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This feature is a part of A Tale of One City

ON THE SMALL SUN-DRENCHED ISLAND OF CYPRUS, nestled between the exotic blue hues of the southern Mediterranean and the towering Troodos Mountains, lies one of southern Europe’s truly hidden gems; the bustling port city of Limassol, a thriving, sticky metropolis of just over 100,000 inhabitants.

Essentially a mixing bowl of cultures and traditions from its chequered past, the city offers a living, breathing contrast between old and new. Follow the smoky aromas of marinated meze along the colourful alleys of the Old Town and you will find traditional Greek courtyards co-existing with the faded grandeur of colonial municipal buildings. Walk further towards the sea, and the peeling paint and lively gardens evolve into a more sanitised purpose-built marina development, complete with luxurious Russian-owned yachts and designer boutiques.

Whilst the Cypriot tendency towards stubbornness might suggest these developments are not overdue, it also explains their enduring passion and love for something that will never go away – in this case, football.   

This delicate balance between the past and the future is a recurring theme of the country’s identity, and Limassol – through its football clubs – offers its own take on a deep and emotive subject. The game is a way of life in the city, dominating conversations in street cafes and coffee houses, from students, taxi drivers and government workers to the old men tossing dice in their games of tavli.

In the north of the city, just off the main highway to Nicosia, lies the imposing St Arsenios Greek-Orthodox Church, a beacon of one of the country’s two most sacred religious institutions. Opposite it lies another revered piece of holy land and the city’s own offering to its other great religion, Tsirio Stadium, the third largest sports arena in the country and proud home to Limassol’s three major football clubs: Apollon, AEL and Aris.

 

 

While Apollon lead the way in terms of silverware, Aris can lay claim to seniority. Founded in 1930, one year before AEL, they were one of the original eight members of the Cypriot First Division in 1934 along with their newly-formed neighbours. Apollon became the city’s third major club in 1954, achieving promotion to the top tier three years later where they have remained ever since.

During this time they have claimed three domestic titles – including an unbeaten season in 2006 – and nine cup victories, in comparison to AEL’s six titles, four of which were won prior to Apollon’s arrival in the top flight, and six cups. Aris are yet to lift any major trophy on the island, despite reaching the cup final in 1989, where they lost 3-2 to AEL.

Regardless of these successes, however, the city has always played second fiddle, in footballing terms at least, to the capital. Nicosia giants APOEL and Omonia boast the lion’s share of trophies between them as well as the allegiance of most fans on the island. While in recent years the Limassol clubs have experienced a relative surge in success, with AEL winning the league in 2012 – the last team other than APOEL to do so – and Apollon winning the Cypriot Cup three times in the last five years, it is still abundantly clear where the balance of power lies on the island.

Consequently, the dominance of Nicosia – in particular, APOEL – has led to a relative simmering of intra-city hostilities over the last few seasons, with increasing antipathy towards the capital. Regulars in the Champions League group stages, APOEL are able to flex considerable financial muscle over all their domestic competitors, and despite weaknesses being exposed during the title race last season where Apollon were unbeaten against the champions over their six encounters, they still had enough to cross the line comfortably, even balancing a foray into the latter stages of the Europa League with their successful title defence.

This growing frustration has taken various forms during APOEL’s recent visits to Limassol. During a title decider in 2014 with AEL, the match was controversially abandoned following the alleged use of a “pistol-fired missile”, targeted at the APOEL dugout. The match was replayed at an empty neutral venue, with APOEL victorious, although the CFA then cancelled the result and awarded APOEL a 3-0 win anyway.

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Last season I saw for myself Apollon’s idea of a warm welcome, with a firework fired across the running track behind the goal directly into a densely populated section of the APOEL support. Despite winning the match 2-0, Apollon were forced to play their next three matches in an empty stadium.

Success on the field is not the only source of resentment, however. Nicosia’s dominance is built on more than money, with both APOEL and Omonia beneficiaries of powerful political backing, even if this is not always the official line for either the clubs or the parties.

Representing two sides of a complex and volatile coin – APOEL’s AU79 right-wing fan group believe strongly in unification with Greece, while Omonia’s fiercely left-wing Gate 9 are proud exponents of a single united Cypriot state – the two clubs are inescapably linked to the wider issues in the country.

These affiliations have resulted in a wide variety of allegations across the rest of the island, from accusations of entire championships being politically manipulated, right down to perceived slights from the various governing bodies, such as in August 2017 when state-run broadcaster Cyta were willing to pay for the television rights of APOEL’s Champions League qualifier away to Viitorul but not Apollon’s Europa League qualifier in Aberdeen.

 

 

Whilst the Nicosia clubs are seemingly defined by their social, cultural and political interdependence, however, Limassol’s clubs are not. In AEL’s case, this is literal; the club’s Gate 3 fan group have adopted a proudly apolitical position – although there are some left-wing elements within their support – a rarity for a founder club. It is often joked that if you want to know someone’s politics on the island, you ask them which club they support.

