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Fragmentation of the people’s team

feature theo main fans of the breakaway team. the move to ‘privatise’ omonia was hotly contested by the supporters’ organisation ‘thira 9’, who created a new omonia known as omonia 29th may
Fans of the breakaway team. The move to ‘privatise’ Omonia was hotly contested by the supporters’ organisation ‘Thira 9’, who created a new Omonia known as Omonia 29th May

The implicitly political Omonia saga reflects something greater than football: the splintering of the Left and the declining influence of Akel in Cyprus

 

Four years ago to the day, on May 29, 2018, a general assembly of the members of Omonia FC – one of the biggest football clubs on the island – decided to turn the club into a private company, selling a majority stake to US-based Cypriot businessman Stavros Papastavrou.

“There was no other way,” lifelong fan Lakis Ioannou, who’s been watching Omonia play for nearly 70 of his 74 years, told the Cyprus Mail. “When a club is threatened with financial extinction, anyone who holds out a helping hand must be welcomed, whether we like it or not.”

Omonia was indeed deep in debt, and facing ruin. However it was also a special case, known as ‘the people’s team’ and closely aligned with – not to say controlled by – communist party Akel since its formation in 1948. Indeed, it was only created in the first place because a number of left-wing footballers had been kicked out of Apoel for refusing to condemn the communist side in the Greek civil war.

The move to ‘privatise’ Omonia was hotly contested by Thira 9 (‘Gate 9’), the supporters’ organisation. This was probably to be expected – but the fans went even further by creating a new Omonia which is known, in reference to that infamous meeting, as Omonia 29th May.

This kind of story isn’t too unusual. Manchester United supporters founded their own alternative in 2005, for instance, in order to oppose the takeover by American businessman Malcolm Glazer. However, there are two important differences.

One difference is that ‘FC United of Manchester’ has never seriously threatened the original United, and is now a semi-professional side playing in the seventh tier of English football. Omonia 29th May (also known as Omonia 29M), on the other hand, has ascended fairly rapidly in the four years since its creation – despite the many obstacles placed in its path – and is now in the second division.

It would only take one more promotion (the club finished 10th this season, slightly disappointingly), and the breakaway Omonia would be competing head-to-head with the storied original club.

The second difference is harder to pinpoint. After all, a similar situation exists in England where AFC Wimbledon regularly play against MK Dons, the club they broke away from when it was still known as Wimbledon – but the reason for that break was the team’s relocation from London to Milton Keynes. There was no political element.

feature theo original omonia won last year’s league title, and played in europe
Original Omonia won last year’s league title, and played in Europe

The Omonia saga, on the other hand, is at least implicitly political, and reflects something greater than football, the splintering of the Left in the past few decades – and, with elections coming up in a few months, the declining influence of Akel in Cyprus.

The 29M fan base is far-left, though not monolithically so. A source on the board of the club told the Cyprus Mail that they count over 3,000 fans who’ve come to at least one match – and those various supporters range from staunch anti-capitalists to some who deserted Omonia because of the old board’s incompetence (our source fiercely rejects the notion that there was ‘no other way’), or just miss the “romance” of the game.

After all, he says, “simply being against the commercialisation of football,” the billionaire owners and expensive transfers – “isn’t that a political stance?”.

Football and politics intertwine; lifelong fan Ioannou makes the same point in the opposite direction. “The Left, whether it likes it or not, has changed, and will change even more,” he says, meaning it’s being forced to become more capitalist – and football, he adds, has changed as well, Cypriot teams now fielding foreign players and run by foreign coaches who know nothing of local history.

Omonia 29M pushes against both those tendencies, hence its unofficial policy of only hiring Cypriot players – going local as football goes global, the better to preserve authenticity. Our source notes the Soviet emblems and Che Guevara banners that fans of the old Omonia (what he calls “Omonia Ltd”) still wave in the stands, for historical reasons – but they’re now sometimes flanked by American flags in honour of Papastavrou, a clear reflection of a club that’s losing its identity.

The 29M rebels fight against the dilution of the Left, rejecting the compromised nature of the old Omonia. The board member, who’s in his 20s, notes a significant detail: “I’ve researched this, and I can’t find another example: Omonia 29th May is the only time when the Left splintered in Cyprus and splintered further to the left” – as opposed, for instance, to the post-Soviet split that birthed the more centrist Adisok.

This creates an interesting social issue, because there’s an obvious gap on the Cyprus political scene: “Further to the left of Akel is an empty space”.

feature theo omonia 29m has ascended to the second division in just four years
Omonia 29M has ascended to the second division in just four years

Most of the thousands who support Omonia 29M are politically homeless – and in fact that’s understating the issue, because many fans of ‘Omonia Ltd’ also support the rebels’ politics, they’re just unwilling to support a small football team in a lower division. “There may actually be tens of thousands who are politically homeless.”

Akel have shed 50,000 votes in 10 years. They won 132,000 votes in the parliamentary elections of 2011, but only 80,000 in last year’s equivalent. And that’s just the votes, says the young board member: “How many young people who think of themselves as leftists haven’t even bothered to register, because they disagree [with the party]? We might be talking about 100,000 leftists in Cyprus right now who don’t vote Akel”.

The new Omonia isn’t just a football team. It’s done well since 2018, then again the old Omonia has done even better. The old club’s debts are now more manageable, attendance is high (it was over 15,000 at a recent game, says Ioannou, even with Covid restrictions); it won last year’s league title, and played in Europe. How do supporters of ‘the company’ view Omonia 29th May? “They’re not too bothered,” shrugs Ioannou, adding that he wishes the rebels well and hopes to see them in the first division soon.

“We’re fans, first and foremost,” says the board member, not wishing to be drawn too far into politics – but the real significance of Omonia 29M isn’t footballing so much as political. It’s an example of what can be done, a symbolic new structure anticipating the other new structures that may (or may not) soon arise to the left of Akel.

Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, says our source, in the midst of social-media rants about the party having picked the uninspiring Andreas Mavroyiannis as its presidential candidate, a woman on Facebook – unrelated to the club – posted a suggestion to her fellow disgruntled leftists: “Instead of moaning, follow the example of 29M”.

Where football leads, it seems, political action may follow.

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