This article focuses on the political situation in Cyprus with sole regards to football. Rather than trying to explain and regurgitate literature on an extremely complex political issue, it would help if the reader had a prior understanding (basic will do) of the ‘Cyprus problem’. Here is an article that gives a basic overview of the political history of Cyprus – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17217956
In Europe, fan identities are often constructed on divides such as, locality, social-class, religion or politics. Similar to how Glasgow’s two major football teams are historically associated with religion, football clubs in Cyprus have been used to promote political ideologies. Having personally visited the island many times myself, I first took an interest in Cypriot football when, aged 13 I was taken by a family friend to see Nea Salamina versus PAEEK (Podosfairiki Athlitiki Enosi Eparxeias Kerynias, to be precise). Even as a young lad, I was fascinated by PAEEK’s decision to play in an all black ensemble. The club resides from Kyrenia, a town in the north of Cyprus now under Turkish control and the black kit symbolises the grief caused by the invasion and subsequent re-location. PAEEK now play their home games in Nicosia but hope to one day return to Kyrenia. Only then, will the club return to playing in their original colours of yellow and black. Although FIFA and UEFA insist that football must remain politically neutral, it is hard to ignore political undertones when attending a match in Cyprus as football there has largely been structured around the historical rivalry between left and right.
Following the Turkish invasion in 1974 the two main-communities, Greek-Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, fled to the South and North of the island respectively and have lived in separation ever since. This also meant football clubs that previously resided in the north of the island were re-located. Although politics are an inherent part of everyday social culture, football stadiums in Cyprus are where political sectarianism is most prominent. A common feature of fan communication is the display of the national flag of Cyprus or Greece. The basis of this contrast is the identification with left or right wing ideologies. Some supporter groups (e.g APOEL, Anorthosis Famagusta) consistently display the Greek national flag in order to align themselves to the idea of ‘Hellenism’ (the belief that Greek-Cypriots are predominantly Greek and Cyprus is simply an annex of the Greek main-land), whereas displaying the Cypriot flag could act as a sign of support for Cyprus as an independent nation. The divide is illustrated perfectly by fans of Nicosia teams, APOEL and Omonoia. APOEL, were founded in 1926 as a football club for the Greeks of Nicosia and Omonoia were born in 1948 when several APOEL players who belonged to a communist party, broke away to form a new team. The rivalry was born and the stadiums of the two clubs have represented an arena for the expression of political antagonisms. APOEL fans regularly use the Greek flag as a symbol of their right-wing connection with Hellenism and Omonoia fans regularly display symbols related with the left-wing such as the hammer and sickle (see photos). Using songs and banners, APOEL fans have even taunted their rivals by branding them ‘Turks’. This term is used as a way of offensively describing someone who is ‘non-Greek’, and also a historical enemy. In response, Omonoia fans have ironically identified with being Turkish, and even used chants and banners referring to historical events in which Turks have defeated Greeks.
“The use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious or provocative nature will not be tolerated.” (UEFA, 2014)
Omonoia (and Celtic, St Johnstone and Dundalk FC) were recently fined after supporters displayed Palestinian flags during UEFA organised matches. This may have come as a surprise to Omonoia fans who are used to watching domestic football which is awash with political symbols, banners and flags. It does beg the question as to where the line can be drawn and what does or does not fit into UEFA’s criteria. One could ask whether a Greek flag flown by APOEL or Anorthosis fans could be considered politically inflammatory. Hang on a minute, isn’t any national flag a political symbol? What if Omonoia signed a Palestinian player? Would they be fined for displaying a ‘hammer and sickle’ like they regularly do in domestic games?
Whilst this article aims to point out political references in Cypriot football, it also highlights the fluidity in supporter culture and suggests that displaying political symbols can simply be a way of irritating an opponent rather than representing genuine beliefs. Omonoia fans don’t consider themselves Turkish, but are happy to identify themselves as ‘Turks’ in a footballing context in the same sense that not all APOEL fans have Hellenic ideologies. The political references are in no doubt visible, but the extent to which they represent genuine political beliefs is questionable. After all, like in most football rivalries, irritating, degrading and insulting your rival is ‘what counts’.
Look out for APOEL who play Barcelona, Aalborg and Ajax in the Champions League group stage. I am sure their exuberant supporters will have some impressive displays planned for their home games.