Occupied by a succession of Phoenicians, Greeks, Turks and Romans and even the British, Cyprus today remains a deeply divided island. The southern region forms part of the Republic of Cyprus but since 1982 the northern region consists of an autonomous area that calls itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Nicosia the capital has amongst its cityscape the presence of UN peace keepers who can often be seen nearby a buffer zone in central Nicosia.
Unsurprisingly given the nationalistic split, football in Nicosia is deeply divided. Those in the Turkish half are inevitably followers of the large Istanbul clubs of Fenerbahce and Galatasaray. Not 500metres across the border in the north is a Besiktas shop. Those across the peace border in the southern part of Nicosia tend to follow the two biggest clubs on the island – currently the hugely successful APOEL and Omonia Nicosia.
Football was first introduced in the early 20th century during the British period of rule. Rivalries quickly developed and an official island wide league was organised in 1932. By the 1960’s inter-communal violence was taking over after the departure of the British and a new domestic league emerged. Today clubs located in northern Cyprus largely compete in the KTFF Süper Lig a completely different set up unrecognised by UEFA. The most successful side are Çetinkaya Türk Spor Kulübü although largely everyone in this part of Nicosia follows one of Turkey’s big 3.
Deep rivalries in football exist although that football rivalry is no longer based on Turkish/Greek ethnic lines. The rivalry that exists in the capital tends to be between teams that identify with different political ideologies which can be strongly expressed in this part of the world.
Football fans in Cyprus are like those in neighbouring Greece – passionate and noisy. With the financial crisis football on the island was plunged into chaos off the field as money became a problem leading to accusations of match fixing and corruption. Football suddenly became a means of making money through betting rings, and match fixing allegations become the norm as salaries needed to be paid by struggling clubs.
In the stands, things have been just as volatile as the economy and titles have been decided on the actions of football fans. Decisive league deciding matches have been abandoned due to the actions of supporters. Hardcore left wing and right wing supporters have attachments to many clubs with those at the biggest club Omonia Nicosia known for extreme left wing leanings. Historically the Cyprus communist party ‘AKEL‘ has been closely connected with Omonia Nicosia with party members appointed to the board. It is known that people who share common views with the huge numbers of hardcore Omonia ultras are given political candidacy.
Despite this Omonia’s Gate-9 fans have been amongst the first to be punished by anti supporter laws brought in by the Cypriot Interior Ministry in an effort to combat domestic hooliganism. This has been especially hard to take for Omonia’s hardcore anti fascist fans given the revolutionary status of the club as the biggest and most widely supported club side. It is often said that ‘half of Cyprus’ supports Omonia Nicosia such is the depth of support for the team.
These days symbolism associated with the right and the left is easily identifiable in and around Cypriot football stadiums and unsurprisingly violence is common inside and outside of a match day.
Nowhere is a political rivalry felt more outside Nicosia than in Larnaca where a rivalry exists between the Famagusta ‘refugee clubs’ and AEK Larnaca. Both Anorthosis and Nea Salamina have deeply felt supporter groups. Those who follow Nea Salamina hold extreme left wing values similar to those at Omonia.
At Anorthosis Famagusta it is common to see the slogan ‘MAXHTEC’ which roughly translates into ‘fighters’ – namely those who fight for Famagusta, the traditional home city of Anorthosis that now sits in the current northern Turkish held city.
Many who follow AEK Larnaca feel the incoming of both Famagusta clubs to Larnaca has only served to see legions of young fans lost to the larger and more successful Anorthosis.
While the rivalry in the capital Nicosia is and can be extreme, in the second city of Limassol things are just as intense between Apollon and AEL although somewhat less political and more based on inner city domination.
Both Limassol sides share the same stadium and this is split into colour lines rather than political symbolism. AEL fans tend to inhabit the area of the stadium with blue and yellow seats while those who follow Apollon can be found in the blue and white seats that surround the athletics track.
At the moment the Tsision Stadium is being redeveloped with its multi use status proving to be out of date with the demands of modern UEFA football. The construction of a new Limassol Arena in Limassol has commenced although it is likely it will not be ready for football until 2019.
For the Greek Orthodox church, the name Apollon is associated with Jesus Christ and a man who lived in Alexandria and died for his Christian beliefs – a so called ‘martyr of Egypt’. The Orthodox Church has declared Apollon to be a saint and celebrates the date of his birth each year.
