The Wrong Side of the Border
After decades of stalemate, Northern Cypriot football may be about to come in from the cold
At the top of the one of the stands of the Taxim Stadium in North Nicosia, a young man sits on his own, an umbrella in one hand and a can of Coke by his side. It seems a lonely existence, a strange thing to be doing on a Thursday afternoon in October, especially given that the heavens look likely to open at any moment. He is not, after all, waiting for anything special, just for the players of Çetinkaya to come out to train. Nothing more than that. When they do emerge, no one else joins the fan. He is on his own but he does not care. He just wants to see his team put through their paces; his dedication reflects the love of football that exists in Northern Cyprus.
Yet there is a poignancy to this story, for this small, derelict stadium is a symbol of the problems that have blighted Turkish Cypriot football for longer than most people would care to remember. On the surface, it looks like a normal stadium, albeit one in desperate need of renovation — the rain in Nicosia that day had been so heavy that most of the pitch is covered in water, meaning the players can only train on one half of it. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is that overlooking the stadium is a United Nations watchtower, while barbed wire surrounds the pitch, almost giving the ground the look of a prison courtyard.
The reason for the UN presence is easily explained by Cyprus's troubled history. This is a tiny island divided, with Greek Cypriots residing in the South and Turkish Cypriots in the North. Tension has long reigned in Cyprus — independence from British rule was achieved in 1960 — and reached boiling point in 1974 as unrest grew, prompting an invasion by the Turkish army to protect territories in the North which ultimately led to Nicosia being split in two. The UN still monitors a border known as the Green Line.
Unfortunately the Taxim Stadium's proximity to the border, plus its crumbling façade, makes it impossible for Çetinkaya to play their matches there — instead they use the Atatürk Stadium elsewhere in Nicosia. Çetinkaya, who were formed in 1930 and who are the most successful side in the history of Turkish Cypriot football, find themselves banished from their own home because of politics. That the UN allows them to train there at all is itself a minor miracle.
There was a time when Çetinkaya and other Turkish Cypriot clubs were part of the Cyprus Football Association (CFA), playing alongside teams from the south, but in 1955 they decided to declare independence and set up their own league, forming the Cyprus Turkish Football Federation (KTFF). That followed a decision by the CFA, which was set up by six Greek clubs and two Turkish clubs in 1934, temporarily to suspend the Turkish clubs to prevent clashes between the two communities in stadiums because of growing unrest on the island. Çetinkaya were the last Turkish Cypriot club to win the Cypriot title, lifting the trophy in 1951. Now they are no longer a professional club, they cannot use their own ground for its primary purpose and their players all have other jobs. It does not take a genius to work out that the consequences of that decision in 1955 have been disastrous, although there is of course far more to it than that.
It was the declaration of independence made by the North in 1983 which was the root cause of football's appalling decline in Northern Cyprus. Not legally recognised as a country by the rest of the world, they are banned by Fifa from playing professional football. There are 48 teams divided into four divisions but they are not allowed to play anyone from outside the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), not even in friendly matches, as those still have to be sanctioned by Fifa. The lavish riches on offer in the Champions League, the billionaire owners and players on £200,000 a week that are so common elsewhere in Europe belong to a different world, one that is denied to Turkish Cypriots by a mixture of politics and red tape. Whereas the CFA became a member of Fifa in 1948 and Uefa in 1962, the KTFF has been left with its nose pressed to the window, looking in from the cold.
For years, they have been unloved and unnoticed, cast aside by the wider footballing world, and left to fend for themselves. After all, if you cannot hear the cries for help, then who cares?
However, the situation was brought into sharper focus in October, when the Cypriot side AEL hosted the Turkish side Fenerbahçe in a Europa League group match. AEL were beaten 1-0 by their more prestigious opponents thanks to a late header from Egemen Korkmaz in a match that was never likely to capture the imagination abroad but, in Cyprus, it was treated with the utmost importance. A Europa League group match was given the status of the Champions League final. You would expect nothing less for a match between the Cypriot champions and Turkish giants, which was reflected by the 900 police officers who lined the streets of Nicosia.
With AEL's stadium not up to Uefa standards, the game was moved from Limassol to the capital and played at the GSP Stadium, the home of Apoel, who made history last season by becoming the first Cypriot side to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where they were well beaten by Real Madrid.
