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Cambridge City Hockey Club’s Panos Panayiotopoulos enjoying making progress with native Cyprus

‘Everyone wants to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, right?’

When it comes to what sports children are playing in Cyprus, it would be fair to say that hockey is a fair way down the pecking order.

Football is the big favourite amongst the younger generation, followed by the likes of basketball, tennis and athletics.

Cambridge City player Panos Panayiopotoulos. Picture: Simon Webb
Cambridge City player Panos Panayiopotoulos. Picture: Simon Webb

But dig a little deeper and you will discover a group of Cypriot hockey players that have shown some genuine signs of progress on the international stage in recent years.

One of the team’s key players is Panos Panayiotopoulos, who has been capped at senior level on almost 50 occasions and plays his club hockey for Cambridge City III in the East Men’s League Division 1 North.

“Football is the biggest sport by far (in Cyprus),” said Panayiotopoulos, who moved to Cambridge in October 2019 after spells studying in Nottingham and York. “Everyone wants to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, right?

Panos Panayiopotoulos playing for Cambridge City. Picture: Simon Webb
Panos Panayiopotoulos playing for Cambridge City. Picture: Simon Webb

“There was a small influx of tennis players when Marcos Baghdatis was doing well and basketball does OK, but most of the money goes to football from private sponsors and the central sporting authority.

“It’s a shame because we really love the sport and want to play as much as we can.”

Panayiotopoulos’ love for hockey was ignited during his time as a pupil at The English School in Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital city.

It was there where he found others with the same passion, yet their journey to international competitions has been far from conventional.

He explained: “I found out about hockey there (at school) and then in 2009 I started training seriously with the Under-18s squad and going to tournaments.

“We don’t really have any proper pitches. There are a couple at the British bases on the island but the one I trained on was pretty horrible – it’s the only one we had.

“We had a coach but mostly it was going down to the pitch on our own, watching videos on YouTube, playing one versus one on each other and learning on our own.

“It’s been a love-hate relationship at times. We’ve played teams over the years like Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic who are obviously much better than us. Going there and getting hammered is very disappointing and you go back to your bad pitches and it does make you question whether you want to keep playing. But the sport grabs you again, it’s a big part of my life and that’s the same for all of us.

“Most of us in the Cyprus team live and play abroad because of work. We all train in our spare time and then train extra around national team events. There’s a lot of love for the sport and also for each other because a lot of us have grown up together. We’ve got a close relationship.”

It is that togetherness that has been a key component in the upturn of recent results.

At the European Hockey Indoor Championships Third Division meeting earlier this month – which Cyprus hosted – they managed to finish fourth in a six-team event, which included a victory over Greece and a high-scoring draw with Serbia.

“Our understanding going into the tournament was that we wanted to finish top of the bottom half. There is no way Denmark, Ireland and Italy are Division Three teams but they had been relegated because they couldn’t compete last year,” said Panayiotopoulos.

“Our first training with the team was the Monday before the tournament so we had only three sessions before the tournament started.

“We played Ireland and Italy first and that was a bit of a shock but we grew into the tournament much, much better.

“We lost against Denmark last but we put in a good performance which showed our progress.

“Our first tournament in the Under-18s we conceded 42 goals in five matches and the only goal we scored was an own goal.

“From there to where we are now the standard has increased a lot.

“As an association we don’t get enough money and that’s obviously a big problem but if people could see the improvement we’ve made with minimal resources I think they’d be keen to invest in the island’s hockey but unfortunately it’s such a small market.”

Back in England, the 31-year-old is thoroughly enjoying life within the Cambridge City set-up.

He joined in October 2020 after spending a few months at Cambridge South, and he has gone on to juggle a role as a junior coach alongside his playing commitments.

However, he has admitted that he did initially harbour doubts about signing for the Wilberforce Road club.

“When I moved to Cambridge I wasn’t sure about joining because I knew City was the biggest club in the area and I was worried it might be a bit stuck up and snobby. Sometimes that happens with such well established clubs, it’s all a bit clicky,” he said.

“But it has been the exact opposite. Everyone has been very, very welcoming and very accommodating about everything.

“The club was great when I was recovering from injury (earlier this year) and they’ve been very happy for me to get involved in the training as well.

“It’s a very friendly club and I’m pleasantly surprised that the most established club in the city is such an accommodating one as well.

“Moving to a country and a club as big as this with the access to pitches that we have, so many coaches and plenty of kids and so many players, it’s a big contrast to where I’ve come from.”

And one day Panayiotopoulos would love to bring his two teams together.

He added: “We (Cyprus) would love to have them over. We’d probably have to play in one of the British bases but we’d love that. Playing hockey, eating great food and going out – I’m sure the club would love it as well.

“We were thinking of doing the opposite at some point and play some training matches against City but our tournament in the UK got cancelled because of Covid.

“We’d be happy to play here and if Cambridge City wanted to go to Cyprus and play we’d be more than happy for that to happen.”

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