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Playing together, staying together? Reintegrating sport on the divided island of Cyprus

16 December 2015

Capture 6Laurence Cooley is a teaching fellow in International Development Department (IDD), University of Birmingham. His teaching and research focuses on the governance of deeply divided societies, and in particular the use of power-sharing institutions to manage ethno-national conflict. Recently, he has started to conduct research on the governance of sport in such societies. Here, he reflects on a recent visit to Cyprus, where negotiations about the potential unification of the divided island’s two football federations have been taking place.

In the aftermath of violent conflict in deeply divided societies, the organisation of sport is often left fractured along the same lines that have defined the conflict. Such is the situation in Cyprus, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots have rarely played together since the political trauma of the 1950s. In recent years, however, talks have been taking place between the two football federations on the divided island of Cyprus, and in November 2013 provisional agreement was reached to reunite the two bodies.

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One of these, the Cyprus Football Federation (CFA), was formed in the 1930s by seven Greek Cypriot clubs and one Turkish Cypriot club. The CFA was recognised by FIFA in 1948 as the official Cypriot federation. However, in the context of the anti-colonial struggle against British rule in the mid-1950s, Turkish Cypriot teams were prevented from competing in CFA leagues – ostensibly because of security concerns stemming from the growing risk of inter-communal violence – and eventually set up their own Cyprus Turkish Football Association (CTFA), which has never been recognised by FIFA. While an agreement in 1975 allowed for Turkish Cypriot clubs to play friendly matches against foreign teams, this was rescinded in 1983 when the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was proclaimed. Since 1983, Turkish Cypriot football has existed in a state of almost complete isolation.

Sport was similarly fractured in another divided society, Bosnia and Herzegovina, immediately after the end of its 1992-95 conflict. Bosnia emerged from war with three rival football federations. A way to overcome this division was found in 2002, when a unified football federation was created by merging the separate Bosniak, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat federations. FIFA and UEFA made an important concession to enable this to happen, however, by agreeing to an interim arrangement allowing the new body to be governed by three presidents – one representing each of the country’s three main ethnic groups – and by an executive committee composed of equal numbers of Bosniak, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat members.

This arrangement proved to be unwieldy, with a majority of any one of the three groups on the executive committee able to block decisions, and FIFA and UEFA eventually demanded reform. When change was not forthcoming, in 2011 they suspended the federation and subsequently imposed a so-called ‘normalisation committee’, which was able to enact the required reforms. As Jasmin Mujanović and I have argued, in doing so, FIFA and UEFA were able to capitalise on local frustration with corruption and the generally poor state of the domestic game, in a way that might offer lessons for efforts to promote broader political reform in Bosnia.

In Bosnia, there was tremendous resistance to reform on the part of nationalists in both the world of football and politics. In response to FIFA’s demands, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik once famously proclaimed that “I am against one president being elected for the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina in any state structure – you name it, even a bee-keeping association”. It was only through a combination of FIFA’s intervention, fan pressure and the happenstance of a club from the Serb entity of the country winning the Bosnian Premier League the season that club teams were to be barred from entering European competitions, that this resistance was overcome.

In Cyprus, by contrast, much of the momentum for change has come from within the local governing bodies rather than from FIFA. The president of the CTFA, Hasan Sertoğlu, has written that the agreement Capture 9reached in Zurich in November 2013 promises to end “more than three decades of isolation” and “to give hope to our clubs, to our players and above all to our youth who all strive to gain access to this global village of the sport called football”. While he initially faced opposition from some Turkish Cypriot politicians, the election of Mustafa Akıncı as the new TRNC president in April 2015 has signalled a political environment more conducive to unification.

While bringing an end to their isolation provides a clear rationale for Turkish Cypriot support of the agreement, the motives of Greek Cypriots are less immediately obvious. The CFA, which has existed as an essentially Greek Cypriot association since the 1950s, already enjoys full international recognition as the official governing body on the island. Nonetheless, there appears to be a significant amount of goodwill towards the Turkish Cypriot football authorities on the part of CFA officials – not least its president, Costakis Koutsokoumnis. While some clubs voted against the proposed unification in a secret ballot held by the CFA, FIFA also holds some power over them. If the talks ultimately fail and this failure is seen to be the fault of the CFA or its member clubs, then it is rumoured that FIFA might unilaterally extend recognition to the CTFA as a second federation on the island.

As Nikos Lekakis has noted, the agreement does not necessarily foresee the creation of a unified league in which Greek and Turkish Cypriot clubs will play against each other. That the leagues might be kept separate, at least initially, reflects concerns about the potential for violence between rival sets of fans (violence between Greek Cypriot clubs is already a significant problem, without the additional complication of the ethnic divide), but also the significant financial gap that now exists between them. While Greek Cypriot clubs regularly participate in European competitions, even the best Turkish Cypriot teams are only semi-professional.

While this arrangement might fall short of the hopes of those who wish to see Greek and Turkish Cypriots once more play alongside one another, it does avoid the problems created by the interim arrangements that were put in place in Bosnia. Rather than merging the two federations as equal partners in a newly created body, if the Zurich agreement is implemented, the Turkish Cypriot league would be affiliated to the CFA in the same way that each of the divisions in the existing league are affiliated. Turkish Cypriot representation in the CFA’s governance structures would follow this model, rather than the power-sharing arrangement that proved so problematic in Bosnia.

There is still some way to go before football on the island will be united, and implementation of the agreement is currently being held up by debates about the need for Turkish Cypriot clubs to be legally registered with the Republic of Cyprus authorities in order to participate in CFA competitions. Nonetheless, while the wording of the agreement between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot football authorities is very careful to note that it “concerns only football related matters” and “does not set any precedent for the Cypriot political issues”, the unification of football would be a hugely symbolic step in the search for a long-term settlement to the Cyprus conflict.

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