Back in April 2004, London-born Billy Mehmet was lining up for the Republic of Ireland Under 21s against Poland. Mehmet’s appearance in green was made possible via his maternal grandmother, who had followed the well-trodden path from Ireland to England. Having been part of the famed West Ham academy, he’d made the move to Scotland, first with Dunfermline and then with St Mirren, and was considered a very bright prospect by those involved with Ireland.
Fourteen years after that game against Poland, he made his international debut for Northern Cyprus in the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup. It was the latest step in a long footballing journey for Mehmet, who was unlucky not to add a senior Ireland cap to his six under-21 appearances.
“I started at West Ham before moving to play in Scotland, Australia and Turkey,” said Mehmet after a starring performance in Northern Cyprus’s 8-0 win over Barawa in the World Football Cup quarter-final. “I’ve been playing abroad now for quite some time, but I didn’t know much about this competition until I moved to Northern Cyprus to play.”
After a globetrotting career, Mehmet had decided at the age of 32 to reconnect with the nation of his father’s birth, and signed to play for Alsancak Yesilova, located in the partially recognised Turkish Republic that comprises the north-eastern portion of Cyprus.
“I’m a little bit gutted – I could have played for them a long time ago. The only problem was that I didn’t really know about the team – this is my first year with them. As London is my hometown, when they chose me to play [at CONIFA 2018] it was perfect.
“I always said that I would love to play for the country in which my dad was born. Not only that, but to play in the country in which we were brought up is ideal. So it’s a proud moment for me and a proud moment for my dad as well.”
Mehmet, in fact, was eligible to represent not just Ireland and Northern Cyprus, but also England and Cyprus, yet until relatively recently only had his sights set on the Boys In Green. “I didn’t really look into representing Cyprus when I was younger. I only ever really went for the Republic of Ireland, and played for them and kept my eyes open for a call-up from them. But it wasn’t something I really looked into [representing Cyprus]. If I had done so a bit earlier, and put my name in the hat, I might have got a call-up for Cyprus, but it is what it is, I’m happy with where I am now.
“I know I’m not going to get a call-up to the Ireland side, so it’s a dream to play international football, even though it’s a little bit different than the setup in Ireland in terms of the level. But it’s good to be involved and anything you enter you want to win.
“The people in Northern Cyprus are not involved in the Cyprus team that’s part of FIFA – that’s more for the Greek people. They [the Northern Cypriots] are proud of their roots and their culture, and this is essentially their national team.
“When I first moved to Cyprus I heard they were trying to amalgamate the North and South Cypriot teams, but I don’t know what’s going on there. There seems to be a lot of politics involved, which I don’t know much about. Of course it would be great if they teamed up, but if they don’t then we’ll keep entering competitions like this, and hopefully keep doing well and keep getting recognised, and then maybe one day it’ll happen.”
Given the region’s struggle for self-determination, Mehmet is aware of what it means to the people in Northern Cyprus. “I don’t really understand the language, but I know that [the tournament] is all over the internet there, and all the people back home are supporting us. So we just hope we can do them proud – the boys did well in a previous tournament, so we’re hoping to go one better and win it.
“It’s a big thing. It’s massive, you know. To go back and win the World Cup is a massive thing – it doesn’t matter what level it’s at, it’s a World Cup. So if we can go and take the trophy home, it’ll be a great moment for everyone.”
By Luke Ginnell @HeavyFirstTouch