Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, is already a divided city without football.
Ever since the invasion of the island by Turkey more than 40 years ago, the city has been split into north and south, each side claiming it as its capital. While the Republic of Cyprus to the South enjoys international recognition, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus still exists to the North, separated by a UN buffer zone. Attempts to end the split have gone on for a while, but the last round of talks broke down last year. It might seem trivial, then, that the southern side of Nicosia has an intense, burning football rivalry within it. That’s certainly not the case if you ask the fans involved.
On one side is Apoel, the Athletic Football Club of Greeks of Nicosia. Formed in 1926 by like-minded Greek Cypriots who wished for their then-British-controlled island to become part of Greece, the club became a multi-sport society two years later. Now they’re the undisputed king of Cypriot football, having won the past six Cypriot championships.
On the other is Omonia, Greek for ‘concord’ – harmony. They’re more rowdy than the name suggests, having split from Apoel in 1948 after differing opinions on the then-raging Greek Civil War. They’ve given The Legend a run for their money over the years, although recent times haven’t been kind to The Queen.
In fact, Apoel probably aren’t too concerned about Omonia right now. ‘Derby of the Eternal Enemies’ this may be, but on the pitch Omonia haven’t won a Nicosia derby since 2013. Financial trouble at Omonia led to a mass fundraiser that year, when fans and players banded together to raise €3.5 million in order to save their beloved club. This didn’t achieve much in the long run though, leaving Omonia to struggle along without mounting a title challenge. Last season proved the final straw, the club finishing sixth and losing 17 times despite having top-scorer Matt Derbyshire on their side.
Recent years have seen some of The Queen’s best players moving to the other side of Nicosia, something usually unthinkable in such an intense rivalry. Efstathios Aloneftis, a speedy winger who helped Omonia to their most recent championship in 2010, upped sticks to Apoel in 2012, while Georgios Efrem, proclaimed the best youth player in Cyprus in that golden year, moved to The Legend in 2014.
Change clearly needed to come, but there were disagreements over how it should come about. A general assembly earlier this year voted for Stavros Papastavrou, an US-based mortgage broker, to take over the club, making it a private company for the first time in its history. The club’s fans, being mostly socialists who support the left-wing AKEL party that was involved with the club for so many years, didn’t react well. Gate-9, the main ultras group, renounced their support for Omonia, creating a new team called Omonia 1948 that would play in the amateur league.
“For them to sell their club to a capitalist was a sin not to be forgiven,” says an anonymous Cypriot football correspondent. “Omonia was always considered the team of the people.” Now, Apoel have been left to pick up silverware all by themselves, its eternal enemy at war with itself.
Cyprus’s most intense footballing rivalry started with a telegram.
The Nicosia derby is rooted in the tense political atmosphere that shrouded the island through much of the 20th century. Having been controlled by the British Empire since they took Cyprus from the Ottomans in 1878, Cypriots looked towards the civil war in Greece between the recently-elected royalist government and the communists that had started after the end of the World War II.
In 1948, hoping to compete in the Panhellenic Track and Field Competition, Apoel’s board sent a telegram to the Hellenic Association of Amateur Athletics stating that it hoped the “communist mutiny” would soon end. Some of the players and staff took that comment badly, distancing itself from the club and eventually forming Omonia a few days later.
Political divisions were high – so high that the Cyprus FA (CFA) refused to accept Omonia as members because of their socialist beliefs. Along with other alienated left-wing clubs, they formed the Cyprus Amateur Football Federation, a six-team league which they dominated. Eventually, in 1953, the CFA relented and Omonia joined the Cypriot First Division. They almost left a year later, finishing just above the relegation zone. But, more importantly, the first two Nicosia derbies had been played, a 0-0 draw in December followed by a 1-0 win for Apoel in January 1954.
Boring results, sure, but the future of the rivalry would be anything but. While Omonia took time to adapt to First Division football, Apoel became more occupied with something else.
In 1955, a former Greek Army general called Georgios Grivas founded the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), an armed nationalist group determined to end British rule in Cyprus and unite the island with Greece. Many members of Apoel joined up with EOKA, the club’s founding values still etched in their thinking.
It wasn’t only Apoel footballers that got involved. Michalis Karaolis, a track and field athlete, joined up with EOKA and killed a police officer spying on the group. He was arrested and publicly hanged on 28th October 1956, an action that sparked riots in Athens and only angered EOKA more.
The busy political times cost the team massively. While Omonia slowly crept up the table, Apoel fell further, never finishing above them for the rest of the decade. In fact, they finished dead last in 1956-57, only saved from relegation because the league would expand to ten teams the next season.
With the armed struggle ending in 1959 and independence coming a year later, Apoel recovered – but not quickly enough. It was Omonia who nabbed the first Cypriot Championship of the two teams since they joined the league, winning it in 1960-61. Apoel bit back by winning it in 1964-65, only for Omonia to be crowned champions the next year. The rivalry was heating up.
But it was in the 1970s when things exploded.
