No two sides of a rockface are the same. Pace around, zoom in. Angular and impervious from one perspective, smoothened from another; igneous or sedimentary, an indiscriminate erosive process perseveres, revealing unknown beauty. Human interference, a primal and ill-disciplined urge, dictates each boulder, pebble, ridge or escarpment be a commoditised property of its tribe, and be protected or seized in accordance. On a vast scale, this urge has funded imperial conflicts, peasant revolutions and universally curious chariot races – my rock’s bigger, shinier, more prosperous, than yours.
Cyprus is one such isolated geological formation. Long ago, the Anatolian Plate conflicted with the African Plate, with this rugged babe the product. Naturally, given the isle was birthed from Turkish continental crust, their continent-straddling neighbours assumed fostering to be a privilege and a virtuous advantage – in Assyrian form, of course. Not before Hellenic early birds swooped, however; the 14th, and late 8th, centuries BC comfortably dividing occupancy. Phoenician influence was also felt, but after brokering self-assure independence in 631 BC, it only took 61 years to capitulate to Egyptian forces, and a further 45 for Persians to fell the great pharaohs, collecting all free assets with victory. Ionian revolts (499-493 BC) failed to shirk the West Asian tyrants, while Cypriot opportunism (350-344) during Alexander the Great’s Greek-Macedon revival was swiftly crushed. Liberation was bit-part; peace resided under the Ptolemaic Kingdom, at least, but in 31 BC, the Romans finally consumed Cleopatra’s lumbering empire. Seven centuries later, a geographically insignificant nation, conforming to the introduction of Christianity, entered a state of suspended ease; a Byzantine-Arab alliance agreeing that no military presence would be upheld.
Genetic, linguistic, religious, architectural mongrels, the islanders would be subjected to much worse. Crusaders gallivanted, and from the 12th century the rock changed hands with hitherto unprecedented regularity, from royalty to knighted nobility to popery. Ottoman encirclement during the early 16th century made surrender inevitable for Catholic martyrs, but Greek settlers sided with Venetians, with civil unrest ensuring the humblest of colonial prizes made perpetual wriggles from Sultan hands. Any upstanding account would state more amenable times began with the British in 1878, who acquired the ravaged mass as a logistical base for operations on the newly constructed Suez Canal, agreeing to defend the Turkish against any potential Russian invasion as means of lubrication. If not one and the same, naval officers, peers and crown commissioners, as over the globe, were disdainful for their newfound and prodigious parishioners.
Annexed during wartime – a periled bystander, with the Ottomans siding with Austria-Hungary – residing Turks nonetheless backed the British when ethnic Greeks consequently demanded Enosis; political incorporation into Greece. Bisected by faith, the role of the Orthodox Church’s Archbishop, elected by members, transfixed a vocal majority of the state’s population. Practicing Christians viewed British crown rule as seldom surpassing the earlier Ottoman alternative, and having valiantly inherited their religion throughout centuries of suppression, adjacent ardour inevitably resulted in conflict. Amongst nationalists, guerrilla militants became emboldened, forming the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) in 1955, before three years later Turkish Cypriot radicals responded under the Turkish Resistance Organisation (TMT) moniker. Illegal arsenals were intercepted by British forces, with Archbishop Makarios III and nationalist campaigner Dr. Fazıl Küçük, future President and understudy, rehabilitated from the presumed convenience of exile to instruct their people to support a peaceful resolution.
