Soccer and Politics in Cyprus

Aug 4, 2005 by


Anorthosis vs. Trabzonspor at GSP Stadium

IN CYPRUS soccer—known more sensibly as football outside the U.S.—is bound up in politics. Each soccer team is affiliated with a political party, so the color of a fan’s jersey or painted face is akin to a party bumper sticker. I have heard that there aremuch less politics in Cypriot soccer now than before, but ask any 12-year-old Cypriot kid what his team’s politics are, and without pause he will answer “right” or “left” with little if any understanding of what that means. Harmless as it seems, the label can stick and he may just as easily grow up to be a communist or a capitalist depending on whom he hollers for; and if that’s an exaggeration, it is at least fair to say that a youngster’s loyalty to a soccer team does improve the party’s recruiting odds. The flag-draped teenage hooligans at soccer games who flail about behind the goalposts may bring the most zest to the game, but their commitment is like that of the model soldier: complete devotion to the home team, victory by any means necessary. If political stripes are part of the package, then there is nothing for them to do but get united and cheer.

The island’s great rivalry is between conservatives and communists: the blue-and-yellows, Apoel, and the green-and-whites, Omonia. I have not been to one of their games, but I am told that the 23,000-person stadium in the capital, Nicosia, fills when they play. I assume it is something like a Red Sox/Yankees game at Fenway. Cyprus is a small place as far as nations go and since both Apoel and Omonia are based in the capital, their fans know more about the players than they should. If you are a goalie, for instance, you must steel yourself to the fact that some of the opposing team’s fans behind you are going to insult and slander your mother and your wife by name. When thousands of people, habituated by their culture to yelling and gesticulation, crowd into an arena in hopes that one team will squelch another, one can expect to hear the sorts of things heard centuries ago at gladiator fights and town square stonings. Outside of war and large demonstrations, team competitions are the closest we can get to the feeling of mass battle, only without the fear and hangover.

Anorthosis Fans

It is no surprise then that there was such a buzz over security matters when UEFA officials (United European Football Association) drew Cyprus’s Anorthosis-Famagusta to play against Turkey’s Trabzonspor in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. A Greek Cypriot and a Turkish soccer team have not played in a UEFA competition in over thirty years, and the first of the two games was to take place in Nicosia. Anorthosis-Famagusta’s home city is not Nicosia, but rather—as its name ensures no one forgets—Famagusta. Even if the Famagusta stadium met UEFA standards, the match could not take place there because Anorthosis is a refugee team, having lost its home—as did all Greek Cypriots in Famagusta—when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974.

One cannot get a sense of the emotional and symbolic force of this game without some knowledge of the modern history of Cyprus. Greco-Turkish animosity has roots that go back centuries, but its most recent manifestation involves Cyprus. Any account of the conflict will be offensive to many, whether they are Britons, Greeks, Turks, Greek Cypriots or Turkish Cypriots Cypriots (Cyprus is an independent state, neither part of Greece, nor Turkey) and if one is honest and unflinching about the facts, all will take offense. You can find all the ingredients of political violence in the last fifty years of the island’s history: divide-and-rule tactics, car bombs, bullets in the back, torture rooms, mass graves, U.N. troops, napalm, meddling foreign states, a coup, an invasion, occupation, two-year conscriptions, and enough propaganda for another century of hostility. This is no place for such an account, but here is some background to the Cyprus troubles that should be tolerable to all but fanatic Turkish and Greek nationalists, of which there are plenty:

During World War I, Cyprus became a British colony. The two major ethnic groups on the island were and to this day remain to be Greek Cypriots, who are the majority, and Turkish Cypriots, the minority. In the 1950s a militant group of Greek Cypriots formed the armed group EOKA and fought a guerrilla war to overthrow the British, also targeting Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriot dissenters. The EOKA people did not, however, want an independent state; they wanted freedom from the British so that they could unify with Greece (a movement called ENOSIS, ‘union’ in Greek). In short, they wanted to be Greeks, not Cypriots. The guerrilla war succeeded in driving out the British, but not in making Cyprus part of Greece. So in 1960, after some diplomatic shuttling, Cyprus became an independent state, though in a weak sense: in its constitution were provisos for two British bases and three “guarantor powers”—Greece, Turkey, and England—who were to act as Big Mothers.

