The Hangover of War
Almost four decades after the Turkish invasion, the shadow of conflict hangs over the Nicosia derby
Rivalries are formed most often out of geographical convenience. Teams fight for bragging rights to a neighbourhood, city or state. As geography also shapes race, religion, class and politics, such divides can cut deep. But some rivalries are so political that they defy geographical boundaries, born not from arbitrary locale, but from ethos. A few such conflicts exist in Cyprus. The largest, Apoel v Omonoia, nearly splits the republic's mind in half.
Those new to the politics of the island — a triangular battleground of influence between Greek nationalism, independent Cypriot identity and Turkish occupation — can struggle with what Cyprus even means. "Cyprus the island" has always referred to the geographical mass of land, which points, like a spade drill bit, between the coasts of Turkey and Syria. After 1974, "Cyprus the Republic", or just "Cyprus", has referred to the southern two-thirds of the island, divided from the north side by a Turkish invasion. Cyprus is currently a member of the EU, which doesn't recognise the occupied north or, by extension, its football league.
Over a drink at a football clubhouse, I asked an elderly man about the rift between Omonoia and Apoel. In Cypriot baritone, he reminded me to start at the beginning. "Look, everybody conquer Cyprus," he said. "But Greeks, they do it best." For thousands of years, Cyprus was passed from one empire to the next as an enticing, but not crucial, portage between Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Mycenaean Greeks began this chain of conquests some 3,500 years ago, first installing Greek roots. In the Archaic period, waves of Greek settlement 'Hellenised' the island with Greek language, art and religion. Fast forward a dozen or so regimes (Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish and Venetian, among others) and Cypriots living under decaying colonial rules — first the Ottoman1 and then the British — kept the strongest cultural connection to Greece. Under the British, Cypriots expressed a growing desire for re-unification with Greece. By 1950, over 95% of the country voted in favour of a referendum for union. But the British responded with harsher control measures.
Forming athletic clubs served as a way for Cypriots to identify with Greece under the noses of their British occupiers, who brought club football to the island. Anorthosis Famagusta, the first Cypriot club, was formed as a literary society that aimed to educate children and promote the goal of 'rectification', a more loaded word for re-unification. The club added athletic pursuits like football, in 1913, to bolster its influence. Apoel, which stands for "Athletic Football Club of Greeks of Nicosia," was formed in 1926. These clubs played against a smattering of British and other Cypriot clubs in the Cyprus Football Association, which was officially formed in 1934. "First the best teams were all British," said the elderly man, whom I later discovered had played for 25 years for a first division club in Limassol. "But we learned."
After the Second World War, as Britain's colonial grip weakened, a war-torn Greece scrambled for its own identity in the vacuum left by the fascist exodus. Like much of eastern and southern Europe at the time, Greece teetered between Western and Communist control. The US and Britain tried to ensure a West-leaning government by supporting military strikes that squashed Communist organisation. The Greek Civil War, largely fought between these two political affiliations, lasted from 1946 to 1949. The tensions spilled over into Cyprus. As a sign of solidarity with the Hellenic Amateur Athletic Association (Segas), the Apoel board required its players to sign affiliation to the new right-wing Greek government. The requirement, however, violated a club statute that outlawed political affiliation.
"About seven or eight players refused to sign," said Konstantinos Scambilis, a writer for Haravgi, a leftist newspaper from Nicosia. "They disagreed with the idea and left to form their own club. The same thing happened at other clubs. Nea Salamina (Famagusta), Alki (Larnaca) and Orfeas (Nicosia) also formed leftist clubs. Together, they formed their own league. And today these are still regarded as the leftist clubs in the country."
Scambilis emphasized that the East-West tension in Cyprus wasn't as violent as in Greece. "Apoel let the players go," he said. "The players weren't persecuted or prosecuted. There was no Cypriot government at the time. It was British. So no one interfered… You can imagine it wasn't too hard to form a new club in those days. You found other people close by who thought like you and who could play."
During the 1950s, Cypriots escalated their push for independence from Britain. Independence represented a long overdue goal in Cyprus favoured by both left- and right-wing supporters. Such common ground and a desire to bolster Cypriot football against British influence, pushed the two leagues to reunite in 1953 under the Cyprus Football Association (CFA), which was large enough to allow promotion and relegation. Based on merit, Omonoia was initially the only leftist team accepted into the Cypriot first division.
Although the struggle for independence united the nation against the British, it also revealed the different visions of the future of the country held by different factions. "What you have to realise," Scambilis said, "is that the war for independence wasn't really for independence. It was for union with Greece and freedom from British rule. So as a political tactic it is really different from fighting for independence or an independent nation. All political formations, like the communist party and the church, supported union. But the church, and the more right-wing part of society, used much more strongly the idea of union. 'Union and only union,' it was said. The left, though, accepted the idea that there could be some form of independence or self-government in union before the final goal of independence. Like Puerto Rico in the US, I think. They have some form of self-government and the idea was that you could have some form of government even though you were still a colony. Then eventually you would go for independence of the country."
