Few islands are as politically divided as Cyprus; yet few places have fans as fanatical about football as the Cypriots. While the teams of preference in the south are those from the main cities of Larnaca and Nicosia the overriding loyalties in the north are to the giants of Turkish football – Besiktas, Fenerbache and Galatasaray. Football clubs from the Turkish north are virtually unknown compared to the familiar club names who play in the Greek south.
Cyprus is better known for its produce. Highly arable with grapes, wine, potatoes and citrus fruits the Island of Cyprus takes its name from the ancient commodity it was famous for Kypros – copper. Over the centuries Cyprus has been held by the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans then the Turks in 1571. The British administered the island from 1878. Today it remains a divided nation with the southern part forming the Republic of Cyprus. Since 1982 the northern part of the island has consisted of an autonomous region calling itself the Turkish Republic of Cyprus.
The gap between the economic fortunes of the two parts of Cyprus grows wider every year. The Turkish north is agriculturally based and has been deeply impacted by the events of the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état. Inflation has continued to be a huge problem although recent years have seen improvements in fruit, meat and cereal harvesting.
The Greek southern half of the island has generally prospered from a greater diversity to its economic activities which include a thriving tourism sector, manufacturing and annual income from the various military installations near Limassol. The down side came when it was greatly affected by the Eurozone EU financial and banking crisis.
Roots of Cypriot Division
The roots of division in Cyprus go further back than 1974. It can be traced to joint Arab and Christian invasions as far back as 975 AD and the religious divides that have ensued.
By 1571 Venetian rule was replaced by Ottoman rule with many Turks moving to Cyprus. With the decline of the Ottoman empire an agreement was made to give the United Kingdom administration of Cyprus and it effectively became a crown dependency in 1925. Soon however the Greek Orthodox church began agitating for Union with the ‘Orthodox Mothership’ of Greece and an adjoining left wing political fraction that wanted Cypriot independence. Against this the Turks saw areas of Cyprus as simply an extension of lower Anatolia and continued a push for control of the island.
Independence came in 1960 but division was very apparent between the Greeks and the Turks with inter-communal violence rife. In 1974 Turkey invaded and with it expelled Greeks Cypriots living in the north. The situation was compounded by a military government in Athens. Some years later the Turkish Republic was declared although this area is currently only recognised by the Turks leading to international embargoes on sport participation.
Today a buffer zone between the two parts is controlled by the UN and its normal to see United Nations trucks and vans in central Nicosia as an relative peace is maintained. The border crossing point between the two areas is smack bang in the centre of Nicosia. Politically there is stalemate with little sign of an amicable long term resolution. The most recent developments have included the partial reopening of the border in the centre of Nicosia. This has come under the terms of a United Nations sponsored initiative guided by the UN – the so called Annan Plan.
Football in Cyprus
Due to the lack of international recognition for the Northern Turkish Republic the North is excluded from international football competition. A sporting embargo since 1983 ensures that the KTFF (Kıbrıs Türk Futbol Federasyonu) cannot be a member of FIFA or UEFA. Instead they play in non-official international fixtures against the likes of Greenland, Kurdistan and Tibet.
The context of the Annan Plan and spectre of state-building still saw a Turkish Cypriot bid to join FIFA rejected in 2004. In 2014, the Cyprus Turkish Football Federation forged some co-operation with the Cyprus Football Association towards player exchange. But no true cooperation has ensued either administratively or amongst fans. Instead a backlash against Cypriot players (who expressed an interest in going to the north to play in the KTFF Super Liga) has occurred.
Football in the south is dominated by clubs from the major cities of Limassol, Nicosia and Larnaca. The Cypriot league winners qualify to play in the UEFA Champions League and both APOEL Nicosia and Anorthosis Famgusta have participated in the group stages meaning some clubs have earned huge sums. Several clubs are followed by fanatical fan groups with the most popular sides being those from the capital namely APOEL and Omonia Nicosia.
Cypriot football clubs on both sides have been greatly influenced by the conflict, divide and an uneasy peace. Anorthosis were founded in Famagusta in the north in 1911. After the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état and subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus the club relocated to Larnaca where they now play. The former home stadium in Famagusta has been abandoned since 1974 and sits as a relic like the many tourist sites that once thrived.
Likewise, some of the participating clubs in the current North Cyprus league structure originate from the large urban centres of the south. Both Türk Ocağı Limasol Spor Kulübü and Doğan Türk Birliği were established in Limassol with the latter side now based in Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus.
Bitterness over 1970’s displacement still exists amongst many Greek Cypriots. But small shoots of progress have been made not least with the opening of the border in the former Ledra Street barricade area in Nicosia. Moreover, closer cooperation between the North and South, at least in football terms, seems to have taken steps in a mutually cooperative way if only via dialogue.
It is possible for a visitor to watch a football game in the south and cross the open border and watch football in the North in the same day. However, for Cypriots, overcoming years of difficulties has left large political problems and cultural integration will not come overnight. There are huge psychological and nationalistic barriers to overcome not least because of religion.
In Cyprus the divisions can be stark and especially amongst the fans of certain football teams views can be expressed visually and verbally. Football loyalties still spill over into expressions of opposition at football matches due to the left, right or religious leanings of a club.
You can see some of my images from Larnaca, Nicosia, Limassol and Paphos here.