The fervor of the EOKA movement to unify with Greece did not dissipate. This love of Greece had its counterpart in hatred of Turkey, just as an athlete needs an opponent to obsess over, or a hero a dragon to slay. Once nationalism managed to overcome the static friction of fascism’s wheels, it was easy to get the momentum going. Greek Cypriot generals and their minions drove Turkish Cypriots into enclaves, and massacres followed. Meanwhile, Turkish nationalism grew as a reaction to the Greek nationalism and terrorist Turkish counter-groups formed. With killing on both sides, the U.N. arrived with a peacekeeping force, which remains to this day.

On July 15, 1974 the dictatorship in Greece sponsored a coup in Cyprus to put in power a Greek general who would annex Cyprus to Greece. They succeeded in overthrowing the leader, Makarios, but failed to kill him. Five days later Turkey invaded from the north, stating that the constitutional order of Cyprus had been disrupted and that as a guarantor power they had the responsibility of restoring order. The coup fell apart. Greek Cypriots who lived in the north were forcibly displaced to the south; likewise Turkish Cypriots in the south, who were fewer in number, fled north. On August 15 th, Turkey began the second wave of the invasion and ended up taking over the northern third of the island, killing thousands in the process. The Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash later unilaterally proclaimed the north to be the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,’ which remains recognized only by Turkey. To this day the constitutional order has not been restored and the island remains divided with Turkish Cypriots in the north—along with Turkish settlers who keep flooding in—and Greek Cypriots in the south. Imagine the buffer zone as a highway winding across the island (though it is actually all barbed wire, overturned barrels and snake-infested ruins) with Greek Cypriot and Turkish outposts forming the opposing lanes and U.N. troops as a guardrail in the middle.

With that as a backdrop, it was inevitable for Greek Cypriots to view the match as between refugees and invaders. As with the Olympics, the athlete at the highest level represents the nation. Competition and fanfare, which are the heart and lungs of sports, make athletes into modern warrior-heroes. You fight as Achilles and Hector did, for the honor of your people. Add to this the political nature of soccer in Cyprus and the fact that the match was to take place less than a week after the anniversary of the Turkish invasion, and it does not seem so absurd that the authorities were sending 500-plus riot police to the game.

Security at GSP stadium

I had just flown in to Cyprus and I was not going to miss this match. Along with the other 1,500 Turkish Cypriot and 16,000 Greek Cypriot spectators, I shuffled through three security checkpoints—which included x-ray scanners, sniffer-dogs, metal detectors and pat-down zones—before entering the stadium. In some ways the security was stricter than what I had experienced in the airports on my way to Cyprus. No cans, bottles, or cups were allowed into the stadium (as a result, the final checkpoint, which came after the cantina, turned into a guzzling-ground of Fantas and Frappuccinos). Even coins were banned, although I later realized that I had accidentally smuggled in thirty-five cents worth of jingling contraband.

The stadium was not completely full: two corners had been cordoned off and lined with police to separate the Turkish Cypriots, who were in the southern stands, from the Greek Cypriots. It may sound like spectator-apartheid but one could buy tickets for any of the stands; it was only a safety measure and a number of Turkish Cypriots, probably more by accident than design, ended up sitting among the Greek Cypriots. A pair of policemen with binoculars stood in each of the north and south watchtowers, while less lucky police lined the perimeter of the field with riot shields and faced the spectators, their backs miserably to the game.

Security at GSP stadium

Although the booing and team hysteria were more pronounced than usual, the night went off without any violent incidents. I have seen more trouble in the Yankee Stadium bleachers, with police once ejecting an entire row of Yankees fans (if I remember right, they were chucking beer on vocal Red Sox fans below). There was, however, a glut of nationalist symbols, which authorities had warned would not be allowed in the stadium. This warning about “nationalist symbols” was vague enough to be meaningless, though Turkish and Greek flags presumably fit the definition; Cyprus is one of those curious places where its own flag—two olive branches under a golden island against a white background—is so forsaken that it is not even considered a nationalist symbol. Whatever the authorities might have meant, their statement proved humbug. Aside from the red southern stands, the stadium was as blue and white with Greek flags as a fleet of yachts in the Aegean. And even if national flags are not considered nationalist symbols, if a giant banner reading “ENOSIS OR DEATH” is tolerated through the entire game, one cannot swallow any rhetoric about “no nationalist symbols” without choking.

Anorthosis Fans

Of course, prohibiting flags at such an event would be like prohibiting a gambler from using real money: the habit has already formed. This is why sports are a fine thing from a ruling perspective; they keep the patriotic blood flowing and bait-and-switch us into becoming team players on the state level. That’s not to say that competitive sports are training grounds in leader-worship; in fact one could also argue that sports arenas provide us with a healthy place to turn into rotten little beasts for a spell, thus ensuring that we don’t later go out, for lack of exercise, to cut one another’s throats. And then there’s the earthy benefit, for a good bout of competitive fervor works the flab off the spirit, just as fieldwork can work the angst out of a cafe existentialist.

