FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus – In late April a handful of youngsters from the Greek Cypriot side of the island of Cyprus, commanded by a combative Irishman, crossed the border of Cyprus, the Green Line, to face an army of Turks armed with sticks.
No, this was not an incident of guerrilla warfare, but a historic premiere: the first ever hockey match to be played on the island between the only two existing teams; the Solar Bears from Limassol and the Famagusta Ice Crows.
What makes it even more special is that these teams are from two different parts of Cyprus with two different governments in cease fire state for more than 30 years: the Greek Cypriot side controlled by the Republic of Cyprus (with a de jure sovereignty over the entire island), and the Turkish Cypriot side controlled by the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since an intervention by the Turkish army in 1974.
Divided for more than three decades by the United Nations’ cease fire buffer zone, there has been little head-to-head sporting competition between the two regions during the years.
Until 2003 the border was even impassable, but the restrictions were eased since the Republic of Cyprus was granted European Union membership. In football, for example, two separate leagues exist although no official matches have taken place between the two sides and only the Greek side represents the island in FIFA and UEFA competition.
Some courageous hockey players broke this stalemate thanks to untiring work of two captains, Nigel Smeaton, an Irish expat living in the Greek Cypriot part, and Erhan Tuncer, a Turkish educator. He once played in the Turkish league for Kocaeli Büyüksehir Belediyesi Kagit Spor.
Both are actively engaged to spread the hockey passion in a virgin place with currently just two rinks.
The games were a first step as none of the venues fit for regular matches. The Limassol shopping-mall ice rink of 430 square metres is circle-shaped and only suitable for practice. The rectangle-shaped 450-square-metre Ice Bowling in Famagusta works better for a game, but it currently only has plastic ice surface.
Anyway, this was the place where the series of three friendly games was played.
“Meeting with Nigel, who shares same ideas with me, was a very big chance for both of us. We are really interested in this sport and now we are playing games between two teams and will continue to do it,” Ice Crows captain Erhan Tuncer said.
“These are only friendly games rather than league matches, also because of legal issues. The aim with the games is to introduce the sport to the island and to reach the masses. Additionally, we would like to give a chance to younger players to get more experiences in ice hockey.”
“After almost two years of work, now we have ten young players: two are English and the other eight players are Turkish Cypriots. Additionally, we have five senior players, me and other four players who are all Turkish,” Tuncer said about his team.
The Solar Bears are more international. “Our group contains one Greek Cypriot with two more joining the team soon and also some expats from Finland, Ireland, USA, Russia and Slovakia,” said Nigel Smeaton, Limassol’s team captain.
From talking with Smeaton and Tuncer, it seems all difficulties in promoting and developing ice hockey on the island are related to lack of rinks and knowledge of sport among Cypriots; no-one identifies the political situation and the border as obstacles.
“The Limassol players have no problems crossing the border and they do not see it as any sort of barrier,” Smeaton said. “If you want to play hockey, then you will do your best to do so, as one of our players said to me. It’s a shame that the Famagusta players can’t cross the border to come and train at our mall rink, but we hope that the situation will change in the future.”
While passports issued by the Turkish Cypriot administration are not accepted to enter the Greek Cypriot part and entry with a Turkish passport requires a visa, there has been less hurdles for the Limassol team.
“We haven’t encountered any bureaucracy yet, but I am sure we will as we would like to try set up a governing body,” Smeaton said. “It’s kind of funny though, on the way over we were asked what our business was in Famagusta and I said we are an ice hockey team on our way over to play a game. The border guard just looked at me as if I had two heads. On the way back we got asked if we had anything to declare and I said a pile of smelly hockey jerseys and a hockey bag that needs to be opened using face masks.”
For the players it doesn’t matter where the opponent comes from. It creates friendship, not rivalry.
“I don’t think any of the players care too much about the political side of things. All the players see is other hockey players, a rink and a game they all love to play,” Smeaton said.
“I think because of the games we have played, one big hockey family has been created. The games have been intense at times, but that’s hockey with all its passion and excitement. Before and after the games we all sit down talking about hockey and other stuff, basically just having a laugh with our new friends. The guys from the Solar Bears also plan to show us Famagusta as it has a lot of historical values to it and also to sample the nightlife.”
Both captains are confident that sport can help to open minds and create a new cooperation, although their shared view of sports without borders is not necessarily shared by everybody.
Despite some negative comments in message boards on both sides, Smeaton and Tuncer don’t want to give in. They have too many ideas to improve the sport and continue to work together.
“Ice hockey is a very new sport in Cyprus,” Tuncer said, “and we cannot see yet enough interest in this sport. Because of the climate and the economic situation, building an ice rink is not easy. However, if there could be more rinks, more teams and rivalry, the number of players would increase automatically. We are also talking with the Turkey Ice Hockey Federation. If we can set up an official team in Cyprus, we could maybe also play in the Turkish league.”
Both captains even discussed about a joint team with players from both Famagusta and Limassol if such a team would be accepted.
“For the moment both myself and Erhan have agreed that playing these exhibition games, promoting the sport and trying to get people involved is the best,” Smeaton said. “We will have a lot of hurdles to jump over. It would be a dream to set up a governing body and to have a national team for the whole island, but we must take one step at a time. We hope also that another team will come to life to have someone else on the island we can include in our friendly games.”
There are many questions to solve on Cyprus since the Kofi Annan Plan to reunite Cyprus was rejected in 2004 and the political situation doesn’t make life easy for athletes, although it has become less restrictive since some confidence-building measures were introduced.
But Smeaton and Tuncer are eager to promote more exchange between the communities through the means of hockey. And they hope that by promoting the sport they can attract more players and hopefully improve the ice rink situation on the Mediterranean island.