APOEL’s aspirations to break their five year title dry spell teeter on the edge after a 2-0 loss at home against Anorthosis. This defeat leaves the club with a mere one point advantage over AEK, with four games remaining, despite having enjoyed a seven point lead at one point.

Before delving into the predicament facing the club, it’s crucial to grasp the significance of APOEL’s stature. Any news, whether positive or negative, about APOEL garners attention, sells newspapers, drives website clicks, and ignites social media with rumours and stories. This club boasts a rich history in Cypriot football and has amassed a large fanbase due to its domestic triumphs and notable performances in European competitions. The fans are demanding, with zero tolerance for failure. To provide context, Sa Pinto marks the tenth head coach appointed since the club last secured a title in 2019. Once again, failure is simply not an option, nor is it accepted.

Sa Pinto’s arrival caused quite a stir. APOEL managed to secure a globally renowned figure while also meeting his salary expectations, a noteworthy achievement given the club’s financial woes.

Yet, in football, nothing is guaranteed. Many prominent figures have tried their luck in Cyprus, only to fall short of expectations and swiftly depart with their reputation tarnished. Sa Pinto’s appointment was logical. APOEL sought an adept coach capable of handling the demands from both supporters and the board, possessing a demeanour unaffected by media pressure. They needed someone to revitalise a team disheartened by two consecutive failed title bids, steering them towards championship glory and securing a spot in European competition’s group stage. Additionally, the club required a leader with the fortitude to forge success despite financial constraints. Sa Pinto emerged as the ideal candidate for the job.

Sa Pinto’s arrival at Larnaca airport brought along more than just his luggage allowance would permit. Prior to officially joining APOEL, the Portuguese coach faced repercussions from the Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI), receiving a four month suspension for his criticism of a referee and an incident where he spat at the fourth official. A year earlier, during his tenure as head coach of Moreirense, Sa Pinto incurred a one-month suspension from the Portuguese Professional Football League (LPFP) due to verbal abuse directed at a referee, resulting in a conviction for “damaging the honour and reputation of an official with slanderous accusations.”

In January 2021, Sa Pinto took over from Marius Smudica as the head coach of Turkish side Gaziantep. However, within four months, a string of poor performances led Smudica to comment, “I left a Formula One car to him and he’s driving it like he’s a tractor. He’s a novice.”

Sa Pinto’s initial press conference, as anticipated, was charming. The Portuguese coach articulated all the right sentiments and demonstrated thorough familiarity with the league, drawing upon his coaching experiences in Greece to underscore his cultural acumen.

“We know that the club hasn’t won the title in the last 3 years and isn’t in a healthy financial situation.”

APOEL’s choice to bring on Sa Pinto might have been influenced in part by his prior experience managing under tight financial constraints. In an interview with ge.globo.com, Sa Pinto disclosed the budgetary limitations he encountered while serving at Brazilian club Vasco da Gama.

“I knew the financial situation was difficult. A delay of a month, a month and so on is fine, but I was there for three months in which my coaching staff and I didn’t receive a salary. The players didn’t receive a salary, nobody did.

I had to help players financially, because they didn’t have anything to eat. Vasco directors had to buy bread and other things to make breakfast. Anyway, unbelievable things. I helped a player who had no money. Other directors helped because there was no money to buy bread, ham or juice

Sometimes I wanted to make markings in the field, and there was no money to buy paint. We had to buy, and the Covid-19 cases were happening.”

The summer acquisitions for APOEL presented a varied assortment. Among them were players Sa Pinto had prior experience with or knowledge of, such as Tomane, Wilson, and Petrovic. Additionally, there were promising young talents like Karamanolis and Fawaz, while some arrived with considerable reputations, such as Donis and Fetfatzidis. However, the standout addition undoubtedly emerged as Brazilian full back Jefte, secured on loan from Fluminense. APOEL effectively leveraged their partnership with agent Alessandro Da Silva to continue their search for talent in the Brazilian market—a collaboration that commenced back in 2014.

“It will be a tough season but I am very optimistic and positive about the future. It’s a big club with many fans. Last season I coached a big club so I’m used to these situations with pressure to win. This is the way I like to be. I am very focused and determined to win the league. The first goal is to enter the Conference League.”

Impressive  triumphs over Vojvodina (4-1 on aggregate) and FC Dila (3-0 on aggregate) in the preliminary stage of the Conference League were highly encouraging, showcasing Sa Pinto’s adept utilisation of a 4-3-3 system tailored to exploit wide areas against opponents. Out of the seven goals scored, three were either assisted by full backs or originated from wide positions. Moroccan full-back Issam Chebake, previously subject to significant criticism in the preceding season, experienced a rejuvenation under Sa Pinto, exhibiting newfound dynamism by frequently surging up and down the flank, occasionally even finding himself inside the penalty area, as somewhat of a second striker.

All three central midfielders were assigned specific roles. Kostadinov was tasked with the “Makelele role,” acting as a midfield enforcer to shield the central defenders, occasionally functioning as a third centre back. Sarfo and Dalcio operated in advanced positions ahead of Kostadinov, providing support to the full backs on the flanks, particularly as APOEL’s wingers drifted towards central areas.

