The football world was forced to sit up and take notice last September when Cyprus recorded a surprise 2-1 win away to Bosnia and Herzegovina in a UEFA EURO 2016 qualifier. The hosts had looked set for victory after taking a sixth-minute lead, but, by the final whistle, the likes of Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic were left wondering what had hit them. Despite recently making their FIFA World Cup™ debut at Brazil 2014, the Bosnians had lost to a side from a nation of just over one million inhabitants – and one that jumped nine places to 87th in the most recent FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
"We've always been very close to pulling off something special," explained attacking midfielder Vincent Laban, speaking to FIFA.comearlier this year. "We put in a terrific performance to win in Bosnia because they have players like Dzeko and Pjanic and they're a very good side."
The win was particularly unforgettable for the French-born player because it came on his 30th birthday, but he feels that it reflected an overall improvement in standards. "It was due to our attitude as well," he said. "The team realised we needed to play with less of a complex and have more confidence in ourselves."
Cyprus have also beaten Andorra home and away in their campaign to reach France 2016, and they currently sit fourth in qualifying Group B. A mood of optimism prevails, and although they suffered a heavy 5-0 loss to Belgium, narrow defeats by Wales and Israel have left the players feeling positive ahead of the return games in September and October.
Can they cause their greatest shock yet and qualify for a first ever major tournament? "We're a small country so we don't have a huge reservoir of players available," said Laban. "It costs us whenever we have a few injuries, and that's hurt us in the past. But now we have a new generation coming through and it's going well in terms of combining more experienced players with younger ones. We've already had some interesting results and we can be optimistic."
Perhaps the biggest challenge the islanders now face is finding greater consistency. Coached by Pambos Christodoulou since January 2014, Cyprus have experienced as many sharp ups and downs as a rollercoaster in the last three decades of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Above all, they have forged a reputation as a team capable of intermittent upsets, and humbling even the most established nations. They first caught the eye by clinching a 1-0 win against a Northern Ireland side containing legendary winger George Best in 1973, and ten years later they held world champions Italy 1-1 in a UEFA EURO 1984 qualifier. In October 1988, it was then France's turn to be frustrated in a 1-1 stalemate during qualifying for Italy 1990, but the best was still to come: a historic 3-2 success against Javier Clemente's Spain in a September 1998 qualifier for EURO 2000.
More recently, in 2006, Cyprus pulled off a pair of superb results in the space of a month, first downing Republic of Ireland 5-2 and subsequently drawing 1-1 with then three-time World Cup winners Germany in the preliminaries for EURO 2008. They also played out a spectacular 4-4 draw with Portugal in EURO 2012 qualifying, and, between those stand-out results, reached their highest ranking place, surging to 43rd in September 2010.
Providing that Cyprus can build on their current momentum and perform with improved regularity, they could well approach that record standing again – and perhaps even surpass it. Either way, no team in Europe will be rubbing their hands with glee if they are paired with the tenacious island side on the road to Russia 2018.