APOEL Nicosia and Jovanovic could prompt further Cinderella stories
The Champions League is heading for another spectacular climax after the quarter-final clashes produced expected winners in holders Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, who must be relishing the prospect of taking centre stage in the final in their own stadium on May 19.
But rather than the usual suspects who predictably reach the latter stages of the money-spinning competition every season, it was the highly unheralded outfit of APOEL Nicosia that lit up the scene this time.
The Cypriots defied the odds to reach even the group stage of the competition and then stunned one rival after another, punching way above their weight until they finally succumbed to Real 8-2 on aggregate.
They bowed out with their heads high and their Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic, who had emerged from complete obscurity very much like the Champions League surprise package personified by his team, was graceful after the incredible ride ended.
“We re very proud to have bid the Champions League farewell in a stadium like the Santiago Bernabeu and against a team like Real Madrid,” the 49-year old said after APOEL’s 5-2 defeat in the second leg where two goals in such a famous arena were also remarkable.
The soft-spoken Jovanovic became the first Serbian manager to reach the competition’s last eight, having never coached in his home country.
He played for unfancied Serbian side Rad Belgrade in the 1980s and drew hardly any attention at home even after he won his first Cypriot league title with APOEL in 2004.
He knocked both of Belgrade’s big two, Red Star and Partizan, out of Europe and won another two league titles with the Cypriots in his second spell . Last year, Jovanovic became the Serbian Football Association’s (FSS) prime target to take over as the Balkan country’s manager.
He won the 2011 Serbian coach of the year award for his exploits with APOEL but has so far turned down all attempts by the FSS to lure him into the national team’s hot seat, occupied by a caretaker coach after Serbia’s dreadful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.
It would be audacious to expect APOEL to repeat this season’s trick in Europe next term, with or without Jovanovic, but who can say there will not be another Cinderella-like team, buoyed by the unlikely accomplishment of this season’s underdogs?
For all its glamour and wealth epitomised by the big guns of European football, the Champions League needs more teams like APOEL, capable of bringing back the old chestnuts of grit and determination which force spending power to take a back seat every once in a while.