The second biggest city in Cyprus, Limassol is home to arguably its fiercest cross-town football rivalry.
Sharing the Tsirion, the multi-sports stadium that hosted national team games back in the 1970s, fans of AEL and Apollon clash on regular occasions. In May 2017, it didn’t even need a derby fixture to spark a major set-to, just Apollon fans out celebrating reaching the Cypriot Cup final.
Both clubs also have a common enemy, the big teams from Nicosia.
A municipal athletics ground with a running track and a long-jump pit, the Tsirion has long past its 40th year and, indeed, its sell-by date as an international football venue. By way of illustration, in August 2017, both Apollon and AEL switched home Europa League ties to Larnaca, against Aberdeen and Austria Vienna respectively.
The Tsirion will continue to be used for domestic fixtures until a new 12,000 soccer-specific venue is built, at Kolossi just west of the city centre. Estimates of construction costs are around €20 million, 2019 the earliest realistic date for its unveiling.
The third club in the Limassol equation, little Aris, five-time winners of the Cypriot Second Division, are currently the third tenants of the Tsirion.
Aris were founder members of Cyprus Football Association, along with AEL, in 1934. Both clubs had been formed in 1930, AEL as Athlitiki Enosi Lemessou, the Athletic Union of Limassol.
At the time, nearly all sports events in town were held at the GSO Stadium, which dates back to the first gymnastic club in Cyprus, formed there in 1892. In 1899, it held the Pancyprian Athletics Games and by 1910 a stand had been built.
The venerable venue still exists as a recreation ground close to Limassol Zoo, along the coast from the city centre.
Altogether at least nine teams called the GSO home, from the time pioneering AEL and Aris strode out in 1930 to the construction of the Tsirion, on a hill north of town overlooking Limassol, before the visit of England for a European Championship qualifier in 1975.
AMOL were founded in 1943, became Antaeus in 1951 and merged with Panellinios in 1963 to form EPAL. None of these clubs spent any time in the First Division – EPAL were subsumed by Aris in 1971. Two years later, ENAZ were not only expelled from the GSO but Cypriot football altogether after a match-fixing scandal came to light.
Formed in 1979, APEP from the village of Kyperounta high in the hills near Mount Olympus, used the Tsirion for occasional seasons. The club has since moved back to its home in the Troodos Mountains, close to the highest point in Cyprus, Mount Olympus, where the district boundaries of Limassol and Nicosia meet.
Two other Limassol teams, Amathus and Arion, merged with the most successful of the later generation of Limassol clubs: Apollon.
Created in the mid-1950s, ‘O Fygas’ (‘The Fugitive’) originally fielded mainly ex-AEL players in their line-up. Gradually, O Fygas became Thrylos, ‘The Legend’, with consecutive Cypriot Cup wins in the 1960s and league titles in the early 1990s.
By then, the Tsirion was up and running and a modern-day fan culture had developed. Meeting at their clubhouse, Apollon’s supporters were named the PAN.SY.FI, associated with Gate 1 at the Tsirion. AEL’s, the SYFAEL, met at the Loukas Bar and claimed Gate 3 as their own.
Most cup finals were still staged at the Tsirion, most notably the derby of 1989 when AEL needed extra-time to deny Aris their one real chance of major silverware. In the wake of their 3-2 defeat, Aris pulled a major coup in hiring former European Footballer of the Year, Oleh Blokhin, for a season.
Cup final meetings between Limassol’s big two have been rare: a win for AEL in 1987 and rematch showdown in a quite incredible game in 2013. The game held at 0-0, AEL’s Dijilly Vouho missed a penalty on 83 minutes before Apollon’s Romeo Surdu squandering a sitter right on full time. Argentine midfielder Horacio Cardozo put Apollon ahead in extra-time, then Surdu made amends by doubling their lead by converting a spot-kick on 118 minutes. Vouho pulled one back for AEL, in the 15th minute (!!) of stoppage time – but it wasn’t enough.
The Limassol Airport Express (€9) runs from each airport to Limassol, heading for St George Havouzas Church at Christofi Ergatoudi outside town on the A1 highway. It’s less than 1km as the crow flies from the stadium and on the same local bus route.
Journey time from either airport is 45-50min.
To and from Larnaca, buses leave every 1-1.5hrs, serving the two pick-up points outside Limassol city centre, the church and St Raphael Marina.
Buses are less frequent from Paphos, only four or five a day, with long gaps in between. The main drop-off and pick-up point in Limassol is St George Havouzas Church.
Local Limassol buses are run by EMEL. A single ticket is €1.50, a day pass €5. Many routes, including the one for the stadium, call at the central station of Leontiou EMEL, just outside the walkable city centre. Buses for St Raphael Marina run along the coast to and from town, stopping at major hotels.
Atreus Cyprus Taxi (+357 9999 9947) is a local firm based near the stadium and quotes €10 between the Tsirion and town.
The upscale hotel hub is around St Raphael Marina, about 6km from the city centre, served by the airport bus from Larnaca airport – but there’s also plenty of choice in Limassol itself.
There are no lodgings around the stadium, stuck out by the A1 highway, although the Alasia is close to the main Nikou Pattichi road that leads up there. Lavishly modern after a 2010 overhaul, it offers a top-notch spa, breakfast on the terrace overlooking the pool and the chic Polo restaurant.
Towards the waterfront, the Atlantica Oasis is one of four in this holiday-focused chain located in Limassol. The pool here is huge, with two separate adult-only and children’s ones as well. There’s also a squash court, gym, games room and spa. The Nag’s Head pub is close by.
To combine a city stay with a beach break, there’s a cluster of sea-facing hotels (and Molly Malone’s pub) around St Raphael Marina, about 5km out of town on the A1. These include the four-star Elias, with its spa and lagoon pool, and five-star St Raphael Resort itself, offering all-inclusive recreation and dining packages.
Slightly nearer to the city and revamped in 2016, the Four Seasons Limassol appeals to active visitors looking for a longer break, with two tennis courts, a diving school, two outdoor pools and a spa complex.
Also by the A1, the Blue Crane Hotel Apartments, halfway between the city centre and the marina, represents the affordable three-star option, but still with a pool, tennis court, sauna and sun terrace.
Pubs and bars dot the main coastal road between the city centre and St Raphael Marina.
In town, there’s a little bar hub around Market Square, Plateia Agoras, but they’re mainly upscale, catering to the post-work crowd.
For pints and football, you may have to wander further afield. Just past Limassol Zoo, the Ship Inn shows matches, runs a decent kitchen and offers drinks deals on draught beer and shots.
On the edge of the city centre, close to the Atlantica Miramare Beach hotel, The Woodman Sports Pub & Restaurant is a convivial spot to watch the game, with a long terrace and comfortable interior.
By the Atlantica Oasis, the Nag’s Head has been in business for over 20 years and shows sport on 16 plasma screens.
Just beyond the Nag’s Head, The Drifters on the ground floor of the Pigeon Beach Hotel Apartments is part sports bar, part grill restaurants, with plenty of football action.
Another kilometre from town, the Hamlet screens games and has DJs spinning.
Near St Raphael Marina, Molly Malone’s opens up its huge outdoor area for big-match nights and has 11 screens altogether.