Interestingly, the first public display of frustration from Sa Pinto took place during the post-match press conference following the FC Dila game. He abruptly left the conference, citing the excessively cold temperature of the air conditioner as the reason. It’s worth noting that Sa Pinto’s shirt was soaked, likely due to the wet weather conditions of the evening in Georgia.

“I am at the best team in Cyprus and of course we want to play attacking football, to dominate the opponents and not let them beat us. All of my career, as a player and coach, I have been at very good clubs who have the same mentality. I have a winning mentality and this is what I’ll try to bring to the club; success, win titles, commitment, hard work and this is how I am. I am a passionate coach. Winning is everything. I hope I can transmit these ideas to my players so they can believe and win in this challenge and achieve our goals.”

Defeat at the hands of Belgian side Gent ended APOEL’s European campaign but victories over AEZ (2-0) and Pafos (1-0) in the opening games of the Protathlima season made Sa Pinto’s side early title favourites.

In a heated derby clash against rivals Omonoia, there were a total of four red cards (two from each team) and 17 yellows, with Sa Pinto receiving one of the yellows in the 16th minute for dissent. Two weeks later, matters worsened for Sa Pinto following a 1-1 draw against Anorthosis.

At halftime, a confrontation ensued between Sa Pinto and Anorthosis head coach David Gallego, resulting in both men being sent off. Sa Pinto, with a soaked shirt, engaged in an argument with Anorthosis staff and pushed a security member while making his way towards the dressing room. In the subsequent post match press conference, Sa Pinto alleged that home supporters had thrown beer and other liquids at him. Additionally, he referred to the Anorthosis coach as “a small coach,” though it remains unclear whether this remark was aimed at Gallego or his assistant Okkas.

On October 6th, Sports Referee Aristotelis Vryonidis imposed an unprecedented four-month touchline ban on Sa Pinto due to his behaviour both at halftime and after the match. The ban was justified by the following actions:

– Strong protests directed at the 4th official, including pushing him on the shoulder while speaking aggressively in Portuguese.

– Confrontation with an Anorthosis supporter after the press conference.

– Confrontation with the Director of Anorthosis.

– Violation of articles 4(c), 9(e), 9(h), and 9(k) of the CFA Disciplinary Regulations.

The CFA’s report indicated:

“As Sa Pinto was leaving the press conference, an Anorthosis fan in the stands insulted him, saying, “F**k your mother.” Sa Pinto reacted by moving towards the fan. Some APOEL officials attempted to restrain him, and as he was leaving, Marinos Mitrou tried to calm him down, resulting in a physical altercation between them. It is worth noting that approximately six security personnel were present during the altercation but made no effort to prevent it.”

APOEL’s plea to reduce the ban was denied on October 27th, adding momentum to speculations regarding Sa Pinto’s imminent departure. Reports emerged on football websites in Cyprus suggesting the existence of a “behaviour clause” in Sa Pinto’s contract. This clause purportedly stipulated that any actions tarnishing the club’s reputation would result in his dismissal.

Jose Dominguez, Sa Pinto’s assistant, took charge of the team, overseeing APOEL’s remarkable achievement of 13 wins in 18 games. Notable victories against AEK (3-0), Omonoia (3-0), Pafos (1-0), and Anorthosis (1-0) propelled APOEL to the forefront of the championship race with three games remaining in the championship season.

“I knew some already, who I coached before; Ndongala, Dalcio, Villafanez – who I almost signed in Greece and others.”

Dieumerci Ndongala and Dalcio have been instrumental in APOEL’s pursuit of the title, frequently delivering match-winning displays.

Ndongala, acquired from Genk in 2020, has been a constant presence in Sa Pinto’s lineup, contributing significantly with 8 goals and 9 assists across all competitions this season. As of the current moment, Ndongala has amassed a total of 2,330 minutes on the field this season, surpassing his previous highest tally of 1,927 minutes played in a season since joining the club, achieved during the 2020/2021 campaign. Winning goals against Pafos and Aris further enhance Ndongala’s chances of being crowned MVP of the season.

Dalcio, who experienced an inconsistent debut season last year, is another player who has flourished under Sa Pinto’s guidance. With 3 goals, 6 assists, and a total of 2,217 minutes played in the league, he stands out as the club’s most reliable central midfielder this season. What adds to the impressiveness of his recent form is that Dalcio missed a month of domestic football due to his call-up by Guinea-Bissau for AFCON.

Despite being plagued by injuries, Villafanez, the Argentine playmaker, stands as the club’s fifth highest goalscorer this season with 4 goals and 3 assists. This achievement is particularly noteworthy considering he has accumulated a total of 1,669 minutes on the field in the league.

“The responsibility from the attack isn’t just the strikers. We will try to create solutions so more players can score and win matches. It’s my responsibility to create these solutions and make the players believe in my solutions.”

