It was the opening ceremony of the Writers’ World Cup 2016, hosted by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a country that does not exist. Five local dignitaries sat in wooden chairs on the running track, their suit jackets glowing metallic in the sunshine. We, the athlete-writers of England, with our recurrent back problems, our knee supports, jogged onto the pitch for a photo call. Along the far touchline there were fifty students from the local university, each one carrying a different national flag. In actual fact, there were just eight teams in the competition, and two of them were Germany. The Germans had brought one team to contain all their wheezy middle-aged novelists, and another team to actually win. We resented them for this because we had not thought to do the same. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blared through speaker stacks as we stood reddening in the sunshine, waiting to play our part in history.
The big event at this Writers’ World Cup was the prospect of the first semi-official game in over fifty years between teams from the north and south of Cyprus. With the island torn between the Turkish-occupied north and the Greek Cypriot south, and UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone between them, arranging competitive football matches has not been high on the political agenda. But football is still a useful way to view the country’s situation. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is, under international law, an illegal occupation of the island, and so their football team is barred from all official competition. They are in the unfortunate situation of being lectured on ethics by FIFA. This means the Northern Cyprus football team is forced to play matches only against other unrecognised states. There are regular tournaments precisely for this purpose, featuring such fixtures as Heligoland vs Chagos Islands, or Occitania vs Abkhazia. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is the current world champion of countries which don’t exist, after beating Zanzibar on penalties in the final.
By contrast, the Greek Cypriot team – which is to say the official, FIFA-endorsed national team of Cyprus – are welcome to play football on the world stage. Their problem is that they almost never win. In their entire history, they have not qualified for a single international tournament. It’s easy to see how the two teams might benefit each other, one offering visibility, the other talent. Of course, it’s not that simple.
This is where writers’ football comes in. In its ideal form, the embarrassingly low skill levels of the writers’ game, combined with the empathic powers of literature, create an atmosphere of productive humility in which to broach sensitive issues. And with guaranteed crowds of fewer than fifteen, the stakes could not be lower.
So we stood on the pitch beneath Mediterranean skies, watching for the arrival of the Greek Cypriot team. We’d heard that their match against the team representing Northern Cyprus was due to take place in the middle of the island on a neutral pitch inside the 180-kilometre-long buffer zone that divides the country in two. But as ‘Eye of the Tiger’ continued to play – the lyrics encouraging us to enjoy crushing our rivals – there was no sign of the Greek Cypriots. Nobody could say exactly what had happened. Were they just skipping the opening ceremony or boycotting the whole tournament? And if they were boycotting the whole tournament, did that mean the tournament was not as humble as we’d believed?
Before the first game kicked off, we were each given welcome packs. They contained a self-propelling pencil, a prospectus for the Eastern Mediterranean University who were organising the tournament, and a T-shirt that showed a man kicking a football so hard that it broke free of its chains. The slogan underneath said: football without borders.
We lost our first match against Austria but remained good-natured. We congratulated them after the game and agreed we would later swap shirts, though ours were expensive replica England shirts and theirs were just plasticky red knock-offs, sponsored by a hydroelectric energy company. We were the very embodiment of goodwill.
Our second match was against Germany. We learned that the reason the Germans all looked tanned, rather than sunburned, was because they had arrived two days early, ‘to acclimatise’. It is an embarrassing cliché to say that we quickly developed a special resentment for the Germans, but football – even writers’ football – is a friend of the embarrassing cliché.
The English side, before the injuries.
