Football reunites in Cyprus

It’s not often I can write something in praise of FIFA and UEFA. However, last week, they may have helped to broker a deal to end a bitter dispute between two nations (in terms of playing football, anyway) and to bring in one of the largest European nations currently outside of FIFA and UEFA in from the football wilderness.

Cyprus is an island nation in the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout history, Cyprus has been subsumed into the various empires that have existed in the Eastern Mediterranean, ending up as part of the Ottoman Empire. The population of Cyprus was split, mostly between people of Greek and Turkish extraction, with about 75% being of Greek origin and about 25% of Turkish origin.

In 1878 after a war with Russia, the Ottomans allowed Cyprus to become a protectorate of the UK, in exchange for UK military aid should Russia attack Ottoman territory. When World War One broke out in 1914, and the Ottoman Empire declared war on Britain, Britain annexed Cyprus (though they did offer it to Greece in exchange for Greek participation in WW1, which was refused), and after the war, it became a British Crown Colony and the British introduced football to the island. The Cypriot Football Association (KOP) was formed in 1934 and a league was organised consisting of both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot players and teams, who coexisted and played in a national league without too many problems. Cyprus was admitted to FIFA in 1948.

Post World War Two, civil war broke out in Greece. This had a knock-on effect to the Greek community in Cyprus. Cypriot clubs and footballers had to swear allegiance to the fascist Greek government if they wanted to play. This meant that a lot of players with left-wing political views ended up kicked out of their clubs and barred from playing by the Cypriot Football Association. Those players ended up forming the Cypriot Amateur Football Federation (CAFF) in 1948, and created their own football teams that played in a championship created by them. Six teams were formed, Omonia Nicosia being probably the most famous of them (and are still heavily associated with left-wing politics to this day).

After five years, the CAFF clubs were allowed to join the main Cypriot league, and Omonia Nicosia, Alki Larnaca, Nea Salamis and Orfeas Nicosia still play in the Cypriot leagues today (Orfeas have the distinction of being one of the few football teams in the world whose stadium is both adjacent to a medieval city wall and in a UN buffer zone). Unfortunately, this unified league was only to last for two years.

In the early fifties, the rumblings amongst Cypriots about the future of Cyprus came out into the open. Most Greek Cypriots favoured a policy of enosis (union) with Greece, and started to put pressure on Britain internationally to allow Greece to annex Cyprus. After Britain resisted, an organisation called EOKA was formed, with the aim of forcing Britain out of Cyprus and allowing enosis to take place; and they conducted an armed campaign on British and British-connected targets and were not averse to using bombs.

The Turkish Cypriot community were horrified by the idea of enosis, and responded by declaring they were in favour of the policy of taksim (separation), and set up their own armed group, TMT, and declared the northern half of Cyprus for Turkey.

This conflict had a catastrophic effect on lives in Cyprus, as both Greek and Turkish Cypriots were forced to leave their homes in the face of increasing violence. It also had a huge impact on football in the island. Allegedly, Cetinkaya, the most successful Turkish Cypriot team were prevented from playing and as a result, the Turkish Cypriot teams withdrew from the league and set up their own governing body, the Cyprus Turkish Football Association (KTTF) and their own league, the Birinci Lig.

In 1960, a compromise was reached between the Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus and Britain, which resulted in the formation of an independent Cyprus with a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish communities. Cyprus was allowed to join UEFA in 1962.

However, this peace on Cyprus didn’t last long. Some Greek Cypriots were not prepared to let the idea of enosis die, and in 1963 came up with the Akritas Plan, which aimed to remove all Turkish Cypriots within the government, thus allowing plans of enosis to be able to be pushed through. Violence broke out on the island, and most of the Turkish Cypriots fled to enclaves. In 1964, the UN, fearing a massacre of the Turkish Cypriots, intervened, sending peacekeeping troops to Cyprus, where they remain to this day.

In 1974, things got worse on Cyprus. A Greek-sponsored coup d’état tried to overthrow the government and prompted a retaliatory invasion by Turkey. After about a month of fighting, the Turks captured about 38% of Cyprus, most of the North of the island. During this time, there was a population exchange, where 200,000 Greek Cypriots were located to the South, Greek Cypriot controlled part of Cyprus, and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots went north.

The result of this was the Cyprus was divided by a line called the Attila Line (it’s also called the Green Line in Nicosia), which separates Turkish Cyprus from Greek Cyprus and there is a UN buffer zone between the two sides. In 1983, the Turkish zone declared itself to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is only officially recognised by Turkey, and is under heavy embargos from Cyprus.

