Politics will be in focus almost as much as the soccer when Cypriot champions AEL Limassol take on Turkey’s Fenerbahce in a Europa League Group C fixture in Nicosia on Thursday.
AEL, who parted company with coach Pambos Christodoulou on Monday even though last season he guided them to their first league title in 44 years, are making their debut in the group stages of a European competition.
The Cypriots are bottom of the group with one point from two games while Fenerbahce are level on four points with leaders Olympique Marseille.
In ethnically-mixed Nicosia, the capital city where Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots live with United Nations peacekeepers wedged between them, Thursday’s encounter will receive attention for reasons beyond soccer.
Cyprus was split after a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Greek Cypriots live in the south while Turkish Cypriots reside in the north.
Emotions still run high and police have been put on high alert for the Europa League game.
“I condemn Fenerbahce because instead of using the Ercan international airport they will be using Larnaca airport,” Turkish Cypriot politician Serdar Denktash told the Greek Cypriot Politis newspaper on September 30.
Larnaca is the main airport terminal in the government-run south while Ercan is in the northern breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet recognised only by Ankara.
Denktash, who heads the Turkish Cypriot Democratic Party, is a Fenerbahce supporter and said he was so angered by the club’s action that “were they to lose the game it would… offer another reason to stop calling myself a fan”.
For AEL one of the biggest threats could be the presence of nationalist groups in the stadium.
Officials of the home team, who pride themselves on being a sports club without any political associations or ideology and has had Turkish Cypriot players in the past, are adamant that the match itself should make the headlines.
“AEL is a club that has since its creation been against the politicisation of football. We will not allow anyone to tarnish the match by promoting their own agenda,” chairman Andreas Sophocleous said.
“AEL is a club that has since its creation been against the politicisation of football. We will not allow anyone to tarnish the match by promoting their own agenda”
AEL Chairman Andreas Sophocleous
There has, however, been trouble in previous encounters involving Cypriot and Turkish clubs.
Players and officials of Turkish side Karsiyaka SK were attacked at the end of a basketball game against APOEL Nicosia in 2010 while supporters of the Anorthosis soccer club in Cyprus were heckled during an away game at Trabzonspor in 2005.
About 1,100 supporters of Fenerbahce will make the trip across the ‘green line’ splitting Cyprus and much pre-match talk has centred on whether they will be banned from taking Turkish or Turkish Cypriot flags to the game.
AEL fans, for their part, said they wanted to refrain from any political symbolism that could antagonise or deflect away attention from the match.