Rio and Steffi Hardy: The Cumbrian twins teaming up in Cyprus

Steffi (left) and Rio Hardy
Rio Hardy (right) was born 10 minutes before twin sister Steffi

Identical twins Rio and Steffi Hardy have been playing football together since before they could walk.

Now aged 22, their careers have taken them from the shadows of Cumbria's Lake District to sun-kissed Limassol in Cyprus.

Raised in Workington, they have battled back after the closure of the nearest girls centre of excellence in their formative years, playing at Blackburn Rovers, in the United States, in Iceland and now for professional Cypriot title-chasing Apollon.

And while twins in sport is not an entirely rare phenomenon, from the Netherlands' Frank and Ronald de Boer to Phil and Tracey Neville, these identical twins' careers differ because they have been a perfect match. The duo have always played for the same sides at the same time.

Centre-back Steffi told BBC Sport: "All it takes is just a look, and we know what each other are thinking on the pitch.

"On the pitch, if I don't have a pass on, I know Rio's going to be there, looking for space or looking for it to feet.

"She knows all my strengths and weaknesses, and I know all of hers, so when we go up against each other, it's the hardest battle I could possibly have."

Steffi and her defensive colleagues are yet to concede a goal since their January move to a dominant Apollon side, who have a goal difference of plus 116 after 17 league matches this season.

As a modernised, full-time outfit, Apollon operate on a level that can't yet be matched by some of their lesser-funded league counterparts, but Steffi says the club still find ways to push the players.

"Our coach always gives us little challenges during the game. If it's going to be not such a tough game, he'll say 'use your weaker foot'. There's loads of stuff we can work on. It's not just about the score," she added.

"Then during the week we're playing against boys teams to get more match fitness and have a tougher challenge during the week as well."

Both players have been impressed by the setup at the Limassol-based side, who are aiming to return to Women's Champions League action next term.

Steffi and Rio Hardy
Rio and Steffi Hardy played for Icelandic club Grindavik before joining Apollon

"That's the goal. Everybody wants to play in the Champions League. We'll see how this season ends and hopefully we can qualify," striker Rio said. "It's so professional here and we're developing all the time."

Rio netted on her debut for Apollon, continuing her record of scoring on her first appearance for every team she has represented.

"I got one for Blackburn back in the day, one in America and one in Iceland, one for England colleges and then one here as well," Rio added.

"It's always good to score on your debut. Hopefully I can keep that going because there's no better feeling that putting the ball in the back of the net.

"It's been quite a journey for us, we've been away from home since we were 16. Living up in Cumbria, there isn't an opportunity to play professional football, so we knew, if we wanted to play at a high level, we'd have to move away."

But how did two girls from Workington, on the shores of the Irish Sea, come to find themselves playing in the Mediterranean?

"We've got our Dad, Steven, to thank," Steffi said. "When the centre of excellence in Cumbria was shut down by the FA, the closest centre in miles - 127 miles away - was Blackburn, so he drove us there three times a week.

"It was a lot of late nights and mam making our tea to have in the car. We ended up moving there for college, living in Burnley."

The pair then both studied exercise science for four years at the University of South Alabama, where their careers kicked on.

"The facilities in America are honestly on par with the Premier League men's teams. It's different gravy over there," Steffi continued.

A move to full-time Icelandic club Grindavik followed in March 2018, before January's switch to Apollon. It came after they joined a growing numbers of players in the women's game to sign up with an agent.

"We felt like having an agent was the best thing for us to get the best opportunities, to get what we need to get from football, and it's worked out well for us," Steffi added.

Rio said: "Next Gen Sport Solutions came out to Cyprus before us, to double-check everything was going to be exactly as the club said it was, and making. We haven't looked back since.

"The opportunity to play full-time football, every single day, is going to help us be the best players we can be, so we thought this is going to be a really good opportunity for us both."

Cyprus has been a key focus of attention for international women's football since last Wednesday, amid the return of the annual Cyprus Cup, which this year saw teams including Italy, Belgium and North Korea compete.

The competition concluded on Wednesday, the day after England's success in the simultaneous SheBelieves Cup in the United States.

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