Johan Walem: The Belgian lapidarist is here to polish Cypriot diamonds

Credit: Cypriot FA

By Stel Stylianou – Lead European Football writer

Played seven, won one, drawn one, lost five. Not the start Johan Walem would have liked as head coach of the Cypriot national team.

Appointed in January 2020, Walem’s instructions from the Cypriot FA were simple; lower the average age, give youth a chance and improve results.

Walem’s playing career spanned fourteen years, wearing the famous shirts of Anderlecht, Udinese, Parma, Torino and Standard Liege. After hanging up his boots Walem ventured into coaching, becoming one of the best – if not most underrated – in his field.

After a two year stint with Anderlecht’s under 19’s, Walem moved back to Italy where he coached at Udinese’s Primavera. Soon enough, the Belgian under 21 national team job came calling – twice, for that matter. Two spells with the Red Devils totalling eight years saw Walem coach the likes of Youri Tielemens, Thorgan Hazard, Yannick Carrasco, Divock Origi, Jason Denayer and Michy Batshuayi.

Whilst the decision to take the wheel as Cyprus head coach might appear to be a strange one, the tiny Mediterranean island has produced a number of rough diamonds that, when polished, could follow the same path as most of the Belgian national team’s player and ply their trade in Europe’s elite leagues.

Past Cypriot squads contained a mixture of Cypriot born and nationalised players in their mid to late thirties who stood out at club level; imagine a football equivalent of an NBA All Star team – but with far less ability and commitment.

Of course, there were some nationalised players that were proud to wear the blue and white. Croatian Milenko Spoljaric, who played over two hundred matches for Apollon Limassol, represented Cyprus twenty eight times and is now a pundit on PrimeTel. Incidentally, his twenty three year old son Matija has made nine appearances for the national team since his debut in 2019.

Sinisa Gogic – a club legend at Olympiacos in Greece, chose Cyprus over Serbia and made thirty eight appearances for the national team. Like Spoljaric, Gogic also has a son who plays for the national team – Hibernian’s Alex Gogic.

Whilst the current average age for the national team remains at twenty four, Walem’s recent squad contained no less than thirteen players under the age of twenty five. Standard Liege defender Konstantinos Laifis (27), AEK Larnaca right back Charalampos Kyriakou (31), Demetris Christofi (32) and Kostakis Artymatas (27) – both of Anorthosis, were the four experienced heads in the group.

A 4-0 hiding in Montenegro on Tuesday night left Cyprus rock bottom of Group 1, League C of the UEFA Nations League. However, media outlets remain optimistic about the future of the national team under Walem.

Apollon goalkeeper Dimitris Dimitriou may have picked the ball out of the net four times but his athleticism and character has earned him high praise. Challenging for the number one spot is Omonoia’s Charamampos Kyriakidis – a tall, agile athlete with excellent distribution. Both goalkeepers are twenty one years old and full of potential.

At centre back, it’s Laifis plus one. Gogic is an option, as is Andreas Karo (24) of Salernitana. APOEL’s Christos Sielis (20) made his debut in the 2-1 defeat against Greece on the 11th November; someone to keep an eye on under Mick McCarthy’s tutelage.

Former Manchester United youngster and current Nottingham Forest left back Nicholas Ioannou (25) has competition from Thomas Ioannou (AEK Larnaca) and former APOEL team mate Christos Wheeler (23).

In midfield, Cyprus has many options to choose from. Star player Grigoris Kastanos (25) of Juventus; currently on loan at Frosinone, bagged brace in the 2-1 victory over Luxembourg. Apollon’s Charalampos Kyriakou (25) and Fanos Katelaris (24) have earned their call ups after a fantastic start to the season, whilst Omonoia Nicosia’s Ioannis Kousoulos (24) continues to impress domestically, in the Europa League and at international level. Kousoulos is undoubtedly a future captain for the national team. A strong, quick, versatile player whose awareness on and off the ball continues to improve.

Despite the poor results, Cyprus has a dearth of talent in attack. Former FC Copenhagen striker Pieros Sotiriou (27) was left out of the squad and replaced with Marios Ilia (24). Ilia’s domestic form has deserved a national team call up. A tall yet nimble forward, whose change of pace over five yards and ability to use both feet has caused havoc this season.

Andreas Makris of AEK Larnaca and Apollon’s Ioannis Pittas (both 24) provide width and pace, but it’s the three players from Omonoia Nicosia who the nation are pinning their hopes on, namely Andronikos Kakoullis, Marinos Tzionis and Loizos Loizou.

All three are products of Omonoia’s youth academy that was restructured during Jesper Fredberg’s time as Technical Director between 2016 and 2018. Fredberg’s philosophy coupled with the club’s dedication to youth development is gradually paying off. A 2-1 victory over title challengers AEK Larnaca in September saw eight academy graduates make the match day squad – three of which attended school the following day.

Since made his debut as an eighteen year old against Apollon in September 2019, Kakoullis has featured quite regularly in Henning Berg’s match day squads. The youngster developed a good relationship on the field with Matt Derbyshire and has often played as a lone striker in a “false 9” position. His movement off the ball and pace are his strongest attributes, although his finishing needs improving. Nonetheless, his work rate and desire will make him a better player.

At seventeen years old, Loizou carries a lot of pressure on his shoulders. A small, technically gifted teenager whose tenacity and aggression has had fans calling him the “Cypriot Messi”. Loizou’s club form has dipped as of late and was heavily criticised after Omonoia’s shock defeat at Olympiacos Nicosia. Given his size, it’s no surprise Loizou is often played out wide as opposed to his favourite number 10 role. Being kicked around by players ten years his senior won’t help with his development. Nonetheless, the kid has a bright future and will be a fantastic footballer if he applies himself.

Of the three, Marinos Tzionis is undoubtedly the standout player. Discovered at grassroots level by former Omonoia striker Jozef Kozlej, Tzionis has developed so well technically, physically and mentally over a short period of time, that team mates and coaching staff believe he’ll soon be ready to play in Europe’s elite leagues.

Whilst often operating mostly out wide on the left, Tzionis can play anywhere across the midfield – even in a defensive position. His low centre of gravity and quick feet make him a handful for fullbacks, whilst his work rate off the ball adds more to the team’s defensive structure. What makes Tzionis so special is his tactical understanding of the game – something that isn’t expected from a teenager. It’s the attention to detail that also adds a string to his bow. Whether it be taking a quick/short corner, or simply knowing when to stay/move off the post when defending a corner, Tzionis has lived these situations.

Walem isn’t expected to elevate Cyprus to a level where they can qualify for major tournaments, although given the raw talent available, fans finally have something to be excited about. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to claim Cyprus, much as the Belgians, are entering a golden era.

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