Football and politics prove heady mix as Cyprus votes

NICOSIA (Reuters) – Soccer and politics are proving to be a heady mix in Cyprus and could even swing the vote in presidential elections tomorrow. Polls show the February 17 contest is a dead heat between three key candidates, setting the stage for a rerun on February 24 in a political contest that has often been decided by just a few hundred votes. But fans of Cyprus first-division team Apollon Limassol have gone on the warpath over soccer officiating in a way the island’s political elite cannot ignore. As many as 2,000 Apollon Limassol supporters have turned in their voter registration papers to their fan club and threatened to boycott the elections unless key soccer and refereeing officials were replaced by yesterday. «That’s about 0.8-0.9 percent of the electorate, I think,» said Panicos Zounieris, a spokesman for an Apollon supporters’ club. «Fans won’t vote unless we see justice done to our team. We will vote for Apollon instead.» Zounieris’s sentiments are typical of many fans who say the beautiful game in Cyprus is marred by some ugly cronyism. Simmering tensions came to a head on February 2, when a game between Apollon and APOEL Nicosia was suspended in Limassol after a disputed penalty was awarded to the visitors in extra time. Police used tear gas to disperse angry crowds. On an island where in the not-too-distant past even your taste in beer spoke volumes about your political affiliations, who you support in soccer is a dead giveaway. Apollon fans are typically right-wing, with most expected to vote for Yiannis Kassoulides, the independent backed by the right-wing Democratic Rally Party. In the capital Nicosia, first-division APOEL supporters are virtually split between Kassoulides and incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos. The incumbent is leading Kassoulides and Communist Party leader Dimitris Christofias by a whisper in the polls. Politicians are urging Apollon fans to reconsider. «The electoral right is a sacred one, too sacred to refuse,» said a spokesman for Kassoulides. «Citizens should make the decision to vote and not react in such a manner.» Omonia Nicosia fans are almost always die-hard supporters of communist AKEL and are expected to put their support behind the Communist Party over the years. «There has always been a conflict between the political left and right. Parties always want the team they support to do well, it boosts the morale of their supporters, and their voters,» said former Cyprus international Lakis Avraamides.