they wanted us to get drawn against the really big teams so they could see the stars in action.
“People never had much hope of us going that far,” he continued. “To begin with our goal was just to reach the group phase, but when we beat Zenit [in their opening group game] we realised that they weren’t the giants everyone thought they were. After that we just got stronger and stronger.”
So strong in fact that Apoel made sure of their place in the next round with a game to spare, contributed to Porto’s surprise elimination, and topped the group despite suffering defeat in their final game against Shakhtar, their only loss in the section.
“There’s a kid from the club who’s been doing reports on us at training sessions and on the bus going to games,” he explained. “I hope they send us a DVD of it all when the tournament’s over because I want to have it recorded for posterity. I’d always dreamed of playing in the Champions League and listening to that hymn. It’s amazing, and this is the pinnacle of my career so far and the best moment the club’s ever had.”
Their unlikely adventure continues in France on Tuesday evening, with the first leg of their Round-of-16 tie with Lyon, a tie Marcinho believes they have every chance of winning: “They’re a big team but nothing is impossible. In fact I couldn’t tell you what impossible means anymore because they said we’d never get through and we have. We need a good result in the first leg so we can go and finish the tie off in front of our fans. We’re very strong at home.”
Combined with their Brazilian flair, that strength and confidence has helped APOEL pen one of the most glorious chapters in their history. The question is, is there an even brighter future awaiting them in the next few weeks?
“Obviously we’d like to go further, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t make the final. It won’t be easy, but we can dream,” concluded Marcinho before reflecting on what the Cypriot underdogs have already achieved. “In any case, the important thing is that we’ve already made history.”