Love Letters to the European Union: We’re Gonna Head For New Horizons…

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. Part five sees the arrival of the only member of the European Union to be annexed by Britain in the Twentieth Century, so presumably they won’t be sad to see the old bastards go. It’s Cyprus. 

 

The Player: Ioannis Okkas

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Born in the third biggest city in Cyprus, Ioannis Okkas is one of the country’s most decorated footballers, establishing himself as the spearhead of the national team’s attack during the most successful period of their history. Signed as a dewy-eyed 17 year old by  Nea Salamis Famagusta, Okkas’ impressive tally of sixteen goals from fifty-three appearances on the left-hand side of attack encouraged Nea’s more illustrious neighbours Anorthosis to splash £350,000 on the newly capped 21 year old. Okkas had already found the net for the national team in a 4-1 defeat to Bulgaria during World Cup qualifying, as Cyprus finished second bottom of their group. Better times were ahead for the Larnacan though, as he finished his first season at Anorthosis by scoring the crucial second goal in the side’s Cypriot Cup final win against Apollon Limassol, securing a league and cup double. The next two seasons would bring a further two league titles, as the prolific Okkas narrowly missed out on the Cypriot Golden Boot to the machine-like Rainer Rauffmann. That record of 51 in 72 prompted PAOK to part with a Greek record £2.4m to secure the services of the Cypriot forward, with Okkas hitting the ground running at the Toumba Stadium, winning the Greek Cup in his first season, and adding a second in 2003. A shortlived spell at cash-strapped AEK Athens failed to produce further trophies, but once Olympiacos had picked over the bones of their rivals carcass, Okkas embarked on the most successful spell of his career.

Between 2004 and 2008, three Greek Superleague medals were added to the Cypriot’s ever growing list of honours, while his international form blossomed, with a goal against eventual finalists Germany in Nicosia earning Cyprus a surprise point in Euro 2008 qualifying, while five goals in 2007 marked the most prolific year for his country. With his reputation sky high, clubs in north and western Europe began to sniff around the Olympiacos man and, after unsuccessful trials with West Ham and Derby, Celta Vigo agreed a deal to make Okkas the first Cypriot to play in Spain. One season and six goals later, the now 31 year old returned to his native country, taking in spells with Omonia and Anorthosis, before winding down his playing career at Ermis Aradippou. His final game for Cyprus, a Euro 2012 qualifier in Norway, saw Okkas score his 27th international goal, and the long-term captain retired as the second highest goalscorer and most capped player for his country. Among his highlights are scoring against Italy in Parma to give Cyprus the lead, and netting an equaliser in a bizarre 4-4 draw with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

It’s a telling statistic that in 1999, two years after Okkas had broken into the national team, Cyprus reached their highest ever position in the FIFA World Rankings at #62 while the year following his retirement saw them sink to the nadir of #132. Now coaching the national team under-17 side, Okkas remains an inspiration for all young Cypriot footballers.

 

The Game: Cyprus 3-2 Spain, 1998

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Cyprus were riding the crest of a wave as they headed into the qualifying campaign for Euro 2000. The past twelve months had seen the installation of manager Panikos Georgiou breathe new life into the national team, as they embarked on an unprecedented five game unbeaten streak, seeing off Luxembourg home and away at the tail end of the World Cup campaign, before sandwiching a draw against Finland with victories over Albania and Slovenia. The addition of Yugoslav-born talent, granted political asylum in Cyprus following the Balkan conflict of the early nineties, undoubtedly helped the Cypriot cause, but with the draw pitting them against World Cup regulars Spain and Austria and an emerging Israeli side, the islanders weren’t getting carried away, particularly since the opening game would see the visit of Raul and co.

Spain began the campaign looking to banish the memory of France ’98 as quickly as possible. An embarrassing group stage exit thanks to a shock defeat to Nigeria saw Javier Clemente on the brink of ending his six year association with the national team, though a successful qualifying campaign would surely heal the wounds of Nantes. This was, of course, the original Spain, packed full of talent and promise, and yet so predictably disappointing you could set your watch by them. A full decade before their dominance of world football began, few were able to take La Roja seriously as an international force.

On the evening of September 5th 1998, it became clear why. With a line-up including three Champions League winners from the previous season, as well as a strong Barcelona present, Spain came into the game at the Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium in Larnaca as strong favourites, not least because they had won their previous six meetings with Cyprus at an aggregate of 25-2. Georgiou was able to call upon veteran captain Charalambos Pittas, who was looking to earn his bread by pocketing Spain’s strikers, as well as the Serbian-born attackers Siniša Gogić and Milenko Špoljarić. It was the Anorthosis Famagusta midfielder Panayiotis Engomitis that opened the scoring, though, picking the ball up in Spain’s half and driving towards Miguel Angel Nadal and Rafael Alkorta before sending an outrageous chip over the head of Santiago Canizares to put Cyprus ahead just before half-time. Four minutes into the second half, and with the Spanish defence having seemingly only been introduced to one another during the break, Špoljarić rolled the ball into the path of his countryman Gogić, and the Olympiacos forward thrased a shot into the top corner. Raul’s lob over Nicos Panagiotou in the 72nd minute looked as though it might set up a tense finale, but four minutes later Špoljarić rose to meet Vassos Melanarkitis’ free-kick and direct a header beyond Canizares’ reach. A late rally from Spain, including a shot from Fernando Morientes squirming beneath Panagiotou, wasn’t enough and, for a month at least, Cyprus went top of Group 6. Javier Clemente, meanwhile, was sacked.

That was as good as it got for Georgiou as, a month later, Austria arrived to send the Cypriot’s crashing back down to Earth as they left Larnaca with a 3-0 win, and, two expected wins against San Marino aside, Cyprus only won once more during qualifying. A year and three days after their historic victory over Spain, Cyprus traveled to Badajoz for the return leg and succumbed to an 8-0 thrashing. They finished fourth out of five in the group, though missed out on a playoff spot by just a point and, for one night at least, they showed they could compete with the best.

 

 

 

 

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