By Panayiotis Koulloupas
For Omonia Ultras, May 29, 2018 was the fateful day that they lost their club, and then decided to create a new one in its place – one that in their eyes could properly continue Omonia’s legacy as ‘the people’s team’ and maintain it for future generations. Thus, the People’s Athletic Club Omonia 29th of May was born, and looking back five years since this initiative began – and considering the context in which it was created – it is safe to say no one could have imagined how far it would come.
This all stemmed from the decision of the Omonia board to sell the rights to manage the football club to millionaire American-Cypriot investor Stavros Papastavrou, announced that very day. This was for an initial five years which last month was extended for a further 10 years. Those who pushed this through at the time considered it a golden opportunity. In 2018 Omonia owed €18 million and was essentially in a cycle of inescapable debt, moving towards total financial ruin. Papastavrou offered millions to cover debts and could provide new start after years of mismanagement and corruption, largely due to Akel’s grip on the club.
This reasoning has to an extent been proven true, just last year in Omonia’s 2022 general meeting the club president Marios Argirides announced that the club had made serious progress with its debt, it having been reduced to €12.6 million since Papastavrou’s takeover. The team has also seen newfound success on the pitch, finishing first in the 2020-21 season which was cut off due to the pandemic. The very next season they finally won the league after more than a decade and reached the Champions League playoffs for the first time in their history.
However, this is all irrelevant to Omonia 29M and its thousands of supporters. The decision to privatise the football club in 2018 and place it under the control of a single owner was viewed as a complete ideological betrayal of fan-ownership. This had extended back to the very formation of the club in 1948 and aligned with Omonia’s historical left-wing values. Even though under this regime the club had been largely controlled by Akel, the ability to stand in elections and take part in the democratic running of the club meant that groups such as Gate 9 still saw Omonia as an organisation that they could work within in order to bring change. After the takeover however and once Omonia
FC became Omonia Limited, these fans saw their club as being lost to commercialisation, and reduced to the business asset of an American finance capitalist.
Thus, on the very same day as the announcement, Omonia 1948 was born- with the name changed shortly after to Omonia 29M for legal reasons. The creation of this club shocked the Cypriot football community, generating considerable press and a strong public response. Often focusing on the club’s connection to the infamous Gate 9 many went to social media and radio talk shows to mock and criticise. One popular Facebook post at the time even claimed that the founders of Omonia 29M were attempting to sabotage Papastavrou’s attempts to save the club, condemning their ideas of club management as outdated. The author even went as far enough to compare their ‘stubbornness’ to that of Turkish president Erdogan and questioned their loyalty to Omonia. This was the immense pressure Omonia 29M was under as it began its journey in the Pansoleion farmer’s league, after struggling to find any league to accept them in the first place.
Breathing new life into the lower divisions of Cypriot football, the club began its ascent. Being followed from day one by thousands of die-hard fans and all the chanting, pyro and passion that comes along with the Ultras culture that many of their supporters represent. The team got promoted three years back-to-back, winning their division twice and were even poised to do so a third time but were cut off by Covid. They have spent the last two in the second division but have achieved incredible growth, having finished 10th in the 2021-22 season and 4th in the one which has just passed. This was achieved by a club with only two foreign players in their roster and a near non-existent budget, totally managed and funded by fans through merchandise, donations and match day sales.
This season was particularly special for the club as it came incredibly close to promotion yet again, finishing only five points off third place. Promotion to the first division would’ve been an incredible achievement for a club which just five years ago was viewed by many as simply a group of ideological hooligans causing a nuisance. This view has been largely changing as the club has become more ingrained into Cypriot football.
An eye witness, 18-year-old Yiannis Andreou, who has attended home games of the club at Dali’s Dimitris Xamatsos stadium, tells a different story about the club. “The presence of Gate 9 is an important part of the incredible
atmosphere but that is not all, this season especially we have seen more and more families and older people who support the club and there are entire stands dedicated to such fans who may not be able to keep up with the chanting and fast pace of the Gate 9 area.”
Looking forward to next season and the promotion prospects, the club will have to face its next challenge. The team and in particular its supporters have so far benefited from the lower leagues and their more relaxed rules. As first division football becomes more commercialised and successive governments continue their efforts to bring law and order to the stadiums, it’s clear that repeated behaviours that Gate 9 has been displaying week after week for the last five years will likely cause a serious backlash and potential episodes with the police. Therefore, while promotion may be possible, the club will have to consider if this is really in their favour.
So far, the conviction of everyone in the club, including its general secretary Adamos Efstathiou, is to take it as far as it can go. Where exactly that might take them and how successful the club can become under such a model though remains to be seen.