As one taxi driver put it, this was more than a game, which was hammered home by the presence of the guest of honour, Sevim Ebeoğlu, an 83-year-old Turkish Cypriot who played for AEL in the 50s. In 1955, he was AEL's top scorer as they became the last side to win the league title when it involved clubs from across the island. In that same season, Ebeoğlu also persuaded the club's president to change AEL's strip from white shirts and blue shorts to the yellow and black of Fenerbahçe. "Our shirts were white and were always getting dirty because there was no grass on the ground," Ebeoğlu said. "And I knew the president of our club was a Fenerbahçe supporter. We had the idea to change the colours and they have been the same ever since."
Ebeoğlu's enduring popularity at AEL proves that, when it comes to football, the split is essentially a waste of everyone's time. The widespread support for Fenerbahçe in the region is of particular concern. When the Turkish side came to Cyprus, 1,400 of the travelling fans were actually Turkish Cypriots who had crossed the border for the match. While there is nothing wrong with supporting a bigger, wealthier team from Turkey, that so many choose to do so indicates the abject state of football in the North. Fenerbahçe should not have a bigger presence in the north of Nicosia than Çetinkaya, the most decorated team, but that is the current reality.
Football is on life support in Northern Cyprus and for years those trying to revive it have been unable to find a solution. The frustration is palpable and is only matched by the desire for change.
Orçun Kamal, the director of international relations at the KTFF, is vociferous in his view that a solution must be reached, which happily does look more likely following recent positive talks with the CFA. Kamal, who played football in the Turkish Cypriot league for 16 years, moved into coaching after his playing career before joining the KTFF three years ago. He also coaches a wheelchair basketball team. The 44 year old, once a powerful midfielder — like Bryan Robson, he proudly claims — has an MA in business management but bringing football to the North is his passion, although not one that can last indefinitely, not if politics keep getting in the way of sport.
"I played for 16 years," Kamal said. "I won trophies but I couldn't leave. There are no friendlies against international sides. How can you show what you can do?" Until 1983, foreign teams could play friendlies — Galatasaray, for instance, were regular visitors from Istanbul — but not now. Leyton Orient were once ready to play against Çetinkaya but permission was never granted.
"How do you tell the young that they cannot play football because of politics?" asked Kamal, who seems to know every one of the 260,000 citizens in North Nicosia. "How can you tell them to wait for the political situation to improve?" He was keen to stress that football and politics must not mix, that there is no desire for that. This is not about unifying Cyprus or even getting the Turkish side recognised by the international community, this is merely about being allowed to play football. "I am not a politician," Kamal said.
Mistakes have been made, however, and cries for help have fallen on deaf ears. Within the KTFF, which is finally on the rise, there is acceptance that they have had a PR problem, that they have expected others simply to solve their problems without really knowing where to begin or even what the issues are. In the end, as with anything in life, the way to stand up for yourself properly is to do it yourself. They are at last starting to realise that nothing worth having comes without a fight. "The mistake is to think everybody knows us," said Kamal. "We think people will give us everything. If the baby doesn't cry, it doesn't get food — but no one knows us in Europe. It's normal."
For a while, they were their own worst enemies. Hoping to join Fifa independently was never an option and money was frittered away on hosting tournaments such as the ELF Cup in 2006, a competition for sides unrecognised by Fifa that ended up including the futsal teams of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Then, when they went for meetings with the CFA and Fifa, there was too little discussion of football and too much discussion of politics. After several meetings, Fifa's proposal was that the KTFF should be subsumed into the CFA but the Turkish side were not ready for that and talks ended after the Northern Cyprus elections in 2009. Retaining their independence is of paramount importance to them, whatever the consequences, but they might eventually have to accept this proposal. As it is, they cannot play, the CFA has all the power and the KTFF has none. "We have to inform the people they need this agreement," says Kamal. "It would not affect the situation for the country. People are scared of losing their cultural identity but don't think of politics."
Think of the football is the message. It is difficult to argue with the insistence that the divide has to end. The dream for Turkish Cypriots is that they will be able to have their own league. Unfortunately without the power to change the rules, the reality is they need to compromise. They need to be canny and play the hand dealt to them intelligently. Not having the best cards does not mean they cannot get what they want. "We have no voice at Fifa and Uefa," said Kamal. "Someone has to give us an opportunity. There are no direct flights here and no trade but we wear Nike and Adidas to play so in our own way we are contributing to football, with nothing coming back to us. This is the people's game but there is no chance for youngsters. We need to find a compromise. We want to play football. Let's put the football over the politics." It is a message he drives across time and time again.
