War games

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A divided island, Cyprus is united in one thing: its passion for football. Especially English football.

Last week, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, at a café beside St Heraklion Castle, allegedly the inspiration for the Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs castle, a lanky teenager wearing a Steven Gerrard shirt sold me a beer.

Two days later on the other side of the UN-patrolled green line, which has divided the island since 1974, in Agios Giorgios a dusty, timeless village in the Troodos mountains, one boy braved the stifling heat – it was around 31C in the shade – to kick a ball around in his Chelsea shirt.

On the motorway, I spotted a car sticker that read: “Everton The People’s Club.” The car had local plates. I assume the driver was a British expat. Around 75,000 Britons – out of a total population of nearly 800,000 – spend much of or all the year in Cyprus. As most Cypriots have an English second team, it’s just possible the Moyesiah is winning new converts for the Toffeemen.

In an empty taverna in Agros, a mountain village famed for its breeziness where I sought haven as the temperature reached 45C, I watched the highlights of Anothorsis Famagusta’s UEFA Champions League qualifier against Armenian champs Pyunik Yerevan.

Coached by the legendary Temuri Ketsbaia, the Cypriots hit the woodwork three times, shot with the profligacy of Arsenal at their most wasteful, but won 1-0 with a penalty. I don’t know if Ketsbaia kicked the hoardings afterwards because the channel changed to a sobtastic soap.

Ketsbaia getting all emotional for Newcastle

Cypriot football is better than it was, but its drive to become truly competitive is hampered by the island’s complex recent history. In 1974, responding to a coup staged to unite Cyprus with Greece, Turkey invaded, occupying 37% of the island.

The conflict was brief, bloody and stupid. Some 6000 died, both sides credibly accuse the other of atrocities and the subsequent truce has almost frozen their grievances in time.

The conflict uprooted four clubs – Anorthosis Famagusta, Doxa Katokopias, Nea Salamis and PAEEK – who all moved south (temporarily they hoped) because their old grounds belonged to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity only recognised by Turkey.

Sotiris Kaiafas, the greatest Greek Cypriot footballer who is such a legend at Omonia Nicosia he has a fan club named in his honour, lived in a northern village called Mia Milla. Like 200,000 other Greek Cypriots, Kaiafas fled the Turkish advance. After a year in South Africa he returned to Omonia, becoming the only Cypriot to win the Golden Boot in 1976.

In Brazil, skills are legendarily honed on beaches and in favelas. In Cyprus, Kaiafas’s generation learned their art on gravel. Kaiafas’s legend – and Omonia’s reputation as a left-wing people’s club – partly explain why roughly one in three Greek Cypriots support the club.

But it is Anorthosis, founded in Famagusta by Greek Cypriots in 1911 (and now playing in Larnaka), who have most impressed in Europe, reaching the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League on four occasions.

If they are more ruthless upfront this week in Yerevan, they will earn a derby against Panathinaikos in the next qualifying round. And if that should come to pass, whatever the form book says, anything could happen.***

Ketsbaia, who rejoined Anorthosis as player/coach in 2002, led them to a historic 3-2 aggregate victory in a politically charged Champions League qualifier against the Turkish side Trabzonspor in 2005, the first time a Greek Cypriot team had played a Turkish club in a UEFA competition since 1974.

Famagusta pit their wits against Spurs at White Hart Lane

The second leg of that tie in Nicosia attracted some of Omonia’s old Turkish-Cypriot fans. Osman Cakan, a Turkish-Cypriot in his fifties, said: “Before 1974, I often used to watch Anorthosis in Famagusta. For the Trabzonspor game, I took my two sons with me.”

It’s easy to understand why Cakan was so keen. Northern Cyprus is banned by FIFA from all international competition. Turkish-Cypriot players have had to content themselves with winning the Wild Cup, for nations that aren’t affiliated to FIFA. In 2006, a few stripped off for a Full Monty-style “Balls to embargoes!” campaign (you can see the poster here).

One in 50 Turkish Cypriots is a registered player and the region supports three leagues and 48 clubs. But the national team, lacking meaningful opposition, attracts meagre crowds and most Turkish Cypriots watch Turkish teams on TV and support Turkey.

Tensions in Cyprus have eased so that some 4,000 Turkish Cypriots cross the green line daily to work in the Greek part of the island. But only a few footballers have done the same.

The first, Sabri Selden – aka the Cypriot David Beckham – was branded a traitor for joining AEK Larnaka in April 2002 and returned to the north after just three months because – the following explanations are not mutually exclusive – he was homesick, let down by authorities in the Greek part of Cyprus or pressurised by the government in the north.

Even if Anorthosis do impress in the Champions League, the legacy of 1974 will still loom over Cypriot football. And it will still be easier for young Cypriots on both sides of the divide, to idolise the likes of Gerrard and Ballack than to be enthralled by the heirs of Kaiafas.

***Apologies for the mix up – I must still have been suffering from second degree heat burns when I checked the fixture schedule – but Anorthosis will, if they beat Pyunik, face Rapid Wien which isn’t a derby at all but it is still a game where anything can happen.