Conflicting notions of independence again pitted Cypriots against Cypriots. Some insurgents pushing for Greek union pushed harder and more violently than anyone else. They lashed out against those standing in their way, which meant both leftists and Turkish Cypriots. "The struggle started with the idea of union as its target," Scambilis said. "The leftist Cypriots were not as much a part of the struggle, not as invested. In many villages in Cyprus there are actually records of killings of leftists by the insurgents. And also killings of Turkish Cypriots [who almost certainly didn't favour union with Greece]. The British would place Turkish Cypriots as police officers. And these positions were targets for insurgents. So killings started happening."
In 1955, Çetinkaya Türk SK, the lone Turkish Cypriot team in the First Division, withdrew from the CFA because of the escalating tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Even at this time, many Turkish Cypriots supported a divided island. Along with other Turkish Cypriot clubs, Çetinkaya Türk SK formed the Cyprus Turkish Football Federation (KTFF). This federation still exists in the occupied north of the island, although it isn't recognised by Fifa.
Britain finally relinquished independence to an increasingly stubborn but increasingly fractured Cyprus in 1960. The Zurich-London Agreements established an independent, and not Greek, republic. Throughout the sixties, a large portion of the population still pushed for union with Greece. The fervour peaked in 1974 when a right-wing coup, supported by the Greek government and Nato, tried to overthrow the Cypriot president, Archbishop Markarios III. Chaos ensued as the island ignited in conflicts between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish military invaded, it claimed, to protect both the constitutional rights of the country and the safety of the minority Turkish Cypriots. The coup and its aftermath crystallised both political and football loyalties.
"Apoel took a stand supporting the coup," Scambilis said, "and Omonoia took a stand against it. So you had a lot of tension at that time, riots at stadiums. Leading up to 1974 you had serious violence. You had guns and death. It's safer now obviously. But you can still see it today. When you go to games you see Apoel fans holding Greek flags. And you see fans of Omonoia holding Cyprus flags. And in the stands you hear songs about each side being traitors.
"Apoel fans still hold to those Greek-loving feelings and affiliations. They leap back to that era. They know that this was their main cause, even though they know it's not as realistic now." Apoel fans largely cling to Cyprus's past, while Omonoia holds hope for a new future. "I'm a fan because of our past," an Apoel fan told me. "Because it's important — where we come from as a people, as a country."
After 1974, tensions cooled between the two sides. But unlike in most other European countries, in Cyprus hooligan violence has increased in recent years. Brawls have bloodied both sides. "When you hear about football violence today, it's mostly not for political reasons," Scambilis said. "It's hooligans creating violence because they're hooligans. Unfortunately, some of the people that are members of Ultras groups are in it only for the hooliganism. So they go to the ground looking for a fight, not because they like or believe in their club."
Conflict mostly plays out verbally, in supporter chat rooms and in warring chants that echo around the walls of the GSP stadium in Nicosia, the largest in the country with a capacity of around 25,000. During derbies, the stadium is perfectly divided, green and white shouting across at blue, yellow and orange — spring yelling at summer. Cypriots of all ages spew some of the dirtier chants in the business. "Mostly they call us Communists or Turks, and we call them Fascists," Panayiotis Kouis, an Omonoia supporter, said. Kouis puts it gently. One chant, screamed at AEL Limassol2 fans, translates roughly as, "You are pussies, you are pussies / Turks fuck your mother / and AEL, and AEL / You are the bitch of Apoel." But Omonoia fans are most comfortable with the classic anti-Apoel chant: "Sons of a whore, you fascist right-wingers!"
Blatantly political chants are banned by the CFA. Both Omonoia and Apoel played a match in April match inside an empty stadium. But the league misses, or ignores, a number of arguably political chants. According to Kouis, Apoel fans frequently get away with yelling, "Die Christofias!" in reference to the Communist president. As elections approach, Kouis says, the chants take on political edge: "If a match is near the presidential elections or the parliamentary elections, you will see flags of the parties on the stands, you can hear songs about parties, and feel more political aggression."
Beneath the league's official position against political ties, however, there lies powerful political support for both clubs. "Although nobody officially admits it, Omonoia and Apoel are run by the two political parties," Scambilis said. "Behind the two parties, if you see the people that are managing the teams, financially, administratively, these are people you see five or 10 years later becoming members of parliament."
High-reaching affiliation has caused suspicion on both sides of match-fixing. "If you ask any fan in Cyprus, they will say that there is political intervention in the championship," Scambilis said. "On numerous occasions there have been reports. You hear it through the years from both sides. But it is hard to prove. Twenty and more years ago, I think there were real problems with match-fixing based on the political background of the officials or politicians. But recently match-fixing has become financial, based on pay-offs. It doesn't happen as much. But I think it's still a problem."
