THE BLOG

The Future of Cypriot Football - A New Hope, or a False Dawn?

05/03/2014 11:51 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 10:59 BST

The stage was set. The headlines were all but written.

It was supposed to be an historic announcement with positive and profound implications for the future of Cypriot football.

But instead, last week turned out to be yet another blot on the copy book of the island's national game.

Whilst, in Britain, the 'making up' of Manchester United and their star striker Wayne Rooney dominated the back pages, on the continent, there was another significant footballing reunion which slipped somewhat under the radar.

The decisions of the Cyprus Football Association and neighbouring KTTF, the Cyprus Turkish Football Association, to once again unite, is a huge development for football on the island - a country which has been dealt blow after blow in recent years.

Indeed, as the respective Presidents of each Association, Costakis Koutsokoumis from the CFA, and Hasan Sertoglu from the KTFF, publicly announced last week their moves to once again unify Cypriot football, it was welcomed by many locals as a new dawn.

But just 36 hours later, the announcement was overshadowed by an unsavoury incident which resulted in the subsequent postponement of all top tier fixtures on the island - and cast the country's friendly with Northern Island this week into doubt.

A car bomb explosion just days before the fiery Limassol derby between AEL and Apollon sent shockwaves through all connected to the sport in Cyprus and beyond - and, even more chillingly, it was the car belonging to the games' appointed referee which had been interfered with.

Leontios Trattos is the President of the Cyprus Referees' Association - and the attack came amid furious online speculation that the official had a personal friendship with members of AEL, and would thus favour them during the fixture.

Luckily, Trattos was not in his vehicle at the time - and no one was hurt.

Nevertheless, it was, of course, an horrific, illogical and evil act - and serious action must be taken against the perpetrators.

But it is also yet another example of the growing disillusionment on the island toward the CFA, what it represents, and those who run it.

The organisation is one which is much maligned, attracting criticism on a range of issues, including a perceived lack of effective action on hooliganism and violence in the game, 'biased' referees and match-fixing.

And those woes of the governing body are just one in a long line of issues which have faced Cypriot football over the last few years.

The well-publicised financial problems of the nation as a whole have also had a predictable - and crushing - impact on the national game.

Many of the domestic sides rely solely on wealthy businessmen for sustenance, and as their money dried up, so did the prospects of the clubs they owned.

Indeed, world players' union, FIFPro, even moved to advise its members to be extremely wary of signing for clubs on the island, due to a series of complaints from unpaid players.

Despite that, Cyprus currently has the largest proportion of imported foreigners of any league on the continent, with England second in the table.

There has certainly been an increased influx of immigrants since the financial problems hit the island, with many Dutch and Brazilian players arriving on shore to try their luck at securing a contract.

It goes without saying that negative publicity such as that is bound to have a real and profound impact on the ability of Cypriot clubs to attract top talent and progress in line with their European neighbours.

But as someone who has been deeply involved in Cypriot football for some years, I feel that the state of football on the island attracts a lot of unfair criticism from abroad.

Since becoming involved at board level with Ethnikos Achnas, I have witnessed all of the struggles outlined above first hand.

But there is no doubt that, ultimately, Cyprus holds a real passion, and love, for the game - and that is sometimes overlooked in the clamour for scapegoats and prompt panaceas.

Back in 2007, I arranged for Leeds United to visit the Dasaki Stadium for a friendly with Achnas - and the excitement that the arrival of the Elland Road club generated was huge.

Many football fans on the island follow not one, but two, or even three clubs - including a local Cypriot side, a Premier League side (for it is the most watched league in the country), and, often, another European club, too.

And, despite a tiny population of just over a million, Cypriot clubs have enjoyed relative success on the glitzy and glamourous continental stage in recent years.

Achnas clinched the Intertoto Cup in 2007, the first time a side from the island had won a European trophy - and Anorthosis Famagusta made history once again by qualifying for the Champions League group stage the following year.

More recently, APOEL Nicosia made it to the quarter finals of that competition in 2012, before being eliminated at the hands of Real Madrid.

I have seen the standard of the domestic league steadily improve over the last few seasons, and, I believe that the majority of clubs on the island could hold their own in the English Championship - some even the Premier League.

The national team, too, is one which is showing real glimpses of improvement.

Despite finishing bottom of their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, Cyprus were not particularly dominated by any of the sides they faced in that process - and a draw against eventual group winners, Switzerland, felt more like a victory to the island.

And, having been drawn against Wales, Belgium, Israel and Andorra in the run up to the 2016 European Championships, Pambos Christodoulou's charges will fancy their chances of a scalp or two, as they attempt to secure their place at their first ever major finals.

Of course, it will not be a quick, or an easy transition. But as neighbours Greece showed 10 years ago - anything is possible. After all, that's why we love this game so much.

When they clinched the European Championship trophy in Portugal back in 2004, it was only the third time that they had made it to a major finals, having previously been part of the World Cup in 1994, and the Euros in 1980.

Now, their biggest club side, Olympiakos, possess a 2-0 lead as they enter into the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie.

Similarly, the likes of Turkey's Galatasaray, Russia's Anzhi Makhachkala and Bulgaria's Ludogorets Razgrad all find themselves going strong in continental competition - a development which is testament to the passion for the game in the Eastern European region.

It goes without saying that, currently, Cyprus is some way behind its neighbours in terms of setting the standard against the rest of the European elite - but, in my opinion, it is certainly moving in the right direction.

The removal of such barbaric acts of hooliganism, and the reunification of football on the island, are just the start of that journey.