In 1971-72, Sotiris Kaiafas, a previously bit-part player in Omonia’s squad, scored 12 goals, firing The Queen to the title and the Cypriot Cup, winning over many fans. Though Nicosia emulated their double the next season and became the only Cypriot team not to be relegated from the Greek Super League the season after that, (traditionally, the Cypriot champions would also play in the Greek league) Kaiafas again became top scorer and Omonia again became champions in 1973-74. It should’ve been another successful season for Omonia and their golden boy, but over the summer of ‘74, Cyprus changed dramatically, and by the start of the season Kaiafas was nowhere to be seen.
Ever since independence, Cyprus had been ruled by the popular president Archbishop Makarios III. Though he claimed that he wanted to unite Cyprus with Greece, that reality wasn’t any closer before, and right-wing military dictatorship in Athens suspected that Makarios was a communist.
On 15th July 1974, the Presidential Palace was burned down by the Cypriot National Guard, Makarios fleeing from the back door, eventually leaving the country. Nikos Sampson, a right-wing dictator, was installed in his place, a puppet for Greece’s generals.
Turkey, fearing that the Turkish Cypriots would be persecuted by Sampson, invaded the island, capturing a small part of the island. With the dictatorship in Greece crumbling, Sampson resigned and negotiations between Cyprus, Turkey and Greece began. In August, peace talks collapsed and the Turkish invasion spooled up again, taking around 35% of the island before declaring a ceasefire.
Cyprus was now officially divided.
Up to 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled from the north of the island, while around 50,000 Turkish Cypriots moved up from the south. Atrocities affected everybody – the Turkish army persecuting Greeks, and the far-right EOKA-B group attacking Turks.
This political explosion naturally spread to football. “Following the coup, the Apoel management sent a congratulatory message to Sampson,” says the anonymous correspondent: “For Omonia fans, all Apoel were traitors and coupists. For the Apoel fans, Omonia were the communists who worshipped the Soviet Union.”
Like many Greek Cypriots, that Omonia wonderkid Kaiafas had got caught up in the violence. Over the summer, his village of Mia Milia had been invaded, forcing him to flee to South Africa. He remained there for a year, playing football far away from his hometown that he could now never return to.
Luckily, Omonia were still crowned champions in 1974-75, and when Kaiafas came back the following season they really kicked it up a notch. Kaiafas certainly made up for lost time – he scored 39 goals that season, winning the league and the European Golden Shoe in the process. Omonia’s title-winning streak wouldn’t be broken until 1980.
And even then, after Apoel won in 1979-80, Omonia got better, winning five consecutive titles between 1981-85, as well as being crowned champions in 1987 and 1989. They were now Cyprus’s most successful club, and Kaiafas was later chosen as the best ever Cypriot footballer at the turn of the century, having scored 261 goals in 388 games for Omonia.
But through the ‘90s it was Apoel who became more and more prominent. In 1995-96, the 70th anniversary of the club, they won the double and remained unbeaten. The turning point, however, came the next year, when financial difficulties forced the football club to become a private company – eventually ushering in an era of domestic dominance. Despite Omonia winning the title in 2001, the 21st century has been very much Apoel’s. The Legend has won ten league titles and four cups so far, reclaiming their title of Cyprus’s best club and adding further fuel to the Nicosia fire.
The anonymous correspondent says: “Things between the two sets of fans began to improve in the 90s because rival fans went to matches together and occupied the same stands. The 2000s saw the rise of ‘organised fans’, which started to pull them apart. This resulted in their segregation.”
Chris Bart-Williams, a former Premier League midfielder who now runs CBW Soccer Elite for American college athletes, played for Apoel in 2004-05. Though neither Nicosia team won the title that year, Bart-Williams certainly felt the ferocity of Cyprus’s biggest football rivalry. “I wanted to play internationally after I left Ipswich and when I visited Apoel I was impressed.” he says. “It was very apparent when I got to Cyprus how intense the rivalry was. The fans’ passion was unbelievable.”
Bart-Williams remembers the second derby of the season, a 1-1 draw, as being particularly intense. “It was deafening. There was a full house rocking that stadium. Every fan was on that field, you could feel it – every shot, every goal, every pass, the fans were right there.”
“We had been behind for quite a while, but when we got the equaliser in the 89th minute, the relief was immense. It was such a tremendous honour to play in matches like that – the passion was insane.”
“I never got a chance to thank the Apoel supporters – I’d love to bring my youth team over there. At one point there were rumours that I was moving to Omoani – they were completely false but I felt the heat!”
That heat between clubs built and built throughout the 2000s, eventually reaching boiling point at the end of the 2008/09 season. Apoel had already won the title – their 20th – but their final match of the season against Omonia was still to come. Both sets of ultras came looking for a fight, and after multiple attempts to calm things down, the referee walked off of the flare-stricken pitch, ending the match in the first half.
Since then, Nicosia derbies have been more tame, not least thanks to the financial and managerial crises that have engulfed Omonia. The sale of The Queen marks a crossroads not just for the city, but also for Cypriot football itself.
Will Omonia’s downward slide continue?
Will the fan exodus take the sting out of Cyprus’s biggest rivalry?
Whatever happens, it’s certain that Omonia fans and Apoel fans will be hoping for the opposite.