By 1960, the Brits had seen enough of what would become yet another profligate skirmish in their diminishing empire; in the Treaty of Guarantee, settling on rights to military bases in Akrotiri and Dhekelia and, defending Queen and country, the Mediterranean resort’s participation in the pursued Commonwealth. The subsequent constitution saw the Turks treated with leniency, with favourable rights in all political and business positions. When, in 1963, Greeks expressed uncompromising doubts about running a nation by such complex proportionate law, militancy resumed. Neither hardliners placated, UN and Soviet intervention, fresh from the Cuban Missile Crisis, was required in 1964. A decade later, the microwaved meal of a nation – ingredients indeterminate but diverse, preparation snubbed, hastily heated – had its quivering foil exploded; civil war blotched each stratum of society, provoking a desperate migratory discharge. On an olive-infused high after the successful coup on King Constantine II, a band of conservative Greek generals indulged in the temptation of adding a conceivably like-minded island to their pebbledash front wing; Makarios’ obstinate head targeted by an unruly junta, while hot coals were also stoked by clerics and National Guard officers alike. Assassination attempts and an eventual coup did not even dissuade the masterfully bearded bishop – as the internationally ostracised junta collapsed, his replacement, former newspaper editor Nikos Sampson, lasted a mere eight days. As the Greeks fled, Turkey clung onto the thinnest slithers of land, and their right, from the Treaty of Guarantee, to exercise military control to reinstall rightful territory was dusted down. Cautiously, and indeed unfortunately, the red button has been lodged ever since; since 20 July 1974, the bloodshed and migration in the immediate fallout, Turkish forces have occupied the northernmost third of the island, proclaiming independence as Northern Cyprus from 1983, recognised by none but Turkey.
The uncompromising veneer has since been one of mere diplomacy; the North sparsely populated and aligned to the tyrannical Recep Erdoğan, while the South has found a niche as culturally twinned, in austerity and political incompetence, to Greece, now devoid of unerring aims of reunification. An EU and Eurozone state, lenient taxation for the highest earners has enabled a gradual reprise from the heavy debt unleashed by Greek coalition – although soft Communists, the Progressive Party of Working People, do remain omniscient opposition to the centre-right ruling Democratic Party. An unfancied hostel for the thousands of desperate asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and others displaced by conflict, as its government has taken a resistant stance to rights for family members, employment and long-term residence – before even serving as the launch site for RAF airstrikes – the island now transcends geography, intent, but unsure, on individual fate. Whether reprehensible or not, their status signifies a nation ill at ease with an eternal question of identity, otherwise unable to penetrate the international community.
From divided capital Nicosia to eclectic Limassol, tourist-cultivated Larnaca to once-overrun Paphos, football hereby intervenes. APOEL Nicosia the titanic force, their 27 titles – nine of which predominating the past twelve seasons – and run to the 2011-12 Champions League quarter-finals have found them fame; AEL Limassol, Apollon Limassol and AEK Larnaca content to hunt from the shadows. Victors of Portuguese, Russian and Ukrainian top divisions were slain by the Nicosia-based outfit in only APOEL’s second group stage Champions League appearance, a transgressive standard bearer for Cypriot football, unrivalled by any outing of the national team in the sport’s century-old local existence. Never excelling on the Olympic stage – desperately devoid, in fact, of reward with just a single silver to their name – and without an overly impressive Commonwealth performance before this April, achieving a record haul of 14 medals, with eight golds, sporting excellence has not earned its place as a primary Cypriot fixation. A love affair with football runs far deeper.
Previously an emblem of colonialism, as APOEL grew, so did the motion of politic manoeuvre through the sport. Highly supportive of Enosis, Athletikos Podosferikos Omilos Ellinon Lefkosias – alternatively Athletic Football Club of Greeks of Nicosia – moved consistently to rescind any left-wing elements from within their midst. The most notable occurrence resulted, in 1948 and as the nation joined FIFA, in the formation of cross-city foes AC Omonia; fearing the victory of Soviet-backed revolutionaries in the Greek Civil War, the board expelling all players suspected of Communist sympathies. Alongside fellow left-wing clubs Nea Salamis Famagusta, who still also occupy a place in the Cypriot First Division, recently defunct Alki Larnaca, presently fourth division Orfeas Nicosia, Limassol’s AMOL and Neos Asteras (New Star) of Morphou, a town since 1974 held by the North, they formed the Cypriot Amateur Football Federation (CAFF) when refused entry into the conformist Cyprus Football Association (CFA). Politicising (the proletariats through far superior attendances) the sport their colonial masters bestowed, in good faith, upon them – insubordinate, squabbling siblings to the British while Churchill spoke of Iron Curtains and Attlee, in the diplomacy of a New Year’s Labour Party address, of “veiled autocracies” – their differences would not long be drawn solely in football; in the autumn of 1953, the CFA accepting Omonia’s integration into the First Division, with Nea Salamis and AMOL, by this time renamed Antaeus, joining the Second Division. Thus, the CAFF swiftly dissolved.
