Cyprus’ First Division features the most expatriate footballers of 31 European leagues while it has the second-highest average squad age and huge player turnover, according to a new survey.
A survey conducted by the Football Observatory of the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES), reveals that Cypriot clubs prefer to make short-term investments for quick gains rather than invest in long-term projects.
It shows that Cyprus has the highest percentage of foreign footballers with 66.8%, followed by Portugal with 63.6% and Turkey with 62.4%.
These three are the only countries with a rate of foreign players exceeding 60%. The league with the least expatriate footballers is the Serbian Super League with 14.8%.
To make matters worse, six out of the 10 European teams with the highest percentage of minutes by expatriates played so far this season are Cypriot.
Pafos FC tops the list with 93.9%, while AEK Larnaca is third with 92.5%, APOEL FC fourth with 90.8%. Omonia FC, Apollonas and Anorthosis also make it into the top 10.
At the same time, the Cypriot Championship remains one of Europe's oldest with an average age of 27.41 years.
Cyprus is last but one on the list, ahead of the Turkish Super League, which has an average age of 28 years.
Regarding indigenous players competing in the Cyprus championship, 14.2% are club-trained, meaning they come from the academies of the teams in which they compete.
This is a relatively low percentage, but better than Turkey (8.7%) and major European leagues such as Italy, Germany, England but also Portugal, Belgium and Russia, where teams can afford to "buy" players from smaller clubs.
It is noteworthy that for the first time since 2009, there was a pan-European increase in homegrown players, although at a very low rate (0.2%), with Cyprus showing a 1.6% increase.
President of the Cyprus Footballers Association Spyros Neophytides said the report reveals that Cypriot clubs have a poor mentality when it comes to building their teams.
“We see that clubs are following an opportunistic policy, investing in short-term projects by bringing in a large number of foreign players. A large percentage of these players are at the end of their careers, shooting up the average age of the league,” said Neophytides.
He explained that this is troublesome, as clubs are not based on healthy foundations, with teams replacing their players more frequently than clubs in other European leagues.
Cyprus has one of the highest turnover rates, as 55.3% of players in the First Division joined their clubs this year.
Cyprus is second in the table, behind Romania (58.2%) and ahead of Turkey (54.1%) on this score.
In major championships such as England’s Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga just 27% and 30.8% of players respectively joined their teams during the current season.
“Clubs in these championships prefer to maintain the core of their squads investing in long term projects and introducing homegrown players,” said Neophytides adding that clubs need to exhibit more patience.
He said that taking a shortcut to success is not sustainable as it comes to the expense of local players and especially young talent.
“While we understand the argument that this model is behind the success of two or three top teams who pulled-off European feats, we cannot accept this argument can be used in defence of the majority of teams in the Cyprus first division,” said Neophytides.
He said teams in the second division are also following this ready-made imported model which is minimising opportunities for homegrown young players.
Connection with the fans
The Cyprus Football Association said this is not the first-time reports show the topflight is one of the oldest championships in Europe nor are they surprised that findings show Cyprus with the highest proportion of foreign players in Europe.
CFA spokesperson Constantinos Shiamboullis said there is a concern as the findings reveal yet another reason why Cypriots are increasingly distancing themselves from their teams and the stadia.
“Cypriot players know the history of the clubs, adopt certain values promoted and thus have stronger ties with the fans, encouraging them to come to the ground,” said Shiamboullis.
He argued the high turnover rate, with the majority of teams renewing their squads every year, does not give the chance for fans to connect with expatriate players.
“A small number of players who stayed on for more than a couple of years were idolised by fans.”
Shiamboullis believes that Cypriots should not be given a place in the starting line-up just because they are Cypriot but because they have the quality to earn their spot.
“We strongly believe that Cypriot players have the quality to play in even the best teams who are leaving their mark in European competition. That is why we are trying to make sure they are given the opportunities they deserve by introducing certain measures.”
The CFA has increased fines for teams not using at least two Cypriot players in their starting XI for each game.
The fine is now €8,500 if a team does not place any Cypriot, and 2,000 if they start just one. The measure was introduced in 2016 with teams paying €4,000 if they did not include a Cypriot player in the starting line-up and €2,000 if they had only one.
Funds collected from the fines are redistributed to the clubs on condition this money is spent on their grassroots infrastructure.
Shiamboullis said clubs should make the switch to Cypriot players especially when “the Cyprus league is the second oldest in Europe while the country has the youngest national team of all time”.
Cypriot teams are founding that depending on older foreign players is not a viable model and have turned to invest in their academies and in recruiting homegrown talent.
Anorthosis Famagusta, who according to the CIES report is the second oldest team, and fifth in the use of expatriate players in Europe, has made efforts over the past few years to introduce younger homegrown players to their first team.
Talking to the Financial Mirror, Savvas Pilakoutas, spokesperson for the club, said Anorthosis has drawn up a road map aiming to do just that.
He said that club scouts have selected and brought in some quality Cypriot players such as the Artymatas brothers, Panayiotis and Costakis, and Marios Stylianou, all Cyprus internationals.
“We have also been investing in upgrading our academy over the past couple of years, which has led to impressive results. Half of the Cyprus national U19 team is made up from Anorthosis players,” said Pilakoutas.
He defended clubs choosing to bring in foreign players, noting that they were the key to Cyprus’ successes in European competition, while positively affecting the quality of Cypriot players.
CIES, established in 2005, is based in Neuchâtel of Switzerland and employs several researchers specializing in statistical analysis in football.