Kamal does not know how he can tell his daughter that she cannot play football. Once he wrote a letter to Fifa's president and signed it as his four-year-old son. "I am four years old," it read. "My family never got a chance to play football abroad. Give me a chance." There was no response. "They are killing the hopes and dreams of young people," says Kamal. "At least let under-18s play and be free. What's that Pink Floyd song? Leave our kids alone."
The damage caused is clear. In most countries, professional football offers a path to untold wealth but in Northern Cyprus it is nothing more than a dead end and the knock-on effect that has on the sport is depressing to see. The support for Fenerbahçe means that money is not poured into improving the local infrastructure but instead goes to Turkey. People are not stupid. They have eyes and ears. They can see the Champions League, the Premier League and La Liga on their televisions. They can see Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on their televisions but never in front of them. What's worse, they can see Greek, Greek Cypriot and Turkish sides taking on these teams and players in European competitions. They have been denied that privilege and they know their football is not up to scratch.
There are 3000 active players in the league. Players do come from abroad after a formal invitation from the KTFF — there are lot of players from Africa — and everyone is paid, but not much. Despite it all, a mobile phone company, Telsim, sponsors the league and the satellite television channel, BRT, bought the rights to show matches, acquiring them for 50,000 Turkish lira (£17,000).
Most of the stadiums in Northern Cyprus are still tiny. After the war some teams left and moved to the South so they could still play — they are known as immigrant teams. Anorthorsis Famagusta are one of those sides and in the 2008-09 season they qualified for the group stage of the Champions League, twice taking on Internazionale. Yet they do not play their football in Famagusta, a commercial port in the North. Those days are long gone. It is not hard to see why. There the biggest local team is MTG Famagusta, who play at the Canbulat Stadium near Othello's castle. Indeed it looks like a fortress, with Famagusta Castle overlooking the ground. On one side of the pitch, there is a small stand; on the other there is a wall separating it from the local port. People stand on the wall watching the games but it can be a problem if the ball flies over. You might hear a splash.
MTG did not always play there. They moved from the nearby Dr Fazıl Küçük Stadium, which is now used by a second division side called Dumlupınar. The stadium is not far from the restricted area in Famagusta, which is closed to citizens. Houses and hotels have been emptied and the Turkish army are inside. On the coast, it feels like a holiday resort, until you turn around to see what looks like a ghost town. Reminders of conflict are never far away.
Even so, it is not as if the two sides cannot exist peacefully together. In 2003, the Green Line was opened, allowing the border to be crossed, while in the small town of Pile, Greeks and Turks live side by side. One day, it could yet be the same on the football pitch.
Lifting the ban on crossing the Green Line meant that some Turkish Cypriot players were able to try their luck in the South. However, these moves have often been controversial. Sabri Selden was the first to move and was helpfully called a traitor by the former TRNC president Rauf Denktaş. Coşkun Ulusoy tried his luck with Nea Salamis but lasted only two seasons and there was more anger last summer when Mustafa Yasinses joined Alki.
This is not viewed as the definitive answer, however, even though they know they need players to move abroad. It is easy to get a Greek Cypriot passport and a visa but there is unease over whether that would truly benefit Turkish citizens, even if it would allow Turkish Cypriots to develop their talent and play professionally. "It is not the solution," said Kamal. "Then you are not representing your people. Kids should play at home. How can you send your kids away? The sacrifices are too big. How can you go to the South every day? Don't use the young people in politics."
Perhaps it will take the emergence of another Ebeoğlu for people to alter their views. He played in the Cypriot league for AEL in the fifties, finishing as the top scorer twice and winning the title three times. He was the only Turkish Cypriot in the top division but he was not out of place. Far from it. Having started his career in football with Limassol Turkish Sports Club in 1946, he shows that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can thrive together. "We are waiting to play," said Ebeoğlu, whose living room is packed with AEL regalia, his medals, trophies, awards and photographs of him with various dignitaries and politicians. "There are many football players in the North. Very good players." He was one of them. More can follow his example, if the politics allow it.
There was no problem for a Turkish Cypriot to play in the Cypriot league back then as the Turkish sides were part of the CFA. Ebeoğlu moved to AEL in 1951, spending seven years at the club at which he would make his name and become a legend. He even played for Cyprus twice, travelling to Jerusalem with the squad. They played the Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv. However his is still a tale of missed opportunities. In 1952 he was supposed to play in a World Cup qualifier for Cyprus against Egypt, but it was deemed unsafe to go there after the British invasion. Still, they would play against Olympiakos and other Greek teams.