Where football could reach (temporary) compromise, as aforementioned, militants could not. Britons impassionate, divides grew, and by 1955 infighting had spilled back over to politics of the spherical, leather variety – the Cyprus Turkish Football Association (KTFF) was born. Çetinkaya Türk S.K., a founding member of the First Division in 1934 (under the guise of Lefkoşa) and permanent competitor to seven staunchly Greek Cypriot clubs, now abandoned the league. Whether intended at the time or not, what resulted was international exile – albeit an isolation laden with trophies, becoming the most successful side in the newly-formed Birinci Lig prior to the sport’s five-season 1960s hiatus, and furthermore with a slew of titles in the late 1990s and 2000s. Nicosia’s border position enabled their fortunes, as those of others; since Doğan Türk Birliği’s 1958 relocation from Limassol to the North’s Kyrenia, 41 of the subsequent 54 championships awarded to clubs from the world’s only bi-national capital city, only Doğan and Famagusta’s Mağusa Türk Gücü breaking the hegemony.
To gaze favourably upon the Birinci – now Süper – Lig, however, is to forego local history. The KTFF has never healed the rift it drew with the island’s others, and now corroborates – under the Northern Cyprus name and flag – a national side that has earned status as one of ConIFA’s most competitive, hosting and finishing runners-up at the confederation’s 2017 European Cup, while also ending as silver medallists in this summer’s well-supported World Football Cup. It’s one thing to be ranked number one amongst internationally unrecognised states, with the vast majority of your players hailing from a division alienated by the rest of Europe, certainly, but whether it genuinely acts as a suitable substitute for nationwide harmony, it is for individual lives to dictate. 19-year-old Ahmet Sivri aside, a member of Northern Cyprus’ squad in London who happens to be on the books of Galatasaray’s academies, the raw ability that could be harnessed in united Cypriot facilities and exposed to Champions League, or at worst Europa League, competition would be representative of significant pride and profit – a phenomenon only accentuated as four senior divisions in the Northern Cyprus pyramid amass a reported 2,500 licenced players, from a population of just over 300,000. Attempts were made in 2014 to amalgamate resources, as Cypriot President Nicos Anastiasiades reached out to his Northern counterpart, but just as talks collapsed in government, so did the feasibility of football’s patriotic exoneration. If both fields are to prosper, one, indeed, must be the provoker.
Neither, quite understandably, is confident with this role. The only actions in the post-war era were to raise borders, and since have been to reinforce them, awaiting something better. The resulting vacuum favours neither fractured state, at least in regard of communal exploits. APOEL may be content, their shareholders – numbering almost 2,000 – preening a profit-spinning enterprise and fans lowering pro-Enosis rhetoric to leave a state of relative serenity within UEFA jurisdiction compared to Athenian contemporaries, AEK Larnaca and Apollon Limassol elated while joining them on the verge of the Europa League play-off stage this present fortnight, even Omonia (flat sharing, for the second time in their existence, with APOEL) reneging on all presumed ethics to achieve professionalisation this year, but thoughts seldom transfer to the state of the spurious national side.
