APOEL’s five year title drought has finally come to an end as they were crowned champions, following a 1-1 draw against AEK Larnaca. The stalemate at the GSP meant both sides ended the season on 72 points. However, due to APOEL’s superior head-to-head record against AEK, the Nicosia side secured their 29th championship title.

Since APOEL’s last title victory in 2019, ten head coaches, including three interim managers, have departed, with only one (Sofronis Avgousti) lasting longer than a year. Amidst financial turmoil within the club and an eager fan base yearning for another taste of championship glory, President Petrides faced mounting pressure to select the ideal coach capable of securing the Protathlima. Perceived as a final gamble by many, Petrides opted for the Portuguese head coach Ricardo Sa Pinto, taking a significant financial risk in the process.

APOEL’s elimination from the Conference League qualification stage by Belgian outfit KAA Gent in late August dealt another blow to their finances, as a group stage berth would have generated close to €3m.

APOEL found themselves in 6th place after just two victories in their opening five league matches, sparking concerns among critics that their aspirations for domestic success were fading. Adding to their woes, Sa Pinto received an unprecedented four-month touchline ban from the CFA due to a string of incidents surrounding the 1-1 draw against Anorthosis, further exacerbating the club’s frustrations. Despite their appeal, the ban remained in force, leaving APOEL disappointed. Speculation emerged on social media regarding a potential clause in Sa Pinto’s contract, suggesting that repeated instances of misconduct could lead to its termination.

As Sa Pinto was banished to the stands, assistant coach Jose Dominguez assumed responsibility for match day operations. A remarkable streak commenced with a resounding 5-1 victory over Ethnikos in game week six, propelling APOEL to the top of the league with fourteen wins in seventeen matches, securing a four point lead over Aris.

Off-field turbulence persisted with a series of developments regarding APOEL’s financial status as club president Petrides confirmed the debt stood at €32M.

UEFA imposed a €60,000 fine on the club due to disturbances from the crowd during the Conference League qualifier against Gent. Meanwhile, the sudden emergence of a sponsorship agreement with Ta Meri Finance caught everyone off guard, as the company’s logo began to adorn various areas of the club’s training facilities. New sponsors came in the form of Hogar All Day and ISX Financial, while a deal with betting firm Stoiximan was renewed.

In November, the club made 20,000 lottery tickets available, priced at €25 each. The grand prize was a one-bedroom apartment valued at €140,000. President Petrides then unveiled strategies to bolster capital and alleviate debt, including a virtual match initiative where 23,000 virtual tickets would be offered at €20 each. Furthermore, the “500 APOEL FC” project was introduced, seeking a minimum of five hundred supporters willing to donate €1,000 per month for the next three months.

APOEL managed to alleviate another financial burden by negotiating a deal with the authorities of the GSP stadium, ensuring the clearance of a €500,000 debt by 2026. At the same time, it was announced that a Christmas celebration would take place at the Pavilion, featuring performances by renowned Greek singers Despina Vandi and Elli Kokkinou.

In December Petrides made an appearance on the Orange Legacy podcast to clarify various matters concerning the club, disclosing information previously unknown to most supporters. These included the potential signing of Willy Semedo in the summer, which was not completed, as Petrides stated he did not want to hire any new players until a head coach was in place. He also revealed that a lot of APOEL’s debt is owed to entities which are “friendly to Prodromos Petrides and to APOEL”, including board members and parties which have agreed to loans being paid back without interest. Additionally, he revealed that the club had already received offers for summer loan signing Jefte Vital which the club would review once the left back is transfered over in a permanent deal in summer 2024. Even further, he had also revealed his displeasure at fans selling out tickets for an upcoming game within a couple of days but with the club asking money for the “virtual tickets” and the APOEL 500 scheme, the take-up from fans was very limited.

The lack of interest from fans for the two financing schemes put forward by the club, along with a transfer embargo handed down by UEFA until certain debts were paid, meant that the January transfer window was relatively quiet up until the last few days, at least for incoming players. Outgoings were a little more complex with exciting young prospect Stavros Gavriel refusing to train until an offer was accepted for his services from abroad. APOEL agreed the transfer of Gavriel to Belgian Second Division team Zulte Waregem for a reported €200,000, which the club used to release the transfer embargo.

Another transfer saga developed over the course of January, with Rangers showing a keen interest in signing Jefte Vital. The Glasgow team contacted the player’s parent club in Brazil (Fluminense) for a full transfer, and it was apparent that terms between the two clubs were agreed. However, as their loan agreement did not include a break clause for the parent club, and had first option on the player for signing him, Rangers contacted APOEL to see what could be done to let the player sign for Rangers, however the negotiations failed. While the negotiations were ongoing, the player went AWOL for a while to push the transfer through. With APOEL playing hardball with both the club and the player, the transfer never went through, and the player had to backtrack, return to training and issue a public apology.

With the embargo removed, APOEL were able to make 3 signings, two youngsters from Brazil, in Cipriano and Maioli, and Iranian midfielder Mehri, who had been training with the club since the beginning of the transfer window waiting for the embargo and international clearance to go through. However, the players signed have so far been ineffectual at best. Once a full preseason is behind them, the club’s fans and hierarchy will expect them to push on.

On the 10th January, the Cyprus FA’s Sporting Judge Aristotelis Vrionides ordered the closure of the GSP’s South Stand, which is where the APOEL Ultras are normally situated during games, due to thrown objects towards Anorthosis goalkeeper Arboleda. To avoid further sanctions on the club, especially in the cup, the fan association requested that no further objects which could cause harm to the club’s season would be used, especially in the cup, as further sanctions could mean 1: the expulsion of fans from games and 2: affect the performance of the club with points deductions.

