On March 30, 2015 the president of the Turkish Cypriot Football Association (CTFA) made a statement that breaks from the usual rhetoric heard from the leadership of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). According to the ABC News report the President of the football association, Hasan Sertoglu, has already sent a letter to FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke informing him that “that the Cyprus Turkish Football Association is bringing its statutes in line with international norms” in order to join the already recognized Cypriot Football Association. To his critics, Mr. Sertoglu had this to say: “This is not a political issue. We’re doing it for the future of our youth . . . You can scream at me all you want, you won’t be able to stop us.”

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Cyprus Turkish Football Association President Hasan Sertoglu (L) and Cyprus Football Association President Costakis Koutsokoumnis shaking hands on November 5, 2013 in Zurich. Image Courtesy Of: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/cyprus-football-eyes-reunion-60-divorce-192036218–sow.html

Unfortunately, his critics are many. Last week Serdar Denktas—the son of former TRNC President Rauf Denktas–reportedly broke off relations with the CTFA and last week sent letters to the presidents of Turkish Cypriot football clubs “condemning the decision as ‘suicide’ for the Turkish Cypriot political cause”. ABC News also reports that a move to by the Turkish Football Federation’s President Yildirim Demiroren to open a branch in the TRNC was rejected by FIFA.

 

The island of Cyprus has been divided between Turks in the north and Greeks in the south since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded in response to a coup in Greece due to fears that Cyprus would be united with Greece under the plan of enosis. Since Turks and Greeks had been living on Cyprus since Ottoman times the invasion changed lives on the island forever. Even after the fall of the Berlin fall, Nicosia is Europe’s last divided city. Even if Cyprus’s European Union accession was, arguably, not in line with international law (as it is a divided island), it went through and has resulted in vastly different fortunes for those living on either side of the UN ceasefire line. The Greek side in the south has flourished both economically and in football terms; the Turkish side has languished in both, mired in an international no-man’s land and recognized only by Turkey.

In 2004 there were hopes for unification when 65% of Turks voted positively for the UN backed referendum, but when 75.8% of Greek Cypriots rejected the plan the status quo continued. The rejection by the Greek side was predictable, given the economic disparities between the two communities at time. While the TRNC has experienced healthy growth since the failed referendum, geopolitics still reigns supreme: Turkey does not want to face encirclement by Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. Given Greece’s Aegean islands on Turkey’s west coast, a fully Greek Cyprus would threaten Turkey in the south as well, creating a potential blockade scenario.

While it is clear that the politicians on both sides of the island—and on the mainland—are mostly opposed to furthering the unification, some other important news concerning the island came out on the same day that Mr. Sertoglu rebuffed his critics in the footballing world. On March 30, 2015 the TRNC’s foreign minister Ozdil Nami announced that the TRNC would halt their search for gas off the coast of Cyprus in order to resume peace talks. Back in October of 2014 the Turkish search for offshore hydrocarbons, in response to similar actions by the Cypriot government, provoked Cyprus to suspend peace talks with Turkey. It was posited that the energy search was just an excuse to end the talks, of course, but the end result was firm.

Just five months later it seems that relations have thawed, and Mr. Nami, speaking to state-run TV channel BRT, said that they had decided to withdraw the Turkish ship searching for gas off the TRNC coast as a “display of good-will” in response to the Greek Cypriot side’s similar withdrawal. While it does not seem that these two events are related—the CTFA’s letter to FIFA was sent earlier—Mr. Sertoglu’s confidence to voice such a harsh response to his critics was most likely born out of this relative thawing of relations.

 

If this “spring thaw” is not part of an April Fool’s day joke then it would seem that the seemingly innocuous world of football may yet prove to be one of the first concrete forms of cooperation between the hitherto opposed communities on the island. Even so, much more will have to be done to assuage the geopolitical concerns of both sides for a lasting reconciliation—and possible reunification—to take place on the island. Even in the footballing world, an agreement will not come easily. Mr. Sertoglu stated that either side could walk away from any potential deal: “The CFA [Cyprus Football Assocition] will not be the boss in the north. We have the right to abandon the agreement, but we have no such intention . . . We want to be FIFA members for the benefit of our people.” His counterpart in the CFA, Costas Koutsokoumnis, himself noted that it will “take some time” for Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides to play in a unified league.

 

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Barbed wire on a wall near the soccer pitch inside the United Nations controlled buffer zone separating the dived capital of Nicosia. Image Courtesy Of: http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/turkish-cypriot-soccer-president-back-deal-30001361

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