In pursuit of honours recapturing a glimpse of what 2011-12 delivered, the upper echelons of Cypriot football naturally toiled their pocket money on foreign imports, seeking experience and promise alike. Every player to score ten or more goals last season held a foreign passport; top goalscorer Matt Derbyshire a castaway Englishman, and a reported 80% of minutes went to non-natives. Supporters dismayed and corruption allegations rising, attendances across the division have slumped, encapsulating the mangled fate of a financially emasculated people; Omonia and APOEL exceeding an average of 8,000 ticket sales in 2011-12 (in the 23,000-capacity ASP Stadium, unveiled in 1999), struggling to break 6,000 today, with APOEL reaching a near-unprecedented low of 3,700 or so in 2017-18. Homegrown talents have been displaced, creating a second diaspora in the lineage of the victims of 1970s conflict – Southend United’s Jason Demetriou and Harry Kyprianou, alongside Tottenham’s up-and-coming Anthony Georgiou, three such London-born examples. Juventus’ 20-year-old attacking midfielder Grigoris Kastanos, a Nicosian by birth, has more international caps to his name than senior appearances, even after loan spells at Pescara and Zulte Waregem, such is the trust in his ability. Konstantinos Laifis has made the career progression from Anorthosis Famagusta to Olympiacos and Standard Liège, once a trainee at Nottingham Forest alongside Kostakis Artymatas, now with the Greek Super League’s Kerkyra, on loan from APOEL. Striker Pieros Sotiriou, while not so prolific with his nation, has earned a move to FC København on the back of goalscoring exploits in the First Division. In the more niche of moves, Yugoslav-born Siniša Gogić – a 1990s Cypriot international after earning citizenship during a contented tenure at APOEL – now has a son, Alex, playing for Hamilton Academical after a youth career with Olympiacos and Swansea, while Valentinos Sielis, the middle of three brothers all to learn their trade in London, himself with Arsenal and Tottenham academies, has now upped sticks to South Korea’s Gangwon, aged 28.
Recently installed as Cypriot boss, Israeli Ran Ben Shimon has embraced this ethos, widening the limited diaspora; Londoner Stelios Demetriou and Larissan Dimitris Froxylias, both in the Scottish Championship with Ross County and Falkirk respectively, awarded first caps in the past six months. Only the fifth non-Cypriot or Greek to take the role, and a fifth former international in that list after England’s Ray Wood, Yugoslavs Sima Milovanov and Momčilo Vukotić and Bulgarian Vasil Spasov, Ben Shimon was once the prized asset of a 1990s Avram Grant backline at Hapoel Haifa, and in management, following great promise with Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona to take the town of just 23,000 inhabitants on the Lebanese border to the 2011-12 Israeli Premier League title, was rushed into short-lived spells at Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, only the first Israeli recruit to any Cypriot First Division side came in 2006, with jobbing striker Yaniv Azran making just a single appearance for Enosis Neon Paralimni, but opening borders to 26 further countrymen, including 11 with full international honours. Geographically the second most proximate of all UEFA states to CFA HQ, Israel’s untapped qualities may now beckon a positivist reprieve.
The national team’s only victories this decade have come at the expense of Andorra, Moldova, Iceland (in 2012), Bosnia & Herzegovina, Israel, Kazakhstan and Gibraltar; few powerhouses of the sport. Since first representing an independent state in 1960, 28 consecutive qualification failures result in the poorest record of any EU member state, bar Luxembourg. Fluctuating between FIFA rankings as lofty – and erroneous – as 43 in September 2010 and as meagre as a year-ending 132 in 2012, they now ironically place two rungs lower than the triple-bordered microstate, at 87. Yet, in their time, they have claimed a famous victory over Spain (missing a Euro 2000 play-off spot by a single point), held a Germany side comprising three future World Cup winners to a 1-1 draw, and far before either defied Romanian, Italian, Czechoslovak, French, Danish, Belgian and Russian onslaughts on reclaimed home turf. Of course, I do not present as audacious a statement as to suggest the nation ranked 24th in UEFA’s club coefficients for this season should regularly exceed Norway, Serbia and Iceland, below them on such a list, in World Cup qualification. Israel and Belarus, however, slot in comfortably above them in Champions/Europa League algorithms – sides never represented at the European Championship finals, and only once in the former case at the World Cup, in 1970. Translating success, the course of true love never did run smooth.
