The path of Ivan Jovanovic's career was determined by a fighton a dusty field in a low-key competition in East Germany in 1988. He wasn't even on the pitch, having been substituted 10 minutes from time of an Intertoto Cup tie (in the days when it consisted of eight groups of four, with no knockout stage and no winner) between his side, Rad Belgrade, and Carl Zeiss Jena. He played no part in the brawl but when Uefa handed out punishments his role as captain was taken into account and he was banned from European competition for two years.
It was a costly penalty. Jovanovic had a move to Metz lined up but the French club pulled out when they heard about the suspension. So Jovanovic instead went to the Greek side Iraklis. Three times they made it to the Uefa Cup. The first two times, Jovanovic could not play. The third time, in 1996-7, he did but Iraklis were eliminated in the second qualifying round by Apoel. Fifteen seasons on, Jovanovic leads Apoel against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Jovanovic describes the tie as "an honour" but it's not a game he's overly happy about. "After a long and extremely difficult effort since the second qualifying round till today, we all expected something better, more luck in the draw," he says. That perhaps hints at the seriousness of the man: for him a quarter-final against Madrid is not a fitting end to an astonishing season, it's a major obstacle to reaching the last four. Jovanovic was a straight A student at school and made a deal with his parents that allowed him to keep playing football so long as he maintained his grades. He made it to university to study transportation before, aged 22, committing to a career with Rad. When his playing days came to an end, his academic nature made coaching an inevitability.
After a season with the Greek second-flight side Niki Volou, he took charge of Iraklis in 2002 and, in November 2003, he moved to Apoel for the first time, winning the championship in his debut season. The next year, fans and players turned against him and, on 5 March, he was sacked after the first defeat of the season left Apoel two points behind Apollon, who were their next opponents. "You've taken the right to a second title away from me," he said at the time. He returned in January 2008. He has won two league titles since and, in 2009-10, took Apoel into the group stages of the Champions League, making them only the second Cypriot side to reach that stage (after Anorthosis Famagusta in 2008-09). This year, he broke new ground by guiding them into the knockout phase.
"This season is no accident," he says. "Remember 2009 when Apoel first played in the group stage and performed admirably against Chelsea, Porto and Atlético Madrid, missing out on the Europa League spot only on goal difference? The year after we were unlucky to go out of the Europa League to Getafe. For three years we've been building a good and reliable squad. I don't think people have realised what we've achieved so far. For us, for a club from Cyprus, to play in the group stage is like Real Madrid winning the competition."
The contrast with Madrid is striking. The lowest-paid player in the senior squad at the Bernabéu is Adan, the reserve goalkeeper, who makes around €550,000 (£460,000) a year. Apoel's best-paid player is the Brazilian striker Ailton, whose salary is €450,000s. "Everything is based on a good spirit inside the squad, on good, constant and daily work and on a healthy football mentality," Jovanovic says. Stability – not common in Cypriot football as he found out – has clearly helped.
And much is also down to his management. Jovanovic is religious and superstitious, but his success is mainly down to hard work. His devotion to football is almost monastic. His wife and two sons live in Thessaloniki, leaving him alone in Cyprus to focus on management. His attention to detail is staggering, fuelled by cigarettes, coffee and Coke.
For instance, the referee for the second leg against Lyon was the Spaniard Undiano Mallenco. Jovanovic watched every game Mallenco had officiated in La Liga this season so he could learn his habits and instruct his players accordingly. When the last-16 tie against Lyon went to penalties, Jovanovic's goalkeeping coach, Goran Gumic, had – of course – studied every Lyon penalty for the last three years and was able to advise the goalkeeper Dionisis Chiotis which way to dive. Only with the first taker, Kim Kallstrom, did Chiotis go the wrong way.
"We showed everyone that we are a team capable of defending and attacking with the same efficiency and unity," Jovanovic says. "We base our playing style on constant pressing and when attacking, trying to utilise every free area in the field. In every game, apart from the last one of the group stage, we covered around 6km more during the 90 minutes than our opponents."
Hard work and organisation may not be enough to overcome Madrid, particularly with the Brazilian forward Gustavo Manduca, who scored twice against Porto and against Lyon, suspended for the first leg. But in a sense it doesn't matter; Apoel have struck a blow for the little man, and offered a model for smaller clubs across Europe. "This is the only solution," says Jovanovic. "Building a reliable team with little money is not easy, but success isn't certain even if you're spending a lot of money. Money is not a guarantee to success if you don't have any plan and clear ideas of what you want to do and what you want to achieve."