The team’ s emblem represents the Olympian God Apollo from Greek mythical legend – considered the god of sun, poetry and music. The colours of the team are blue and white which represent the colours of the Greek national flag and modern Cypriot unification.
Like many sports clubs, Apollon was formed as a means of providing young men with athletic pursuits, education and social advancement. On April 14th, 1954, a general assembly of members proposed the foundation of an athletic association called “APOLLON LIMASSOL”. As of October 1955, the Cypriot Football Association (C.F.A) included Apollon in the 2nd division.
Despite early struggles, ever since 1957 Apollon has been competing in the first division and can point to three Championships (1991, 1994, 2006) and nine cups (1966, 1967, 1986, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2017). Recent years have also seen some very successful participations in European competitions winning several important games against noted names.
Perhaps the best season came during the 2013-14 season where wins were achieved over both Nice and Legia Warsaw. A 0-0 draw was also attained against Lazio in a tough group that also included the Turks of Trabzonspor. The following season Apollon proved that this achievement was not a one off as they defeated Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League play off round and then defeated FC Zurich during the group stages.
The current side is a mixture of South American players (Brazilian and Argentines), Cypriots and Portuguese players. At the hub of the side is the hugely experienced Maltese international Andre Schembri who provides the side with numerous assists and goalscoring experience.
Like many clubs in Greece, Apollon fans have a deep association with the area they enter and inhabit inside the stadium. Apollon supporters have become synonymous with GATE-1 a designation which originated from the entrance gate in the West Tsireion stadium stand, where the most fanatical members gather.
Current Cypriot Cup holders after a final win over APOEL in May, the club also were winners of the 2016 edition of the domestic trophy defeating Omonia in a tense final which ended in violence. Around 400 Apollon fans invaded the pitch at the end of the cup final and proceeded to attack the travelling Omonia supporters. Tear gas was used to disperse fans who were on the pitch after the 2-1 win with firecrackers, flares and sticks thrown at the Omonia fans inside the Limassol stadium.
Such is the intensity of the Cypriot cup final the game is often officiated by a foreign official due to claims of match fixing and team bias. The 2013 ‘Limassol Derby’ final between Apollon and AEL was officiated by the highly regarded Slovenian UEFA official Damir Skomina.
If such intensity is the norm at domestic affairs it is no surprise that this Europa league qualifying 2nd leg tie also witnessed passion and drama. Before the tie, Apollon manager Sofronis Avgousti called for visitors Aberdeen FC to be met with ‘a furnace of noise’ at the AEK Larnaca Arena which hosted the tie.
By half time with his team already 1-0 up that call seemed to have been followed with around 20 flares lit in the Apollon end by Gate 1. The teams were taken off the field of play by the Swiss referee.
Apollon had gone ahead half way through the opening period; a half that the Cypriot side had dominated from kick off in the intense evening heat. Aberdeen – leading 2-1 from the first leg – found it hard in the Cypriot heat and this struggle to come to terms with the occasion proved doubly hard due to several incidences of play acting by the Apollon side.
Despite being forced to play some 75km from Limassol, Apollon handed the occasion well and eventually ran out 2-0 winners with the clinching goal coming in the final 10 minutes. Aberdeen had few answers and looked a beaten side from early on being unable to probe the home goal with any conviction. The Scottish side never got to grips with the fervent occasion or the extreme demands of the second leg tie in Larnaca.
At full-time numerous acts of violence occurred as visiting supporters clashed with home stewards within the AEK Larnaca stadium. Cypriot riot police appeared and tear gas along with batons were used in an effort to get supporters to vacate the stadium.
This was a colourful occasion played in the small but modern AEK Arena in Larnaca with all fans contributing to the event – red, white, blue contrasting well with the green and yellow seated interiors. Around 500 visiting fans travelling to Cyprus enjoying the sun in a hospitable island and contributing in terms of colour within what is a very open if basic stadium.
But it was the home Apollon supporters who took all the credit. The support they offered forced the Apollon team over the line towards a well-deserved victory. An assortment of vociferous chants and brilliantly organised pyrotechnic tifo displays proved hugely beneficial to the home team.
To see a wider selection of images from Cyprus see here.