The newest force in Cypriot football plays at the very latest football stadium to be unveiled on the island. Formed in 1994, league runners-up three years running from 2014 to 2016, AEK Larnaca recently built a new home right next door to the old one.
A neat, compact venue of 7,400 seats, the AEK Arena was opened in October 2016. After witnessing AEK’s third consecutive title chase behind APOEL Nicosia, the AEK Arena saw its first European action when Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar were stomped 5-0 here in June 2017.
As Larnaca attempt to repeat group-stage achievements in the Europa League, so similarly ambitious Apollon of Limassol 60km away are also have to make use the AEK Arena as home turf for international fixtures.
Across the stadium façade immediately facing AEK’s abandoned former home of the Neo GSZ, a mural illustrates the club’s 20th-century heritage.
Beside the heroic Ancient Greek general Kimon featured on AEK’s badge are the yellow and black of EPA and green and white (and rather splendid camel) of Pezoporikos.
Winning five Cypriot titles between them, Pezoporikos were founded in 1927, EPA three years later.
EPA were at their height in the 1940s, twice winning the double. Lifting a third championship in 1970 granted the club not only passage to the European Cup but also the Greek First Division. Both participations were short and sweet, EPA overwhelmed by Günter Netzer’s Mönchengladbach 16-0 and outclassed on the mainland, finishing bottom of the table.
Pezoporikos most recently won the league in 1988, under former Greek international Spiros Livathinos, seeing out his career as player/coach. Alongside him in midfield in his debut season was locally born Neophytos Larkou, later a long-term regular for the national team and the newly formed AEK Larnaca.
With EPA relegated in 1994 and Pezoporikos struggling in mid-table, the decision was made to create one club out of the two under-achieving stalwarts: AEK Larnaca.
Cypriot Cup finalists in 1996, AEK were granted a dream tie in the Cup-Winners’ Cup against Barcelona although not the right to play at the Nou Camp. Playing at the Estadí Olimpic, Bobby Robson fielded Figo, Luis Enrique and Ronaldo against inexperienced Larnaca. Keeping the score down to 0-2, AEK surpassed themselves in the home leg, achieving a 0-0 draw at the Neo GSZ.
This municipal stadium had replaced the old centrally located GSZ in 1983. It next saw dramatic action in 2004, with AEK’s cup run, overcoming Nicosia sides Omonia and Olympiakos by the narrowest of margins. AEK claimed their first and so far only Cypriot Cup thanks to a 90th-minute winner by defender Makis Papaioannou.
In the league, AEK continued to miss out on Europe then hit poor form in 2008-09 and were relegated. Bouncing back at the first attempt, the club signed former Dutch international Jordi Cruyff as sports director, who brought with him from Valletta compatriot coach Ton Caanen. The pair had also worked together at Metalurh Donetsk.
Achieving fourth place in 2011, the pair then took AEK on the club’s greatest European odyssey to date. On a memorable night in Larnaca, a brace of penalties from former Utrecht midfielder Gregoor van Dijk put paid to Euro veterans Rosenborg Trondheim and sent AEK to the group stage of the Europa League. Draws with Schalke and Steaua Bucharest earned points gave the final table a reasonable appearance.
After the Dutch exodus of 2012 came the Spanish invasion of 2014. A former journeyman right-back in the Catalan leagues, Xavier Roca had been appointed director of football at AEK. Roca hired his former Barcelona B team-mate Thomas Christiansen as head coach, and the Hispano-Dane brought in half-a-dozen experienced players from Spain.
The end result has been three consecutive runners-up spots in the Cypriot League, Christiansen bowing out to make way for former Real Sociedad reserve-team coach Imañol Idiakez in 2016. Christiansen’s choice of new employer, APOEL Nicosia, added spice to the fixture in 2016-17.
A team still dominated by Spaniards – veteran centre-back captain David Català, winger Joan Tomàs and striker Tete – overcame Spartak Moscow in the Europa League in 2016 but then fell to Slovan Liberec in the play-off round.
With the home legs of European fixtures long moved to other grounds, most notably the Antonis Papadopoulos, home of Anorthosis, AEK had long needed a new stadium. Named after the father of club president Antreas Karapatakis, the AEK Arena–Giorgios Karapatakis was inaugurated in October 2016 with a 4-0 AEK win over Aris Limassol.
Goals from Macedonian international Ivan Tričkovski were still not quite enough for AEK to keep up with champions APOEL Nicosia in the league – but led to a run to the play-off round of the Europa League in 2017-18. Two goals in two minutes against Apollon Limassol then saw AEK take the Cypriot Cup for the second time of asking.
Surrounded to the north by waist-high cornfields that stretch out towards the A3 highway linking Larnaca to the resort of Ayia Napa, the AEK Arena stands pretty much where the city runs out of streets and buildings.
Neat and compact, the 7,400-capacity ground comprises four open stands of green-and-yellow seating. The AJK Group (Ανατολική/East, Gates 5/6) and George Karapatakis (Δυτική/West, Gates 1/2) run along the sidelines, the home end is the Petrolina (Νότια/South, Gate 7), away the North/ Βόρεια end, usually only two sectors.
Unless the opponents are from Nicosia, in particular APOEL, visiting support is pretty minimal. Average gates for 2016-17 were less than half the capacity.
The bus stop next to the stadium is No.724, Ave G Christodoulidi – but the only route that serves it with any frequency is the No.417 from the airport and Larnaca station, and that’s only during the day.
The only feasible option is a taxi, the regular fare from the seafront €7. Going back to town, taxis wait on main Ave G Christodoulidi – but will be at a premium. It may be a case of arranging one beforehand, either at your hotel or with one of the many drivers parked up in town around Finikoudes.
The AEK Shop at Kilkis 7, opposite the Larnaca Tennis Club, a 7-8min walk from the Marina, should be able to deal with advance sales, or at least information. There is no online service.
Demand is rarely a problem. On the day, two ticket windows operate at the back of the ground, the other side from the disused Neo GSZ stadium.
Admission should be in the €15 range, depending on the opposition, cash-only.
The AEK Shop is at Kilkis 7, a short stroll inland from the Marina. Expect to find standard yellow-and-green merchandise, replica shirts, flags, tracksuit tops and the like.
On match nights, souvenir stalls set up in the concourse in front of the stand facing the Neo GSZ stadium – but the only outlet is the one in town.
There’s an AEK café set alongside the AEK Shop at Kilkis 7 – but it would be a taxi job to the stadium if you’re there pre-match.
The only suitable outlet near the ground is the classic Greek Periptero, or roadside convenience kiosk, by the No.724 bus stop on Ave G Christodoulidi. It has a scattering of seats outside for your beer and basic snack.
The other nearby business is the local Pirillos, a Larnaca institution, a family-run chain of bakeries. You’ll find quality cookies and cakes, and usually coffee and soft drinks, but no booze.