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The Refugee Club: Anorthosis Famagusta and the Cyprus conflict

SENIOR ANALYST
857   //    10 Oct 2011, 15:00 IST

In part two of his look at football in conflict zones, Mike Kobylko tells the tale of how tensions in Cyprus sent one of the island’s most successful clubs, Anorthosis Famagusta, looking for a new place to call home. Mike is a regular contributor for Lovely Left Foot and you can follow him on twitter @Mike7077

One of the great tragedies of human conflict is the way in which it can catastrophically alter lives. People are forced from their homes, often never to return. The scale of the loss can be overwhelming. But it is not always just people that find themselves forced to build a new life elsewhere. On the holiday island of Cyprus – a land of year-round sunshine, beautiful beaches, stunning scenery and Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexuality – a football club is waiting to go home. They’ve been waiting since 1974.

Anorthosis Famagusta are, as their name suggests, originally from the city of Famagusta. However, since 1974, they’ve been playing their home games in Larnaca, roughly forty miles away. Why? In 1974, the island of Cyprus was split into two. Originally, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots lived relatively, though not unequivocally, peacefully together. Ethnic nationalism exhibited a subtle but real and increasing threat to stability throughout the 20th Century and, in 1974, ethnic Greek nationalists overthrew the government. Speculation suggested that they aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece. Turkey responded by invading the island, claiming it had a duty to protect Cyprus’s ethnic Turkish population and to maintain the island’s independence. When a ceasefire was declared, the island was divided. The south was Greek Cypriot-controlled. The north was under Turkish military occupation. Later, the north would declare itself an independent state – the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This entity is recognised internationally only by Turkey, while the rest of the world recognises only the Greek Cypriot side’s Republic of Cyprus.

As is often the case when conflict divides a land between two ethnic groups, atrocities were committed, life was wasted and a refugee problem emerged as Turks living on the Greek side headed north, while Greeks based in the north headed south. Among those heading south was Anorthosis – a proud club, bastion of the local community, a mast to which the natives of Famagusta nailed their colours – forced to depart along Cyprus’s beautiful southern coast to a new home – Larnaca.

Anorthosis are one of the biggest and most successful clubs in Cyprus. Club members had fought alongside the Greek nationalist EOKA organisation against British rule and their clubhouse was, in 1958, destroyed by a British bomb. It is from episodes such as this that the club’s culture of rebirth, its attachment to the legend of the phoenix, and its determination to succeed in adversity, are derived. The Turkish invasion of 1974 seemed to the people of Famagusta to threaten the existence of Anorthosis, just has the British had once done. Relocation was seen as the only option. Most of the club’s supporters had become refugees, and the club faced the same fate. Upon relocation to Larnaca, Anorthosis moved into the Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium and declared “there is just one more reason to exist, to fight and to stand out – the town that is waiting”.

On the football pitch, Anorthosis has a long history of success. Prior to the Turkish invasion, the club were crowned Cypriot champions on six occasions. But the events of 1974 left the club facing a long recovery. This proud club was about to experience its most barren period, with one solitary Cypriot Cup win in the next twenty-one years. For their fans, the absolute dominance of the two big Nicosia clubs – Omonoia and APOEL – was hard to take. More than ever, Anorthosis’ passionate supporters placed their faith in the club motto – “the spirit of Anorthosis will never die, never be ruined. Our much-loved Anorthosis will, like the phoenix, live on forever.” Passionate indeed.

Their fierce loyalty was to be rewarded. The 1990s was the decade of Anorthosis Famagusta. The club won the Cypriot title four times, including a hat-trick of successes between 1997 and 1999. There was also one Cypriot Cup win and three triumphs in the Cypriot Super Cup. The stranglehold of the capital had been broken. Anorthosis were back. The phoenix had risen from the ashes of conflict. The memory of the trauma of relocation and three decades of watching Nicosia’s big two sweep away all before them couldn’t be banished, but the refugee had at last made its mark.

Despite the upturn in fortunes of the 1990s, the arrival of the 21st Century ushered in what can only be described as a more bitter-sweet era. It is true that the two big Nicosia clubs re-established their dominance over Cypriot football. However, Anorthosis remained strong competition and their fans’ exuberant backing was not to be diminished. Since the year 2000, three titles have been secured, along with three Cypriot Cups and two Super Cups. And while the return to prominence of the Nicosia clubs has left something of a bitter taste for Anorthosis and their supporters, there was sweet relief to be found in continental competition.

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When you’re based in a country the size of Cyprus, European competition isn’t about reaching finals. It isn’t about holding giant pots aloft. These things are reserved for the big boys. For clubs like Anorthosis, qualifying for Europe is about the fleeting chance, the outside possibility, that if you can squeeze through one or two rounds, you might be rewarded with a trip to Rome or Munich or London. In 2005, the refugee club faced Trabzonspor of Turkey in the Champions League Second Qualifying Round. Not as glamorous as Milan or Bayern Munich, no. But their 3-1 victory in the first leg in Larnaca, followed by a 1-0 defeat two weeks later, resulting in a 3-2 aggregate victory, is considered one of the greatest results in Cypriot football history.

Two years later, Anorthosis’ Cypriot Cup win meant entry to the UEFA Cup, and a real glamour tie with Tottenham Hotspur. The First Leg was played in London, with the English club running out 6-1 winners. But plucky Anorthosis achieved a highly creditable 1-1 draw in Larnaca in the Second Leg. The following season saw the club reach the Group Stage of the UEFA Champions League, becoming the first Cypriots to do so. And while they could not be expected to get through a tough group that included Internazionale, Werder Bremen and Panathinaikos, the fans were left with memories to treasure and results to be proud of. The club beat Panathinaikos at home and held the Germans away. And if the aggregate victory over Trabzonspor in the UEFA Cup of 2005/06 was an achievement, then a 3-3 draw at home to Italian Champions Inter must surely go down as the single greatest result in the history of Anorthosis Famagusta and of Cypriot football.

The overriding hope for both Anorthosis and for their smaller neighbour Nea Salamis (who also play in Larnaca having fled Famagusta), is a return to their true home. It is striking how often football can mirror the issues at play in a conflict zone, whether it be the suffering of Iraq’s footballers under Saddam Hussein or, in this case, the plight of a refugee football club, forced to flee its roots, and the continuing dream of a return home. Cyprus is largely peaceful today. The Green Line that separates the two entities ensures this. But the conflict is not over. It remains a prime example of a frozen conflict where arms may have been downed, at least temporarily, but the core problem remains – intractable, obstinate, and thus far unsolved. And until the Greek and Turkish communities can find a way through their differences to once again unite their quite wonderful island, Anorthosis will remain, as it has done for over thirty years, a refugee.

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