Friendly fire

Luton kick up a fuss in Northern Cyprus, reports Neil Rose

It has been a difficult enough year at Kenilworth Road, but Luton Town found a novel way to court controversy last month by blundering into a major diplomatic incident. Their pre-season trip to Cyprus led to the postponement of what would have been the first meeting in a year between the presidents of Greek and Turkish Cyprus, under the auspices of the United Nations.

When the Hatters were invited to Cyprus, the intention was for some training and a friendly against Çetinkaya, the Turkish Cypriot champions. The president and prime minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) were to attend what would have been the first game between one of their teams and an English club, live on local television. For a nation that has faced international isolation since declaring independence in 1983, this was a big deal. It is Greek Cyprus that is recognised by FIFA and UEFA, and that is in effect a member of the EU.

At this point, reports become somewhat confused, with talk of a diplomatic tussle between the UK and Greek Cyprus in the hours running up to the game, and even of threats by the English FA that Luton would be kicked out of the League if they played. One claimed that the plan was for the teams to enter the Lefkosia Atatürk Stadium in their strips for the official opening ceremony and photographs, then change into matching kits so as to pass the match off as a training game. Whatever the plan, the game was called off.

TRNC politicians were furious. An aide to the president said: “The Greek Cypriot side is not even able to tolerate a friendly match. It is not possible to make plans for a meeting between the two leaders under these ­circumstances.”

“This is another example of the inhumane limitations which have been applied on the Turkish Cypriots for many years,” said the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which had clearly not seen the Luton defence in action.

Both the FA and Luton have downplayed the drama. An FA spokesman says the Cyprus FA, which does not recognise teams from the north, declined to give the necessary consent to the game. Had Luton still played, they would have faced sanctions, but he could not say what kind. Luton say they knew the situation before they travelled – they were told not even to train with the Çetinkaya players – and used the trip solely as a training camp.

Çetinkaya were the sole Turkish Cypriot representatives in Cyprus’s first national league, set up in 1934. They left in 1955, when the Cyprus Turkish Football Federation and league were created. In the early years, FIFA was apparently quite encouraging, and allowed the TRNC national team to play FIFA member countries, albeit not in official competition. But attitudes have hardened.

The NF Board was set up in 2003 to bring together FAs not affiliated to FIFA. These represent nations not recognised by the international community – the 21 members include the TRNC, Tibet, Greenland, Easter Island, Zanzibar, Chechnya and the Roma people. Even then there are arguments, and following a dispute between the NF Board and TRNC, the former switched the hosting of its first alternative world cup, the Viva World Cup, from the TRNC to Occitania (an area of France, Italy and Spain where the Occitan language is still spoken) last November.

However, only Occitania, Lapland and Monaco took part (the Southern Cameroons had visa problems), with Lapland squeezing past Monaco 21-1 to win the Nelson Mandela Trophy. At the same time, eight entered the first annual ELF (Equality, Liberty, Fraternity) Cup organised by the TRNC, which the hosts won, beating Crimea 3-1 in the final. The TRNC also tops the NF Board’s rankings.

Any hope of keeping politics out of sport is impossible in circumstances such as this, where football is seen as a sign of international legitimacy. TRNC prime minister Sabit Soyer considered the very fact of Luton’s visit to be significant. “Luton Town landed at Ercan Airport [in the TRNC], used our facilities and touched the green of the Atatürk Stadium. They played a private practice game in front of Turkish Cypriots,” he told the Turkish Daily News proudly.

It says much about the politics of Cyprus that the chance to watch young Keith Keane run around a football pitch in the manner of someone desperate for the loo is seen as such a coup.

From WSC 247 September 2007