It is never easy for small countries to throw their weight around on the global stage, as Cyprus know all too well after decades spent away from the football firmament. The Mediterranean island with close to a million inhabitants has rarely grabbed headlines for its exploits in the game, but that has not prevented the national team experiencing some major highs along the way.
Their most recent feat came a few weeks ago on 11 September as Cyprus beat Iceland in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying to make a huge forward leap in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. They now lie 102nd and although that may be some way shy of their best ever placing – 43rd in September 2010 – Nikos Nioplias's troops are within touching distance of a morale-boosting place in the Top 100. It is also their best position since they reached 86th in September 2011, while the jump of 28 places represents their most dramatic progress in the space of a single month.
More importantly, the win against Iceland has had a significant impact on the team's outlook, the Galanolefki (Blue and Whites) having not prevailed in a competitive fixture for three long years. Konstantinos Makridis struck the only goal of the game to allow his team-mates a rare taste of victory, but his effort has also got the side believing they can be more than perpetual also-rans. "The atmosphere in the squad is fantastic," explained promising forward Dimitri Cristofi. "We have a very good team and we showed that against Iceland. We want to give everything each time we put on our country's shirt, without holding anything back."
That approach certainly paid dividends against Iceland as Cyprus were able to recover from their 3-1 loss in Albania a few days previously. The injection of fresh belief has not yet been translated into consistent results, however, with Nioplias's side promptly succumbing 2-1 in Slovenia and 3-1 at home against Norway. Their opponents in those two games may have been ranked far higher up the global ladder, but both matches clearly highlighted Cyprus's overriding problem: consistency.
The islanders have always struggled to string a run of good results together, in fact. They are far more renowned for one-off upsets, starting with a 1-0 defeat of Northern Ireland and their legendary winger George Best in 1973 that had the whole of Cyprus in raptures. Ten years later, during qualifying for UEFA EURO 1984, world champions Italy were heading for an even more eye-catching 1-0 loss and needed a late own-goal to escape with a solitary point.
We have a very good team and we showed that against Iceland. We want to give everything each time we put on our country's shirt, without holding anything back.
In October 1988, it was France's turn to flirt with disaster on the road to the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the heavy favourites having to be satisfied with a 1-1 draw. The best was yet to come, though, with Cyprus clinching a famous 3-2 victory against Javier Clemente's Spain in September 1998 during the campaign to reach EURO 2000. More recently, the Galanolefki managed to see off the Republic of Ireland 5-2 and hold three-time world champions Germany to a 1-1 stalemate in the same month ahead of EURO 2008, not forgetting their spectacular 4-4 draw with Portugal in EURO 2012 qualifying.
Cypriot clubs leading the way
Cyprus are still awaiting their maiden appearance at a major international tournament, but the days when they were invariably seen as whipping boys for the elite nations look to have been consigned to the past for good. "I've been following this team since I was a child and I know the progress they've made over the last ten years," said midfielder Constantinos Charalambides, who has amassed 68 caps for the islanders. "It's been tremendous and I'm very happy about it."
The APOEL stalwart knows all about Cyprus's growing pedigree in the game as his club side have also turned heads of late, putting together an epic run to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League last season. Before that, Anorthosis Famagusta lit the way in 2008/09 when they became the first Cypriot outfit to qualify for the competition's group stage, going on to record a historic 3-3 draw against Inter Milan.
Crucially, however, in what has become a familiar refrain for Cypriot football, neither club was able to build on those breakthrough performances, Anorthosis falling short of the knockout phase and APOEL failing to qualify this term. Digging their heels in and establishing momentum has thus become priority number-one for Cyprus, with consistency undoubtedly offering the key to further progress.