Turkish Cypriots were able to play for the national side without any hassle and Ebeoğlu's brother-in-law also played for Cyprus. "There were five Turkish players, five Greek and one Armenian," says Ebeoğlu. "But there cannot be a combined Cyprus team now." He stopped playing in 1963 when the troubles worsened, becoming a coach and a referee for a while, and it is a scandal that no one has been able to follow in his footsteps.
Despite the obstacles, the feeling for football in Northern Cyprus remains strong. That it does is testament to their love for the sport, because the challenges are fierce. In October, a game between Bagcil and Gençlik Güku had to be postponed after 37 minutes because of the weather and it was rearranged for a Wednesday afternoon. The score was 1-1 at the time.
Always conscious of following Fifa regulations, the match kicked off at the 37-minute mark on the rearranged date in front of a small but boisterous crowd. There could not have been more than 100 people inside the ramshackle stadium — there are English Sunday League sides with better facilities — but no one seemed to mind. This was grassroots football at its very core, even if there wasn't very much grass on a pitch that badly needed some attention.
There was only one stand and flies everywhere, while the football was technical but not up to much. That was hardly a surprise, though. The lack of a proper infrastructure ensures the quality is low. In the end, the match finished 3-1 to Bagcil after two well-taken goals in the second half, although the thunder in the distance as the final whistle approached was the signal for most people to leave. "Careful, they'll have to cancel the game again," someone remarked.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest, based on the evidence, that a non-league English side would have thrashed either Bagcil or Gençlik Güku. But the fact that so many people turned out to watch a keenly contested match and were so vocal in their support on a Wednesday afternoon shows why a compromise must be reached if football truly is the world sport we want it to be.
For Kamal, it was a friendly organised against Liverpool veterans two years ago that revealed the depth of feeling among Turkish Cypriots. Although Fifa does not allow professional sides to play friendly matches in Northern Cyprus, they do not need authorisation to invite former professionals so along came Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, Michael Thomas, Mark Wright, Jason McAteer, Don Hutchison, David Fairclough and Phil Babb and in a packed stadium, 2,500 fans watched Liverpool win 2-1. "This is when we understood," said Kamal. "This is when we understood we have to do something for the people."
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The appointment of Hasan Sertoğlu in 2010 has seen the KTFF's stock rise. Sertoğlu oversaw the league's sponsorship and television deals, while their new headquarters are based near the border. "We worked from the inside to start with," Sertoğlu has said. "Now we are working for change on the outside."
It seems that the increased media attention on football in Cyprus has accelerated the process. In October, Kamal seemed pessimistic, talking about how he could not work for the KTFF for ever, not if there was no prospect of change. However since then, both sides have appeared more ready for the issue to be resolved. It has been put to them by outside mediators brought in to speed up the talks and bring professional football to Northern Cyprus that if Palestinians can play in the Israeli league, then there should be no problem in Cyprus. No one has been able to come up with much of a counter-argument.
So in November the CFA and the KTFF met for informal talks in Limassol, before an official meeting took place at the CFA headquarters in south Nicosia. In a historic twist, it was decided that second meeting would be held between Sertoğlu and the president of the CFA, Costakis Koutsokoumnis, at the KTFF headquarters in north Nicosia on 17 January. "The presence of the media shows that the footballing community of Cyprus wants a solution to the 'football' problem," Koutsokoumnis said. "We need to move quickly, we think the ground is right to find a solution for the unification of football on the island and I am certain that both sides are determined to solve this problem that has existed since 1955."
At last, the end is in sight. There is a way to go yet but Koutsokoumnis suggested that an initial plan would be in place within two months. "The island has suffered thanks to politicians and our focus is only on football, not on politics," Sertoğlu said. "I believe that with good will we can find a resolution to this problem. Everyone expects a solution from us. I have a strong belief that we will not disappoint anyone."
They have surely come too far for that now. At times the CFA and the KTFF have resembled two warring siblings who have needed to have their heads banged together but there is acknowledgement about the need to compromise and a meeting in January was reportedly extremely positive. As the success of Ebeoğlu all those years ago demonstrates, this would not only benefit the Turkish Cypriots but the Greek Cypriots too. It can improve their league, which has never been in better shape.
Some will doubt whether clubs from the North can compete with their more illustrious neighbours from the South. The gulf in wealth at the moment is eye-watering. Yet few people will care about that at the moment. This is not about money. It is simply a moral imperative that football is made available to everyone and also a reminder that sport and politics rarely, if ever, make good bedfellows. Football purports to be the world game. The people's game. It is hard to take that seriously while there are those who are not allowed to take part.