The CFA, regardless, remain obstinate conservatives, aloof as referees face public degradation and extreme realities of violence, and seldom enforcing the exact length of the law as clubs flout homegrown quotas. A website that does not offer Turkish translation, a logo that, though proposing peace via the depiction of a classical dove and olive branch, again features only the English and Greek initials of the administration, and the recent election of Giorgos Koumas, who in his role as Deputy President – and a legacy of his former presidency at Enosis Neon Paralimni – had his own Mercedes S-Class targeted by an arson attack in 2017, as President after the death of predecessor Costakis Koutsokoumnis, do not seemingly propose cultural tolerance. And herein lies the schism, with those who bridge the sport’s practitioners and the country’s most pious forerunners.
Each party is completely within their rights to guard national figurines while politicians ineptly stagger to an impossible conclusion. It would not be an act of heroism, to stick one’s head above the parapets, however, to extend the arm of liberty and allow football to transcend the miasma of politics created by two moribund powers, seeing reflections of predecessors where there are none. No Northern Cypriot athlete has ever competed in the Cypriot First Division, run by the Cypriot Football Association, when 115 different nationalities (excluding Cypriot), from six different continents, have. No Turks have ever competed in the division either, a staggering feat of civilian moral insolvency, constrained by propaganda and fearful of repercussion. Zimbabweans, Afghans, Soviets, Yugoslavs, Rwandans and Iraqis have all sought out Cyprus as a trustworthy ally; Guatemalans, Haitians, Malawians, Angolans, Venezuelans furthermore. Guadeloupe and Montserrat, the Netherlands Antilles and São Tomé and Principe have all deposited flair here – why not the prudish, celibate elders from next-door?
While journalists were quick to seize on Syrian heroics in World Cup qualification as a redemptive power for their war-torn, anarchic society, later revelations meekly mentioned President Assad’s enthusiastic support for such defiant national exposure. Although Cameroonian President Paul Biya – in power since 1982 – garnered a propaganda coup amidst the independence protests of English-speaking regions from a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations title against all odds, dismay returned at the Confederations Cup and in World Cup qualification failure. The intended relief for those protesting austerity in Tunisia was not achieved in the nation’s fifth World Cup qualification, only evading complete embarrassment with a first ever victory in the tournament against Panama, vacant and unconvincing. The sporting colosseum, for rewarding a few, deprives far many more, and is not always the resolution of deep historical rivalry; let these slumped canvases tell you so.
Cypriots need not fear such damage, regarding their own cosy lives. It harks only of historic pomposity to pursue the post-war, post-independence introspections of true internal identity, particularly when, although perpetually unstable, neither Turkey nor Greece hold even a slither of their Cold War poignance. Both are key stepping stones in the migratory routes for refugees escaping from unimagined conflict, I grant you, but never has Cyprus been so insignificant to either, the former entrenched in attrition with EU leaders and the latter dangling onto its very existence. This is an emancipated island, free to trade, open for business. This is no mere rock anymore – not owned, not toyed with, not encased. Their place on the international stage cannot wait forever. Politicians must realise they cannot continue to punish the sport for its leverage in society, and if Europe is cultivating a character free of smears, greater cooperation from UEFA must soon arise – not corrupting those who all others aspire to, but deconstructing falsehoods and prejudice. Football harnesses great power, and if helmed with competence and judicious foresight, can prove a success in Cyprus. For once, priorities must be assessed.
Where does the island stand?
Truly, what is their place?
It is not an impossible conundrum. Take another angle, be patient, look deeper.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!