During the presidential election in 2008, it was alleged that over 400 voting slips were marked simply for “AEL” rather than for any of the political candidates, whilst many of Gate 3’s street tags – visible in every area of the city – are often accompanied by Anarchy symbols.

The club itself mirrors this stance; in 2012, prior to a potentially explosive Europa League tie with Turkish club Fenerbahçe, the then-chairman Andreas Sofokleous announced that “politics should not be involved in sports”, responding to inferences that he would ban Fenerbahçe’s support from bringing Turkish flags into the stadium. His words were welcomed in most quarters of the footballing world for their progressive nature, although AU79 were quick to make their feelings known, referring to the AEL hierarchy as “pussies” and “traitors” during APOEL’s next league fixture.

Apollon, meanwhile, are widely regarded as sitting in the centre of the political spectrum, although pro-union support is prominent within the club’s Gate 1 fan group. The club’s blue and white colours are in patronage to the Greek flag, which are a frequent although not overbearing sight at matches. Whilst slightly more political than their cross-city neighbours, they are not defined by their radical beliefs in the way that APOEL or even Anorthosis Famagusta – the other traditionally right-wing club on the island – are, meaning there is never any dogmatic conflict when the two sides meet.

Indeed, in the same 2008 election, around 2,000 Apollon supporters also decided to forgo their vote, although this was in direct protest at the supposed cronyism of the Cypriot Football Association, another spectacular example of how politically extreme football can be in Cyprus.

All this is not to say that the fiercely partisan nature of Cypriot fan culture can be a barrier to progress when it is the fans themselves that are affected, however. In 2014, the government introduced proposals that would require biometric identification of everyone entering a football stadium in the form of ID cards – those with criminal records would be forbidden from entering.

Original Series  |  A Tale of One City

Representatives of every major fan group on the island including Gate 1 and Gate 3 – but not, interestingly, APOEL’s AU79, who chose to stage their own protest – gathered at the parliament building in Nicosia under one banner, where they put forward a firm but peaceful protest. At the time of writing this issue is still unresolved, although these laws have not yet been formally introduced or implemented, suggesting a victory thus far for the supporters groups. 

 

 

In the wider sense, though, it is clear that Limassol is trying to look towards the future rather than focusing entirely on its past. Over 40 years since the Greek and then Turkish invasions of 1974, a sense of relative normalcy has returned to the island, even if the notion of advancement is markedly different in its two biggest enclaves. Much like the city itself, Nicosia’s football landscape is continually defined by its sense of division. Limassol, on the other hand, is more driven towards breaking the cycle of identity politics.

Off the field, both cities are seemingly out of sync with each other too, with the tourism industry in the seaside conurbation hugely outperforming the landlocked capital, and the establishment of many international trading companies in the city is also contributing to a prosperous economy. The oil and maritime industry continues to grow, and a huge, multi-million-pound casino project is currently in development, the first of its kind in the country following the recent loosening of gambling laws.

All this suggests Limassol is a city not only recovering from the disastrous economic collapse in 2013 but one looking to become the country’s spearhead of growth, too. Fans of both AEL and Apollon will hope that this can be reflected on the pitch.

That said, there will always remain a huge rivalry between the Limassol clubs. On every single street corner and doorway there are huge 1s and 3s, often painted over each other in frantic grabs for prominence, and the rivalry is not without violence either. During Apollon’s cup celebrations last season there were clashes between supporters on the streets of the city, and derby days are rarely without incident.

However, this enmity is defined purely in football terms, and for simple local pride – an almost refreshing distinction given the nature of other rivalries on the island. There are no political agents pulling the strings when the clubs meet on the field, or fans on the terraces looking to enforce their respective vision of where the country’s future should lie; just a relatively ‘normal’ desire for bragging rights in a league where everything usually has wider connotations.

On the whole, progression seems to be the overriding direction that Limassol has chosen. This is reflected by the clubs themselves, who – much like the fan groups opposing the ID proposals – are also willing to work together when the situation demands it. With another general election on the horizon, the current government has pledged to finally commit to the construction of a new stadium in the city, to be known as the Limassol Arena.

With each club contributing varying percentages of the overall cost, contracts are currently being tendered and work is due to begin in November 2017 – an iconic symbol of progress, and further proof that the clubs here are forcing their way through decades of stubbornness, broken promises and failed construction bids.

In the meantime, another season has just started bringing with it opportunities anew. As a city, however, Limassol’s primary ambition is to continue to promote positive change on the island, respecting tradition but ensuring the capacity for evolution; its two major clubs could do a lot worse than follow their own lead.

The first step is to bring the balance of footballing power back to where so much of it started, and, in doing so, rewrite the tumultuous history books of a nation that far too often is focussed on its past. Time will tell what role Limassol has to play in its future 

By Sion Phillpott