By Elias Hazou
LONG-SIMMERING doubts over the integrity of Cypriot football boiled over on Monday, with Nicosia club Omonia accusing a referee of brazen bias during a crucial championship tie over the weekend.
Omonia lost to rivals Apoel 3-2 on Saturday, the defeat effectively spelling the end for their title hopes.
In what was always going to be a contentious game, it was made worse by a series of questionable – and often bizarre – calls by match referee Antonis Christodoulou. The decisions seemed to favour Apoel in the first forty five minutes and Omonia in the second part of the game.
Among the highlights, early on in the game the match official denied Omonia a penalty and saw fit to send off Omonia defender Ucha Lobjanidze for dissent, flashing him two yellow cards, back to back, for the same incident, after the player remonstrated about a free-throw that didn’t go his team’s way. The ref then awarded Apoel a soft penalty for a handball (even though Apoel had the ball at the back of the net but the ref pulled the game back). In the second half the ref refused to send off a second Omonia player with a second yellow for a lunging tackle on an Apoel player and then waved play on when an Omonia player clearly handled inside the penalty area.
Saturday’s game was quickly followed by an indignant statement from the club, with insinuations of a stitch-up.
As is usual, the row turned political, with Omonia hinting that the powers that be conspired to rob them of the trophy.
They claimed that the chairman of Apoel football club and the head of the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) were seen schmoozing together at a cafeteria prior to the game.
Also present at the same cafe was DISY leader Averof Neophytou, giving the allegations an extra twist.
Communist party AKEL, which makes no secret of its support for and ties to Omonia, weighed in.
Party leader Andros Kyprianou said on Monday the situation in football was “out of control”.
He planned to write both to the Cyprus Sports Organisation (KOA) as well as to President Nicos Anastasiades voicing his concerns.
Kyprianou went on to warn that more dodgy refereeing could provoke crowd violence as a tense season wraps up.
Eyebrows were also raised, and not just in Omonia quarters, by a likewise poor refereeing display in another weekend game, involving title contenders Apollon of Limassol. Apollon lost, now dropping five points behind league leaders Apoel, with three fixtures to go.
Over the weekend, Pambos Stylianou, head of AKEL’s sports bureau, spoke of “masters and enforcers” who pull the strings of Cypriot football.
“It is obvious,” Stylianou said, “from the referees’ conduct that there was outside interference in order to favour certain teams, in a way that is offensive to fair play, discredits our football and insults the intelligence of football fans.”
He slammed the Cyprus Football Organisation (KOA), saying it was “happily oblivious” to the situation. As the supreme sports authority, KOA should step in and restore what little credibility the football league has left.
If necessary, proposed Stylianou, the CFA-run league should be formally reported to UEFA.
Stylianou suggested also that the Auditor-general take a look at the CFA’s and the clubs’ books, adding that powerful vested interests are controlling Cypriot football.
Apoel hit back with a statement of its own, suggesting that Omonia do some soul-searching on why they lost the game rather than seek scapegoats in referees.
The reason why the Apoel football club chairman was meeting with the CFA chairman was to discuss the former’s thoughts regarding the venue of the cup final, and there was nothing Machiavellian about the get-together.
As for DISY’s Neophytou, Apoel said that he merely happened to be in the cafeteria at the same time, and was not sitting with the other two.
Whatever the case, the below-par refereeing on Saturday has only served to fuel broadly-held prejudices that the sport is crooked, particularly at the tail-end of each football season, when trophies and promotions – and the cash that goes along with them – are on the line.
Last December, referee Marios Panayi alleged he had evidence of extensive match fixing and corruption in Cypriot professional football.
During a much publicised press conference, Panayi claimed that possessed recorded conversations, documents and other evidence, exposing people within the CFA as the ones “running the show.”
His allegations led to a criminal investigation, the outcome of which is still pending. Asked about this, a police spokesman said on Monday that authorities have to date compiled three cases, one of which will soon be forwarded to the attorney-general who will decide whether prosecutions are warranted.