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Passions Nicosia derby -- more than just a football game

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A member of the APOEL ultras, supporting Nicosia's football team of the same name, sits at their fan club headquarters in the Cypriot capital play

A member of the APOEL ultras, supporting Nicosia's football team of the same name, sits at their fan club headquarters in the Cypriot capital

(AFP)

The Nicosia derby between AC Omonia and APOEL FC is the biggest event on Cyprus's sporting calendar but it's more than just a football game on an island divided by politics.

Passions run high when the island's two most decorated teams come up against each other as they did this week when APOEL won 4-1 in a match that deepened the feud between clubs representing opposing political ideologies.

Omonia sees itself as the 'team of the people' whose supporters are associated with the left, especially the communist party.

On the other side of town fans of APOEL are linked to the right and the ruling conservatives DISY, as well as extremist factions who associate themselves with the club.

For good or ill, football in Cyprus is intertwined with the politics of an island's 42-year division into a Turkish-held north and Greek Cypriot south.

"In Cyprus when it comes to the big teams -- they have their own (political) colour, they are either left or right, you can know someone's politics from the team they support," psychologist and sociologist Antonis Raftis told AFP.

A member of Gate-9, a fan group supporting Nicosia's AC Omonia football team, stands next to a club sign in the Cypriot capital play

A member of Gate-9, a fan group supporting Nicosia's AC Omonia football team, stands next to a club sign in the Cypriot capital

(AFP)

The derby used to be 'the fixture' that usually decided who would be crowned champions of Cyprus, but Omonia is not the power it once was while APOEL have been serial winners for more than a decade.

"As a player you saw it as the biggest game because it was always the game where you could win or lose the title," former APOEL forward Ara Petrosian, 49, told AFP.

"In those days Omonia had the biggest fan base, but APOEL have caught up because they are winning."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Omonia were the undisputed number one club securing 20 league titles and 14 cups in all. But they last won the championship in 2010.

Bad feeling

APOEL are now the most decorated Cypriot team winning 25 league titles and 21 cups.

Bad feeling lingers between the two clubs since Omonia members and players split from APOEL in 1948 over politics.

Photographs of ultras, supporters of Nicosia's APOEL FC football club at various matches, at their fan club in the Cypriot capital play

Photographs of ultras, supporters of Nicosia's APOEL FC football club at various matches, at their fan club in the Cypriot capital

(AFP)

"In my day APOEL players never went to Omonia or an Omonia player went to APOEL. It still doesn't happen that often," said Petrosian who played over a 100 times for APOEL from 1985-1992.

The latest derby triggered a war of words between the two sides after Omnia -- reduced to 10 men following a sending off -- accused match officials of siding with their rivals.

Following Saturday's clash APOEL are third in the championship with Omnia fourth.

As Omonia's fortunes waned over the years APOEL created history by becoming the first Cypriot team to reach the quarter-finals of the Champion League (2012). They are the only local team to reach the group stage three times.

APOEL's European exploits have generated millions in revenue while Omonia have struggled financially, even appealing to fans to make contributions.

Sporting glory apart, sociologist Nicos Peristianis says the rivals represent two 'historical blocks' in Cyprus society -- nationalists (APOEL) and anti-nationalists (Omonia).

Members of Gate-9, a fan group supporting Nicosia's AC Omonia football team, wave a flag with a portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara during a match on November 20, 2016, in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia play

Members of Gate-9, a fan group supporting Nicosia's AC Omonia football team, wave a flag with a portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara during a match on November 20, 2016, in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia

(AFP)

"APOEL is Helloncentric and espouses Greek identity and ideas while Omonia focuses on Cyprus and its people including Turkish Cypriots," Peristianis told AFP.

"Today you will see fans waving different flags in the stadium, Omonia fans with their Cyprus flags and Che Guevara t-shirts and APOEL fans with their Greek flags," he added.

Omonia won their last league title when the communist party was in power, supported by then president and unabashed Omonia fan Demetris Christofias.

A former friend and Omonia chairman told a court recently that Christofias encouraged him to go on a spending spree that helped win the title in 2009-10 but crippled the club financially.

Omonia's success came at a time when the right was discredited as they were blamed for the 1974 Turkish invasion which was triggered by a Greek-engineered coup to unite the island with Greece.

And some might argue that APOEL has risen to the top as the right gained favour in Cyprus politics.

"There are two parallel contests going on, a political contest and a football contest and people want to be winners in both," said Peristianis.

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