Scambilis cites increasing media coverage and more foreign players as the main reasons why any political match-fixing doesn't happen in the modern game. "Most of the players at any club today are foreigners," he said, "so how can you ask them to fix a game for political reasons? Money maybe ..."
When Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, the league abandoned caps on foreign players. Now the league has over 70% foreigners, the highest percentage in Europe. Some teams start zero homegrown players and maintain what are viewed as "token Cypriots" on the bench. Omonoia and Apoel typically fielded one or two home-grown players this season. More foreigners and higher contract values even allowed a few player swaps between Omonoia and Apoel, which was previously unthinkable.
"Before it was impossible, physically impossible," Kouis said. "But in the nineties, players got paid enough not to care. Still though, only about three [players] in 15 years shifted teams, that I can remember. Two from Omonoia to Apoel. And one from Apoel to Omonoia. And it was a big deal."
Since the nineties, players have largely divorced themselves from club political affiliations. They lash out only when prodded. After a match in 2010, for example, a group of Apoel players lapped the pitch while draped in a Greek flag. They did so in response to witnessing an Omonoia ultra torch a Greek flag during the match. Omonoia banned the fan, who tried to plead insanity upon arrest, for life for desecrating a sacred emblem.
Kouis also remembers a rare statement by Omonoia players. After the first goal against Apoel, Omonoia players lifted their kit to reveal Che Guevara shirts. The stark Guevara icon is a common sight amid green and white Omonoia Ultras, or "Gate 9." Guevara is a natural emblem for them. Like other Che-clad hordes, Omonoia's Gate 9 has real, if idealistic, beliefs in the necessity of both social revolution and unity beyond national interests. For many fans, the club represents not only Communist beliefs, but hope for a unified island. The word Omonoia literally means "not fighting." Their green and white represent hope and joy, or peace and unity, depending who you ask.
Omonoia have never played a match against a Turkish Cypriot team, but veterans of leftist teams have played friendlies against veterans of Turkish Cypriot teams in events held to promote unification. Kouis admits the dangers of staging a friendly match. "It could turn out to be a boomerang for the country," he said. "It could turn other teams and other parts of society against Omonoia. There could be a lot of hatred. It would be something really challenging and maybe courageous. But it should be tried."
"There were a few attempts," Kouis noted, "from the leftist teams Salamina and Alki, to sign Turkish Cypriot players. But the players were prohibited from signing by the pseudo-government [on the occupied side]." The pseudo-government declared that playing for the CFA would imply recognition of the Cyprus government. Last season, a Turkish Cypriot team from Nicosia threatened to join the CFA after receiving a 13-match ban from the Turkish Cypriot Football Federation (KTFF) for a pitch invasion. The KTFF answered the threat, which may or may not have been intended seriously, with one of its own. It stated that any attempt to join the CFA, which the CFA would be unlikely to accept, would breach the KTFF constitution, and that the club would be exiled from the KTFF.
Omonoia's lobbying power, bolstered by thousands of optimistic youths, holds the potential to undercut the refusal of both sides of the island to recognise one another, or communicate. In the mould of other socially conscious Ultras groups, Gate 9 claims to be a mouthpiece of worldly values. Some of its effort goes towards supporting a re-thinking of Cyprus's relationship with Turkish Cypriots. Gate 9 once hosted a group of 500 Turkish-Cypriots in the stands at a match against Apoel. Together they unveiled banners, in both Greek and Turkish, on which were written a single word: PEACE.
The Gate 9 website includes a lengthy manifesto that, towards the end, says: "The Cypriot educational system teaches hatred towards the Turkish people from a very early age due to the political tensions among Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. After the separation of the island in 1974 … the hatred grew even further. We as anti-racists accept the Turkish people and the Turkish-Cypriots as fellow human beings, without promoting the hatred that others impose on us. We condemn the invasion of the Turkish army as we do all militaristic interventions. We condemn the nationalist upraising on the island which led to the invasion. Gate 9 condemns all nationalistic actions whether they are governmental or social."
Omonoia fans are particularly proud of stunts that combine their ethos with digs at their enemy. When the Iraq war started in 2003, Gate 9 unveiled a banner that read: "Do not throw bombs at Iraq, save them for the Apoel fans."
In one sense, the story of these two clubs is not unique. Other politicised rivalries pepper the rawer areas of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. But it is rare that two fan-bases stand in such perfect deadlock, defined by the other while trying to devour them. The rivalry constantly re-polarises itself. And only Cyprus cares. For many Cypriots, these clubs stand as surrogates for the two major political parties, for lines in the sand that most Cypriots are unwilling to breach because of two different versions of national pride. In this way, the Apoel-Omonoia rivalry helps preserve the political stalemate within Cyprus, and between Cyprus and the occupied north. Maybe beyond the vitriolic chants, the "Fascist sons of a whore!" and the "Communist bastards!", lies a fragile space for meaningful dialogue, for country-swaying change. But compromise over national identity promises to be at least as difficult as any previous overthrow of empire.