By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
EMMET MALONE is the most popular Irishman in Nicosia. The football correspondent of The Irish Times will never have to buy another drink in the Cypriot capital. There could even be a pub named after him – the ultimate honour for a football writer, many would feel.
All because Malone was the person responsible for reinstating APOEL FC to the Europa League at the expense of Fenerbahce, the least politically correct choice he could have made.
Malone has been to the island to cover games against the Republic of Ireland and enjoyed the warmth of the locals. When he returns to Cyprus he will receive a welcome usually reserved for local heroes. On the other hand, his name is mud in Turkey.
“The pub idea was nice, but the one I really liked was the football banner,” said Malone. “A banner – that’s respect in football.” He was told on Monday morning an APOEL supporter had even named his son after him.
Malone was in Monaco last week for the European draws. “Fenerbahce had lost their appeal against expulsion from the Europa League for match fixing,” said Malone. “A replacement was to be drawn from the sides that lost in the final round of qualifying for the group stages on Thursday evening.”
UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino explained that European football’s ruling body wanted a journalist to make the draw. Mehmet Demircan, the editor of Turkish sports magazine Fanatik, volunteered, but UEFA explained a representative from a neutral country without a club in the draw, therefore unaffected by the controversy, was needed.
David Farrelly, UEFA’s head of communications, asked fellow Irishman Malone if he would make the draw. “I thought he was joking,” said Malone.
He wasn’t. UEFA laid on transport to the Méridien Beach Plaza hotel where Malone stepped on to the podium and put a hand in a bowl full of identical containers. After the obligatory shuffling of the balls Malone picked one out.
“It didn’t really matter to me who replaced Fenerbahce,” said Malone. “I wasn’t overly concerned. It was an interesting experience, deciding which way to spin the balls…just doing something we’d all seen so many times. The implications for the club involved didn’t occur to me.”
They soon did. Malone opened the container, unfolded the piece of paper and read out the name of the lucky club: APOEL FC. Malone had chosen a team based in Nicosia to replace a Turkish club. Nice one, Emmett.
Malone had no idea what was to come once Planet Twitter reacted to the news. One of the first tweets was from APOEL’s Irish striker Cillian Sheridan: “S**t way to qualify but don’t care.” APOEL had lost their two-leg tie 3-2 to Zulte Waregem; thanks to Malone they were given a lifeline.
Another early tweet warned: “@emmetmalone expect a tweet deluge. Your twitter account was in the main news of Cyprus brocasting [sic] today.”
It wasn’t so much a deluge as a twitter typhoon. Malone’s 15 minutes of fame were up and running as APOEL fans showed their gratitude.
*Sir you have no idea how many would like to shake your hand, buy you a beer or if you like send you home made halloumi cheese.
*If you are the guy who drew #Apoel out in draw to replace Fenerbace [sic], you are now a bona fide hero in #cyprus.
*Today I’m opening an Irish Pub called “Malone’s”, to honour the great @emmetmalone. #apoel.
*Mr @emmetmalone, I LOVE YOU!!! God bless YOU and everyone you love.
* Thank you @emmetmalone! When are you coming to Cyprus? We’d love to take you out! 🙂 #APOEL @apoelfcofficial.
*Dear Emmet [sic] Malone! I don’t know you but I would like to thank you! You made more than 20.000 people today happy! Only APOEL!
Malone had no time to think of the financial benefits to whoever was drawn. The qualification to the group stage will be worth around £3 million from UEFA, TV rights, the marketing pool and ticket sales. On top of that, a win earns £165,000 and a draw £83,000.
No wonder a grateful APOEL president offered Malone and his wife a complimentary trip to one of the group ties.
Demircan, meanwhile, wished Malone all the best with his new-found popularity in Cyprus, cautioned him against holidaying anytime soon in Turkey. “There, he told me, my name is mud,” said Malone. He was joking – Mehmet and Emmet laughed about the irony – but some Besiktas fans, delighted with the dark humour of Malone’s draw, also offered him a holiday.
Malone will consider all offers when the dust settles. More immediately, Ireland versus Sweden on Friday is top of his agenda.