The 80th Cyprus football championship kicks-off this weekend and as happened last year, we do not have a complete fixture list.
Of the six initially scheduled games, only three will take place as the Cyprus Football Association has decided to postpone (after requests from the relative teams) the three games involving Apoel, Apollon and AEK who are still battling in Europe for a place in the group stage of the Europa League.
The new season will begin with two important changes.
In an effort to make the championship more competitive, the number of teams competing this season has been reduced to 12 from 14.
The second and most important change concerns the sports ID card.
All fans wanting to attend any sporting event in Cyprus from this season onwards will need to display their sports card to gain access to any sporting venue. The card is issued by the Cyprus Sports Organisation (CSO).
The card has been introduced as a measure to combat hooliganism in the hope that this will lure back fans who were scared away from football grounds because of football violence in recent years.
However it is highly unlikely that this measure alone will reverse a five-year trend of falling attendances. In fact it may well be that gates will drop at an accelerated rate this year especially as the fan clubs of all the ‘big teams’ have decided to boycott this measure and stay away from football matches.
If one also considers that every first division game is shown live on TV, coupled with the ridiculously high ticket price (€20) which is totally disproportionate to the spectacle and the appalling facilities offered at the majority of grounds, fans will most definitely prefer the comfort of their homes or their local café to watch a game.
The target of 60,000 ID cards set by the CSO by the end of the year seems an unattainable goal as they have issued just 18,000 such cards with the season’s curtain-raiser a few hours away.
On the footballing side, the teams have yet again been busy in the transfer market with no fewer than 145 players joining the 12 first division sides, with the majority of these signings being foreign players.
On average, each team will have 12 new players in their squads (up from 11 last year) and we still have a week to go until the end of the transfer window (31st August).
The large majority of these signings are from abroad and according to a report by the CIES Football Observatory the Cyprus top-flight has the highest percentage (77%) of playing time for overseas players while three teams, AEK, Anorthosis and Apollon occupy the top three places amongst all European clubs in this area .
Unfortunately few local players are ever given the chance to prove themselves, especially at the ‘bigger’ clubs. For example in the last European fixtures of Apoel, AEK and Apollon on Thursday night, there were just two local players in the three starting line-ups.
‘Champions’ in the transfer market so far have been Ermis Aradippou, with a staggering 17 new players, followed closely by Omonia and Doxa Katokopias with 16.
The least transfer-happy clubs are Apollon and Anorthosis with ‘only’ seven signings, with AEK next with eight.
It appears that the teams that finished in the top three places last season, Apoel, Apollon and AEK, will once again be battling for the championship next May while Anorthosis have strengthened their squad wisely this summer and are more than capable of challenging for a top spot.
A question mark remains over Omonia, who seemed to have overcome their financial woes after new football club owner Papastavrou poured millions into the once powerful Nicosia team.
However with so many new faces in the team, new Spanish coach Juan Carlos Oliva will have a tough job on his hands to gel his side together.
The newcomer to the top-flight, Enosis Neon Paralimniou, will be favourites for a quick return to the second division with Alki the most likely to join them. Doxa Katokopias and Ermis Aradippou may also get caught up in the relegation scrap especially if they get off to a poor start.
Saturday: Ermis vs AEL (18.00) Omonia vs Alki (20.00)
Sunday: Doxa vs Anorthosis (19.00)
Nea Salamina vs Apoel, AEK vs Pafos FC, Apollon vs Enosis Neon Paralimniou
Cyprus Mail predictions:
Champions: Apollon followed by AEK & Apoel
Relegated: Enosis Neon Paralimniou & Alki (Doxa Katokopias & Ermis Aradippou)
Top Scorer: Matt Derbyshire (Omonia) & Florian Taulemeuse (AEK)