Football’s Isolation In The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

One could be excused for failing to notice the achievements of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in Germany during the summer of 2006. Most relate that summer in Germany to the infamous moment Zinedine Zidane signed off his international career with a well-placed head-butt to Marco Materazzi’s chest and a fourth World Cup win for the Azzurri. However, only days before the opening fixture of the greatest tournament in world football, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) were achieving great feats of their own.

The 3rd June 2006, brought a momentous day for the TRNC’s FA, known as the Kibris Turk Futbol Federasyonu (CTFA), after beating Zanzibar on penalties in the final of the first ever FIFI World Cup. The tournament held at the Millerntor-Stadion, home of St Pauli FC, in Hamburg, comprised of countries who were not recognized by FIFA and whose logistics inhibited them playing representative football.  In the November of the same year, the TRNC, held a similar competition for sides not recognized by FIFA, named the Equality, Liberty and Fraternity Cup (ELF Cup), which they in turn won, beating the Crimea 3 – 1 at the Ataturk Stadium in Lefkosa.

The ELF Cup victory was the fourth cup win, in only five amateur cup appearances for the side, who seemed to be getting too big for the amateur cup scene. The TRNC is made up of nearly 300,000 people and there is much debate both within the region, as well as within the walls of FIFA, to the future for this footballing nation. Although only playing the minnows of world football in recent years, such as Gibraltar, Greenland, Tibet, Crimea and Tajikistan, in the two 2006 cup victories, the TRNC scored a total of 35 goals in only 9 games.

With a population so large and with such success on the field, there is a real push within the nation to gain FIFA recognition and membership, with view to gaining a place in the World Cup and European Cup qualifiers. The argument made is that if countries such as San Marino, a country with only 33,000 people, can gain membership and an opportunity to play some of the world’s best footballing sides, why should the TRNC not? As a result of the blockades to entry currently imposed on the TRNC, there is fear that a potentially decent hotbed of footballers could go unnoticed and furthermore damage the development of the nation’s football.

FIFA’s failure to recognise the nation’s football side stems from the long history of political turmoil within the island of Cyprus. The island, which is split towards the north-east, is half Greek and half Turkish. The international community consider Northern Cyprus to be an occupied territory of the Greek speaking Republic of Cyprus and is thus a self-declared state only recognised by the Turkish. Attempts to reach a solution between the two sides has been largely unsuccessful and to this day there is a large Turkish army presence which the international community regard as an illegal occupation.

Due to these political tensions, FIFA currently cannot authorize the membership of the TRNC into the footballing body, nor recognize them as an independent nation, without contradicting the view of the international community and the United Nations. Due to this Northern Cyprus are unable to take part in FIFA competitions. Similarly, UEFA hold the same stance, which means no Turkish club side can play in any of the major European club competitions, which clearly inhibits the progression of football in the nation.

Those at the head of the Cypriot Turkish Football Federation argue that without entrance into FIFA and UEFA there is great danger of ruining football development in the country, and the careers for many aspiring footballers. Furthermore, inclusion in the UEFA and FIFA could improve the economy within the country which currently depends largely on Turkish funding. Inclusion could also create jobs within a footballing sector, in a country that struggles with 12% unemployment, which is highest between 15 and 24 year olds, whom 31.4% are unemployed. One should draw comparisons to a nation of a similar size when viewing the potential in Northern Cyprus’ footballing ability.

Iceland, who have a population of only 20,000 more people to Northern Cyprus, have produced a steady string of professional European footballers over the years. Most notably Eidur Gudjohnsen, who in the past twelve years has had success at Bolton, Chelsea, Barcelona, Monaco, Tottenham, Stoke, Fulham and now currently at AEK Athens. Similarly, Heider Helguson is a proven player in the top two English divisions, scoring 105 goals for four different Premier League clubs. Other Icelandic internationals feature in the Dutch Eredivisie, the English Championship and the top tiers of the Belgium and various Scandinavian leagues. The Icelandic’s attempts on the international stage has yet to gain them qualification for a major tournament, although they narrowly missed out on qualification in Euro 2004, placing in third, one point behind Scotland, after a qualification process which saw them draw against a full strength Germany side. The performance of Iceland raises the question, how would Northern Cyprus perform given entrance to FIFA and/or UEFA?