Trabzonspor Fans

While telecasts of sporting events may offer the armchair spectator better coverage of the game (i.e. close-ups, replays), the live game offers the uproar and thrill. Only the yogi in the ranks of fans can muster the same kind of fervor in a living room that one feels in the stadium. Likewise, one must be something of a misanthrope, a snob or a brick to sit in the stands and never once get caught up in the passion of a breakaway rush for goal, or in the breathless terror of a goalie fumbling the ball amidst a cluster of enemy strikers. The pre-game rah-rah, on the other hand, is a less pretty thing; one must be either courageous enough to resist the tide of the crowd—unless one’s heart is in things like The Wave—or relaxed enough to play the part unmolested. I resisted the first Wave, but the second time around I stood up with the rest of them and, in self-disgust, threw my arms over my head and smiled. And no doubt most of the allegedly patriotic hullabaloo that we make comes down to nothing nobler than that, to giving oneself over, though generally without realizing it, to that pimp of adolescence, peer pressure.

But once the game started I morphed, to my surprise, into a patriot. I found myself jumping from my seat, exclaiming, gasping or clutching my head, depending on the play. My heart was thudding, my pores were open; it was no act. My happiness at that moment depended crucially on Anorthosis sending that checkered ball of leather into the net. I have never been comfortable among masses of people united with common desire as such gatherings often degenerate into pep rallies, jeering squads or playgrounds for buffoons. But in this case I was swept up in the Anorthosis mass passion. It did help that the odds of winning were vastly against Anorthosis. And my mother is a refugee from Famagusta, so there may have been some blood vengeance in it. Whatever the case, I roared with the hordes when an Anorthosis player drove the ball into the upper corner of the Trabzonspor goalpost. In political significance, it may as well have been a missile.

The moment of the night that most stuck with me, however, took place before the game even started. While the teams were still warming up on separate sides of the field, a stray Trabzonspor ball rolled into the Anorthosis penalty area and stopped near the goalie. The Trabzonspor player who set off to retrieve the ball was a good distance away and was walking, not jogging, as if to test whether the Anorthosis goalkeeper would kick him the ball. The goalie looked at the ball, and though I cannot look into his head, I had the impression that he wanted to kick it back but could not by the sheer presence and will of the crowd. His fans had just put a lot of energy into booing the Trabzonspor players as they emerged onto the field and a neighborly gesture at this point would seem almost a betrayal of the people by their national hero. It may have been no more than my imaginings, because the players proved friendly during the game, apologizing after fouls and helping one another up and so on. But even if I saw more in that stray ball than there was, the illusion suggested something real. It seems that a good part of why the Cyprus conflict has dragged on for so long—for why the U.N. mission, for example, is the longest peacekeeping mission in the world—is that the people, no matter what side of the green line they are on, hear nothing but booing or cheering from their leaders and their media; and with the good and evil sides firmly drawn, saying anything sane or doing anything decent comes across as blasphemy or treason.

Trabzponspor Fans waiting at GSP stadium

Anorthosis won 3-1, and there was no end to the elation in the press. Here is a translated opening from a centerpiece in the newspaper Phileleftheros:

“Anorthosis of Famagusta, Anorthosis of Cyprus, uplifted not only Cyprus, but all of  soccer. It won, it beat, it utterly ‘stomped’ the Turkish soccer team of Trabzonspor the night before last at GSP, writing the most golden, the most shining page in her own history and even that of Cyprus, not only of soccer but of all sports. All was dream-like at GSP, [and] the final result, the victory, was accomplished thanks to the talent, the worth, the unparalleled passion and the fortitude of the soul of the Anorthosis players, who played not only for themselves, not only for their team, but for occupied Famagusta, for divided Cyprus and her people.”

In the second to last paragraph I counted the word “bravo” 16 times. Clearly it does not take long before you overdose on this sort of thing. But assuming you can stay alive through it, an overdose may prove a lifesaver. It wakes you up to how ugly things have gotten. So perhaps we should welcome the mushy self-congratulation. With a big enough dose of it, what was once rousing will show to be farcical, and we might again recognize that, though there is no harm in team brouhaha, soccer is a sport best played on grass, not the party floor.

Constantine Markides

Last night, August 3rd, Anorthosis played Trabzonspor in Turkey in their second and final match. Anorthosis lost 1-0. But because it won the first match 3-1, Anorthosis advances over Trabzonspor to the third round.

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