During this time, Cyprus’ football team, which is solely made up of players from the Republic of Cyprus (the Greek part of the island), were regularly participating in international games, and qualifying campaigns for the World Cup and European Championships, though they didn’t qualify for any tournaments.

Northern Cyprus also has a football team that was playing internationals, usually against Turkey, but, crucially, they weren’t officially recognised by FIFA or UEFA. In 1975, FIFA general-secretary Helmut Kaser granted permission for Northern Cyprus to play friendly internationals against FIFA countries, but not competitive games. Technically this agreement still stands; but after the formation of the TRNC in 1983, no FIFA team apart from Turkey would play them.

In recent years, Cypriot football has become much stronger. Though they had a poor qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup; Cyprus’ national team has improved a lot in recent years, and was ranked in the top 50 of the FIFA rankings a few years ago.

During that time, club football has seemingly improved. APOEL FC have become regular participants in the Champions League and Europa league, and they reached the Champions League quarter-finals two seasons ago.

As football in the Repulic of Cyprus has been steadily improving; football in the TRNC has been stuck in limbo (Steve Menary’s excellent book Outcasts, explains it really well). The Birinci Lig isn’t particularly competitive or of a high standard; the best players often opt to play in Turkey (Galatasaray have an academy in Northern Cyprus), where they are counted as overseas players and can struggle to find clubs, or worse (from a TRNC perspective at least), play in the Republic of Cyprus. Some TRNC-eligible players have represented Turkey (Muzzy Izzet and Colin Kazim-Richards being two examples) and one, Everton’s Leon Osman, has played for England.

The TRNC did join the NF board for teams not affiliated to FIFA, winning the FIFI Wild Cup in 2006 and were runners-up in the VIVA World Cup last year, losing to Iraqi Kurdistan in the final.

However, football fans in the TRNC are fed up with the football world passing them by, and want the situation to change. There have been attempts to reunite the KOP and the KTTF in the past. In 2007, FIFA opened talks, which were tentatively progressing before a change of government in the TRNC put a stop to them.

FIFA and UEFA tried again, and last week, after several months of discussion; KOP President Costakis Koutsokoumnis and KTTF president Hasan Sertoğlu announced that, in principle, a deal had been reached, which if ratified, would mean the KTTF would become a member of KOP, which would allow Turkish Cypriot sides to play in KOP competitions, but retain the right to organise competitions between TRNC clubs, should they wish to do so and arrange friendlies between TRNC teams and foreign sides, meaning money-spinning games with some of the large Turkish club sides are a real possibility. Also, the KOP and KTTF have agreed to set up a committee to find a way to allow Turkish Cypriots a substantial say in how the game is run in Cyprus.

"Today is a historic day for football in Cyprus, but also for the Cypriot people in general," said Koutsokoumnis. "After 60 years of separation, it is now possible to reunite football. The fact that we have got to this stage, under the auspices of FIFA and UEFA, and drawn up and signed a road map for a united Cypriot football gives us all hope that we can solve all of the issues that lie ahead, provided the good will shown until now continues"

This deal wasn’t universally welcomed in either side of Cyprus. One Turkish Cypriot newspaper described the deal as “Political Treason”, and TRNC President Dervis Eroglu has spoke out against it. There were also reports that Sertoğlu wants to change some aspects of the deal, which Koutsokoumnis insists isn’t up for discussion, and the deal does contain a clause which allows both parties to terminate it at any time. But, for the first time in a long time, there is a real possibility of things changing for the better, in football terms at least, for Northern Cyprus.

It’s way too early to talk about a unified Cypriot football team, but such an idea has moved closer than it has been for nearly 60 years. Sepp Blatter recognised the significance of this deal by saying

"Both the Cyprus Football Association and the Cyprus Turkish Football Association are today providing the whole world with an excellent example of how football can build bridges and bring people together after a long period of conflict. I would like to thank both associations and UEFA for their outstanding contribution to this milestone arrangement."

UEFA President Michel Platini added “We live in a world in which it is easier to divide than to unite, which means that today is all the more exceptional. It is a historic moment for Cypriot football, and I would like to congratulate the presidents of the two associations, who have shown exemplary courage and perseverance."

This deal probably puts to an end the TRNC national team, as them playing a game would probably prompt the KOP to tear up the agreement, but players from the TRNC could now in theory, appear in the World Cup, or other FIFA competitions. An appearance by a Northern Cyprus team in the UEFA Regions Cup (a competition for amateur teams) is a possibility.