The situation for football in Northern Cyprus is one which means practically no credible domestic league. Any player with talent is immediately exported to Turkey or abroad, due to having no opportunities to play against credible opposition at home or in European competition. Similarly, the national side lose potentially important players to the large Turkish national side, due to again there being no opposition for those born in Northern Turkey to play as a country. Colin Kazim-Richards, formally of Brighton & Hove Albion, Sheffield United, Fenerbache, Toulouse and now of Galatasaray is a good example of this. Although born in England, his mother is a Turkish-Cypriot, however, Colin now represents the larger Turkish national side, rather than that of his heritage which is a missed opportunity from an aspiring footballing nation.

Other players who would qualify to play for the TRNC are Billy Mehmet who has played for West Ham, along with Scottish and Australian club sides, the two Izzet brothers the more famous Muzzy who had a career spanning the English leagues and current Everton footballer Leon Osman. In terms of a manager they could employ current Galatasaray manager Fafih Terim who has had a career managing the Turkey national side, Fiorentina and AC Milan. Should Northern Cyprus have a national side, there are players of distinct quality who would qualify to wear the country’s colours, although due to the lack of FIFA recognition this is not made possible.

Attempts are being made to promote and develop football within the region, with much help, as with most things, from the Turkish. Turkish heavyweight Galatasaray, have set up a footballing academy in the Northern Cyprus with view to develop players in the area for export to the Turkish Super Lig, as they view the area as a potential pool of quality players of which to draft from. Although providing opportunities for aspiring footballers, this does further disrupt attempts at producing a strong domestic league and a foundation for the future of Turkish Cypriot football. One major goal of the Cypriot Turkish Football Federation is to try and improve domestic football to a level where they can compete with their southern rivals. This, however, is made all the more difficult with the distinct increase in quality in the Cypriot leagues, most notably from 21 time winner of the Cypriot First Division, APOEL Nicosia. APOEL have made history as the first Cypriot side ever to make the knockout rounds of the Champions League, facing Lyon in a two legged affair in February and March. The last time a Turkish Cypriot side won an all island league competition was as far back as 1952/1953, before the north set up their own FA in 1955, where side Cetinkaya were victorious.

What one does have to recognise is FIFA’s attempts to reunite the two FAs of the TRNC and the Greek speaking Republic of Cyprus. Since the TRNC’s break away to form their own FA in 1955, there has been no attempt at cooperation between the two sides until 2007. In September of that year, FIFA began a series of talks to try and reunite the two sides which began to gain ground, until a change of government in 2009 in the breakaway enclave to the north, forced talks to break down. During the talks FIFA/UEFA made a proposal which would allow Turkish Cypriot club sides to play overseas opposition but would not allow a Turkish Cypriot national side to play internationals. The CTFA refused to sign the proposal and since the takeover of government in 2009, no contact has been attempted between CTFA and FIFA, meaning Turkish Cypriot football is back to square one. Briefly during the 1970s, the Turkish north was allowed to play FIFA member sides, but this ended after the TRNC’s declaration of independence in 1983. Since this period, FIFA has tightened its regulations to entry due to concerns from Spain concerning Gibraltar as well as the semi-autonomous regions of Spain such as Catalunya and the Basque Country.

The CTFA has now been thrown into total footballing isolation, where they are not recognised nor accepted by any other country, meaning no opposition to play and no future for the game in the country. Footballers who do aspire to go on to a career in professional football travel to Turkey, but even there they are treated as overseas players which is troublesome when trying to find a club. To gain membership to UEFA the nation has to be recognised as such by the UN, which the TRNC is not and there thus seems no future for football in the Turkish north of Cyprus. It is a good example of the failings of FIFA and UEFA, as well as the troublesome crossover of football and politics, as only 20 years ago FIFA was welcoming ex-Soviet countries and Yugoslav countries, in a situation not dissimilar to the TRNC’s. Even sides such as Lichtenstein decided to apply for membership due to the lucrative rewards from hosting international football matches. Those applications were all successful, while a country which has a deep passion for football and a population aspiring to play football fails in its attempts to gain recognition. This is yet another inequality visible in today’s modern game.

David P Harrison – @DaveHarrison43

Football Friends bring you the latest football news and opinion from football fans around the world.
Football News