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APOEL Nicosias UNBELIEVABLE Run in The Champions League

5 minute read Published March 14, 2024

What do you first think of when you hear Cyprus? Party in Ayia Napa, the tense Greek-Turkish situation or maybe favourable tax laws. Well, today we’ll be talking about Cypriot football. More specifically, the little team that shocked the Champions League in 2012 – APOEL Nicosia.

Nicosia is the capital of Cyprus. Located in the middle of the island, it’s edging just south of the border between Greece and Turkey, on the Greek side. Founded 4500 years ago, it’s an ancient city. It’s also small. Only about 250.000 people live here, if you’re being very generous with city limits.

Nicosia also has two teams in the domestic league, Omonia and APOEL. The two teams are the most successful in the country, having won 21 and 28 league titles, respectively. Omonia owned the 70s and 80s, APOEL the 30s, 40s and 2010s. This is a story about the team that owned the 2010s but weren’t satisfied with domestic glory – as a team from one of the smallest countries in the world, they wanted to go for European glory.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, APOEL Nicosia stood for one of the best underdog performances ever, in the Champions League.

APOEL Nicosia

APOEL Nicosia, or APOEL FC, was founded as the Greek team on Cyprus in 1926. When the domestic league was started in 1932, the club was a founding member. In fact, APOEL won the first ever Cypriot league title. Since then they’ve won 28 league titles and participated in every single playoff but one (the Cypriot league is decided in a cup format). Today they’re the most popular team on the island. 

In the 1960’s they were the first Cypriot or Greek team to compete in Europe. Then, they only managed to get past one opponent – Norwegian SK Gjøvik-Lyn. 

Champions League 2011/2012

Winning the Cypriot league means getting a qualification spot for the Champions League. APOEL, having won the league 5 times in the last decade, had quite a few chances. They made it to the first, second and third qualifying round, but never the main event. Until 2011.

The Cypriot team entered the tournament in the first qualifying round. They took on Albanian and Slovakian opposition in the first two rounds, winning three and drawing one. They were put under pressure and lost their opening game in the third qualifying round 1-0, against Polish Wisla Krakow. At home, however, they pretty quickly got that one goal back and would eventually go on to win 3-1. They’d made it to the group stage.

Group Stage

Their first game was against Zenit St. Petersburg. In the 63rd minute, the Russians took the lead. Ten minutes later, APOEL got two quick goals, in the 73rd and 75th minute. In the 76th, Zenits Bruno Alves was shown a red card. The game ended 2-1 and APOEL were able to walk away with their first ever Champions League win.

After drawing both Donetsk and Porto away in the second and third game, they’d take on Porto at home. Just before halftime, APOEL got a penalty that Aílton converted. As the game went on, it seemed like APOEL just might get those three points. Then, in the 89th minute, James Rodriguez (yes, Colombian Hames) made his way into the box and was brought down by APOEL defence. Hulk (yes, that Hulk) stepped up and tucked the penalty away, neatly in the bottom left. Done and dusted, right? Wrong. Within a minute Nicosia got the ball up the right flank. A low cross into the box reached Manduca who scored the winner, 2-1, in the 90th minute. The stadium erupted.

Gustavo Manducas. Photo: YiAN Kourt, Shutterstock

Having drawn one and lost one in their remaining two games, APOEL finished first in that group. Making it through to the round of 16. They would take on Lyon.

Group G
Team GD Points
Zenit 2 9
Porto 0 8
Donetsk -2 5

Round of 16

At this point, Lyon were among the best teams in Europe. They had made it to the semis in the Champions League the year before. A young Alexandre Lacazette led the line, soaking up balls from Kim Källström.

The first game was played at Stade de Gerland in Lyon. The game was a one sided affair where Lyon had 63% possession. Lyon got off 15 shots while APOEL were only able to shoot once. The game, however, finished only 1-0.

"Feel the terror of Nicosia" - Lyons view in the second half

The second game was very different in character. The Cypriots had most of the ball and, this time, even led in shots created. In the ninth minute, Manduca would score another deciding goal, bringing the aggregate score to 1-1. A score that would stand until full time. Extra time passed with one major event. The goal scorer, Manduca, was sent off.

In the penalty shoot out that followed, Dionysis Chiotis saved both Lacazette and Michel Bastos’ penalties and became the hero for APOEL. APOEL scored all of theirs.

Quarter Finals

I don't want Barcelona. No one wants them, or Real Madrid.

After the game, Manduca got the question – who do you want in the quarter finals? His answer: not Barcelona or Real Madrid. Well, they got Madrid.

After an insane run, making it all the way to Santiago Bernabeu and the quarter finals, Real Madrid would prove too much for the underdogs.

Until the quarter finals game, they’d only lost one game at home. Real Madrid, however, made it look easy by beating them 3-0. The Cypriot team did manage to score two at Bernabeu, but the quarterfinal series eventually ended 8-2 to the Spanish capital team.


Since that fateful tournament of 2011/2012, APOEL have yet to make it past the groups. They’ve made it there on a couple of occasions, but always fallen short of the knockouts. In the Europa League, the team has made it to the round of 16 a few times, but never further.

In the past few years, their performance have declined somewhat. In the league, they missed out on the league play-offs for the first time in their history in 22/23 and haven’t won in three years.

Everyone loves an underdog story. Wonder when we’ll get the next APOEL in the Champions League?

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