AEL and Fenerbahçe being positive
8 November ~ Tonight Cypriot champions AEL will become the island's first football team to play a competitive game in Istanbul, when they face Fenerbahçe in the Europa League. It is only the sixth match between clubs from Turkey and Cyprus in UEFA competition. Last month's fixture between the same teams, played in Nicosia, was significant in terms of qualification from Group C but never really about the points. The political conflict between Cyprus – split by a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a Greek-inspired coup – and Turkey is no closer to being resolved.
The two countries do not have diplomatic relations, while the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus is recognised only by Ankara. Sporting encounters between sides from the two countries are infrequent and emotions tend to run high, with trouble flaring up regularly.
Following a basketball game between APOEL of Nicosia and Karşıyaka SK from Izmir in 2010, players and officials of the Turkish side had to be escorted out of the ground by the police after being attacked by a group of APOEL supporters. In a 2005 trip to face Trabzonspor in a Champions League qualifier, Anorthosis Famagusta fans reported being pelted with stones on their way to the stadium and had chairs hurled at them once inside.
While the AEL-Fenerbahçe encounter would normally be taking place under intense media and public scrutiny in both countries the prevailing mood is, strangely, rather positive. Prior to the match in Nicosia on October 25, political bickering and antagonism was rife. Turkey's EU minister and chief negotiator Egemen Bagis was quoted as saying that it was "an opportunity for the Greek Cypriot administration to prove whether it is a state or not... because past mistakes show that Greek Cypriots are not even a tribe, let alone a state".
As the match passed without incident and the security operation was deemed a complete success, the action on the pitch, which saw Fenerbahçe grab a rather undeserved 1-0 win in Nicosia, dominated the back pages the following morning. Fans were subject to rigorous entry checks, even having to pass through metal detectors before being allowed into the ground.
However, it was not the stringent security measures alone that prevented violent incidents. According to the English language daily Cyprus Mail the following day, the game showed "the unifying power of sport". Turkish Cypriot Fenerbahçe fans had displayed a banner with the words "Football is peace and friendship", a great reward for AEL's tireless efforts since August's draw to get the message across that politics had no place in football.
AEL pride themselves on not mixing the two, which is unusual in Cyprus where there tends to be a right- and left-wing club in most towns; in Nicosia APOEL have a right-wing, more nationalist fan base, while Omonia are more left-wing and communist. AEL have a broadly left-wing fanbase but refuse to be connected with a political party or ideology, something that is part of the club's identity. This helped create a more positive atmosphere for Fenerbahçe's visit and AEL officials were praised by their opponents: "I have to thank AEL for showing such maturity and great hospitality during our stay. We will try to replicate this in the next game," Fenerbahçe manager Aykut Kocaman said following the game.
Tonight the Turkish club have the opportunity to do so. AEL officials will be given a tour of the city, with a scheduled visit to Hagia Sophia, now a museum but formerly an Orthodox patriarchal basilica, an important landmark for Greek Orthodox Christians. Optimists express the hope that last month's match was not a one-off and fixtures involving the two countries will be treated with the same level of common sense demonstrated by AEL. If lessons have been learnt, the experience could herald a new era in relations between the two countries – when it comes to sporting events that is. Nassos Stylianou @nassos_