On the 16th January, APOEL had a Second Round match in the Cyprus FA Coca Cola Cup against Nea Salamina as the away team. With the game at 0-0, the Nea Salamina coaching staff sent some of their substitutes to warm up on the sidelines in the corner of the pitch between the home and away stands. One APOEL “fan” did not heed the warnings of the associations and threw a high-powered firecracker towards the players warming up, and Nea Salamina player Georgios Papageorgiou was very close to where it landed and exploded. The player fell to the ground and the match doctor along with emergency service people rushed to his aid. Nothing was officially caught by matchday cameras as there was a counterattack on at the other end of the pitch, and a lot of speculation was put forward until the police released CCTV footage of the incident which showed unequivocally that the projectile came from the away fans.

The player was taken to the closest emergency services and suffered from temporary hearing loss. The match was originally stopped by the referee with warnings to the fans sent out on the stadium tannoy, however following a meeting with the match doctor, the referee decided to stop the game completely.

The incident led to the banning of away fans from stadiums, and also led to Vrionides kicking the club out of the Cup. The banning of away fans from the GSP and no cup run will have further affected the club’s finances, however this will not be known officially until, at the earliest, December 2024.

Ricardo Sa Pinto returned to the dugout on 11th February in the 1-1 draw against AEL at the AlphaMega Arena. One week later, a 1-0 victory over title rivals Aris, put APOEL three points clear at the summit. Another 1-0 win, this time at Doxa on match day 26, maintained their three point lead going into the play-offs and put them seven points clear of third placed AEK.

Similar to their performance at the beginning of the regular season, APOEL had a rough start to the playoffs, managing just one victory along with a draw and two losses. APOEL’s 1-0 loss in the Nicosia derby against Omonoia narrowed their lead at the summit to just one point, while AEK Larnaca’s strong streak propelled them back into contention for the title.

Less than 24 hours later, a press conference was held, announcing plans for a 14,449 seater stadium to be built by 2028 at a cost of €35M – part funded by US based businessman Dinos Iordanou.

Stadium Analyst Mikis Ioannou said:

“It is a UEFA category 4 stadium. The capacity will be 14,669 in the first phase, but there will be the possibility to increase it up to 20,000 without affecting the operation of the stadium. The Kokkinotrimithia area met all the specifications. Land of 147,000 square meters has been securted for at least eighty years. The new Nicosia ring road from Dali ends very close to the new stadium and this will be convenient for fans from other cities. The second phase involves 1,800 seats in the east stand and the third phase involves 2,800 seats in the four corners of the stadium. The stands have been placed very close to the pitch. The sound of the stadium creates a very loud setting”

A 2-1 win at AEK midway through the playoffs widened the gap to four points, but a subsequent loss at home to Anorthosis the following week raised doubts about APOEL’s ability to clinch the title. The structure almost collapsed around Sa Pinto at full time as the Portuguese coach had to be restrained by four different members of security while he argued with an irate fan in the stands. He also delivered a very erratic and worrying performance in the post-match press conference, where he threw the APOEL hierarchy under the bus, regarding his own contract negotiations and extensions. The media went haywire about his future at the club, however a decision was made that he would be kept at the club until at least the end of the season.

APOEL responded with back to back 2-0 victories against Pafos and Aris respectively, putting them back on track in the title hunt.

Without knowing at the time, APOEL could have won the league with a game to spare, as they faced Omonia as the away team at GSP. The team in the end lost 1-0, but with a win, especially with AEK’s late draw against Anorthosis, the title would have gone to Nicosia early.

Instead, The Fates deemed it appropriate for the title to be claimed in the last game of the season versus AEK (in second place) and with the finest of margins. Any result bar a defeat for APOEL would hand them the title.

APOEL conceded within the first five minutes. But within five minutes of that, they had scored the equaliser, Marquinhos capitalising on the dithering of an AEK defender following a long ball forward. As AEK chased the game, the pressure mounted on the players but the stalwarts that had delivered superb performances over the course of the season, kept their mentality up and ran themselves ragged, to make sure that the draw was maintained, ensuring the trophy was paraded in the GSP and Nicosia.

The players must be commended for the effort and mentality they have had across the full season, especially as it seemed the odds were continuously stacked against them externally, despite their performances and victories showing them being the best team in the league for long parts of the season. There are very loud whispers that the players have not been paid their complete salaries for a few months now due to the financial issues which are affecting the club, which shows that their attitude and mentality is exemplary and delivered the title not only for themselves and the club, but also the fans, which many of the players has already said, are the biggest motivating factor for them to win the title.

Of course, even with the 2023/24 season being over, there will still be more twists and turns before the 2024/25 season starts, as player and coach contracts expire, and the new stadium being built in Kokkinotrimithia.

For most of the players, a well earned and overdue rest is coming in the summer, whereas Lasha Dvali and Georgi Kvilitaia will more than likely make the Georgia squad for the Euros.

APOEL will have to make do without at least Georgios Efrem and Jose Angel Crespo who have announced their retirement. Jefte Vital’s future is uncertain as APOEL try to cement his permanent signing and then probably offload him very quickly for a profit. Fifteen other players are reportedly out of contract at the end of May as well, including Kvilitaia, Susic, Villafanez, Kostadinov, Dalcio and Chebake. If the stories regarding unpaid salaries are real, then the club could find it difficult to keep some, if not all those players.

Regardless of what occurs this summer, the players and staff have etched their names in the club’s history and will never be forgotten.

Even Fawaz Abdulahi.