The press and certain fans are closely scrutinising the performances of strikers Kvilitaia and Tomane this season due to their limited goal output. Kvilitaia has managed a modest tally of 6 goals, while Tomane trails with 3. However, it’s important to recognise Kvilitaia’s contributions beyond scoring. Despite his goal count, he has provided 4 assists in the league, a figure surpassed by only Marquinhos, Dalcio, and Ndongala. Additionally, his adept hold-up play has facilitated APOEL in earning free kicks and corners in dangerous areas, leading to numerous goals from set piece situations.

But it’s not just Ndongala and Dalcio who’ve made significant goal contributions under Sa Pinto’s management. Marquinhos leads the pack with 8 goals, followed by Chebake with 5, and others like Jefte, Dvali, Kostadinov, and Villafanez with 2 or more goals each. A remarkable total of 18 different players have found the back of the net, including Petrovic, Crespo, Donis, Wilson, Satsias, Efraim, Satsias, and Gavriel. Sa Pinto’s strategic approach has undeniably yielded a plethora of scoring “solutions” for the team.

“The Cypriot league is more competitive now. There are 3-4 teams challenging. We will have a big fight in front of us.

While Sa Pinto’s observation holds validity, even he couldn’t have foreseen the tumultuous nature of the Cypriot league.

The reigning champions, Aris, expected to maintain their title reign, find themselves plummeting in form amid speculation of unrest within the team. With just one victory in their last five matches, their hopes of retaining the title have taken a severe blow.

On the contrary, AEK Larnaca, who had a dismal start to the season, have turned their fortunes around remarkably. Under the stewardship of Ben Simon, following the departure of Luis Oltra, they have triumphed in 16 out of their last 22 matches.

Meanwhile, APOEL’s arch rivals, Omonoia Nicosia, have surprisingly emerged as contenders for the title. Despite a tumultuous campaign marked by three changes in management and the dismissal of a Sporting Director over alleged irregular payments, they have managed to stay in the race.

“I prefer to do 2-3 years at a club. Sometimes it’s because of other things like money problems. Last season I went 8 months without pay and we did a great job, winning the cup and doing a great job in the championship. Some jobs I wasn’t given the guarantee to do the job I want. I hope APOEL will be the present and my future.”

Although APOEL’s financial struggles have been extensively discussed, there hasn’t been any official confirmation regarding delayed payments to players and staff. Speculation on online forums suggests that certain players may be owed up to six months of wages, while others claim that former players are still awaiting payments. If these rumours hold truth, APOEL’s ability to remain competitive for the title is truly remarkable.

Despite these challenges, the team has demonstrated remarkable spirit, resilience, and unity. This is evidenced by their decision to reintegrate Jefte into the squad, despite his unprofessional actions in January when he went AWOL, seemingly in an attempt to secure a move to Scottish club Rangers.

Consecutive losses against Aris and Omonoia drastically reduced APOEL’s lead from 7 points to just 1, with AEK swiftly closing in. A crucial 2-1 away triumph over AEK seemed to solidify APOEL’s position, extending their lead to 4 points and instilling confidence that the title was within reach. However, just a week later, the title race took an unexpected turn as APOEL suffered a surprising 2-0 home defeat to Anorthosis, while AEK secured a convincing 3-0 victory against Pafos.

Despite the unrelenting optimism of the most devoted APOEL supporters, doubts linger. The team’s performances in the playoffs have failed to live up to expectations. While the victory against AEK appeared opportunistic, defensive lapses and signs of fatigue contributed to defeats against Aris, Omonoia, and Anorthosis.

Sa Pinto, whose conduct and strategic choices throughout the season had already polarized APOEL fans, further divided opinion with a controversial decision – confronting APOEL supporters at the end of the match against Anorthosis.

In the ensuing days, additional rumours started circulating. Once again, speculation about Sa Pinto’s tenure as head coach surfaced, casting doubt on his future. While a string of unfavourable results is often sufficient to warrant a coach’s dismissal in Cyprus, directly challenging supporters is considered sacrilegious.

“My only goal is to win titles, not money. I came from a place where I could have made 3 times more. I came to APOEL to win titles.”

Sa Pinto’s ambition to secure titles is undeniably sincere. While he has only claimed the Belgian Cup and Iranian Super Cup as head coach thus far, the prospect of ending APOEL’s championship drought serves as a significant motivation.

However, some fans argue that Sa Pinto’s strengths lie more in business than coaching. His affiliation with Alessandro da Silva has led to the signing of two additional Brazilian youngsters in January. Speculation has arisen that Sa Pinto and da Silva may view the club primarily as a platform for player development and subsequent sale, with both individuals profiting from transfer deals. While such practices are not uncommon in football, they raise ethical concerns. While APOEL may benefit financially, reducing their debt and enhancing their brand, loyal fans adhere to the principle of “Mono APOEL” – Only APOEL. They assert that no president, player, coach, or agent should overshadow the club’s identity, and exploiting APOEL for personal gain will not be tolerated.

With the promise of a new stadium on the horizon, Sa Pinto aims to leverage a title victory as evidence of laying the groundwork for APOEL’s resurgence and return to dominance.

Despite his contentious and impulsive demeanour, Sa Pinto retains his position as head coach, at least for the time being. Falling short of the title would be regarded as a failure – an outcome deemed unacceptable, as failure is simply not an option.