The referee blew his whistle. ‘We can do this, England,’ I found myself yelling, despite my Welshness, despite my half-German mother. I was not the only player transformed by regressive instincts. Our captain, Andrew Keatley – a soft-voiced writer of brilliant, searing plays about injustice and humanity, about guilt and inheritance, an outspoken voice for the voiceless – spent the ninety minutes shouting at the Germans, shouting at the referees and linesmen, and generally sending the message that their voices were irrelevant. I had never really given much thought to the fact that Andrew had no hair until I saw him screaming in an England shirt. He was suddenly Plato’s eternal skinhead: the ideal form of the worst in our culture. Even our critically acclaimed poet, Nathan Hamilton, headed the ball with such commitment you could almost smell the poems evaporating. It became clear we all badly wanted to destroy Germany. We wanted to do it for England. I recalled the incident when the writing hand of Marcus du Sautoy, The Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, had been ruthlessly crushed, bones and all, in collision with a German writer of plays for children. I vowed to avenge his months of lost productivity. The idea that football might provide an opportunity to overcome our dumber instincts seemed ridiculous now: football was a chance to set our idiocy free.
We won three-nil. We beat Germany three-nil. In the World Cup. We tonked them. We mullered them. We shellacked them. All the made-up words. We did not care that the only audience for our victory was a handful of Cypriot weightlifters, dead-lifting dumb-bells at the side of the pitch. We refused to acknowledge that the Germany B team was any worse than Germany A.
‘Germany’s Germany,’ we said.
Back at the hotel, we drank, swam, watched traditional local dancing, and told stories of our heroism, our darting runs and crisply pinged through-balls. We mythologised our best goal, how the ball had seemed to hang a moment in the sky – spinning on its axis like the earth itself – before novelist Matt Greene – never forget his name – had slammed it home, bringing to a righteous end one of the great feuds in world history.
I have since rewatched a video of this game. It is amazing how slowly we move. It looks like we’re on the moon. In order to make the game on the screen accurately reflect my self-image, I played it at three times real speed.
The next morning, we woke up as our old selves again. We got the news that the Greek Cypriots were definitely boycotting the tournament. As we padded around our five-star all-inclusive hotel in free slippers, we began to understand. Even when football claims to mean nothing, it means something. We realised then that the only Greek Cypriot presence at the tournament was one of the England team. Our team contained Canadians, Scots, Germans, Danes and, on this occasion, Jimmy Roussounis, a British-born Greek Cypriot, who lived in the south of the island. He was also our unofficial tour guide. He gave us some insight into why the Greek Cypriots might not have turned up. Our hotel, for instance – the Salamis Bay Conti – had been owned by a partnership of Greek Cypriots and Brits when the Turkish army invaded in 1974. Now it was run by Turkish Cypriots. This meant that, according to international law, each time we dived into the sparkling waters it was a further act of trespass and illegal exploitation. Jimmy didn’t feel very happy staying there. He said he was taking small comfort in the thought that he was sleeping in a British-owned room.
There was also an unsettling sense of how much money had been spent by the Eastern Mediterranean University, which is a Turkish Cypriot state institution, in order to allow a hundred mid-list foreign writers to have a weekend eating baba ganoush in the name of international football. We enjoyed a swimming pool, a private beach, Thai massage in the wellness spa, an almost-permanent buffet and grill. It was wristband paradise. For the first time ever, we were being treated like actual footballers and there could be no justification for this that had anything to do with football.
That afternoon, Jimmy took us south from our hotel to Varosha, the ghost town, a huge area of beachfront hotels and apartment blocks, formerly the tourist hub of Cyprus, now rotting and decrepit. In 1974, years of tension between the Greek and Turkish communities finally exploded. The Greek nationalists staged a coup, ousted the president and started a period of military rule. In response, the Turkish army invaded. When the army entered Varosha, the 39,000 people living there fled the city, leaving their businesses and homes behind them. They never returned. The area is now cordoned off by the Turkish army, rows of high-rise buildings rusting photogenically in the glow of the turquoise waters. When we visited, a Turkish soldier – one of 30,000 still posted on the island – was standing on a rooftop, keeping guard, his main purpose to stop tourists trying to take photographs. We could just about see the old Argo Hotel, where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton used to stay. The side of one building had fallen away to reveal an elevator hanging on its chain like an avant-garde chandelier.
At the far end of the beach, we saw an old couple sunbathing on deckchairs, reading the newspaper, chatting idly as though they weren’t sitting in front of rolls of barbed wire, a sign with a picture of an armed guard and the words forbidden zone in six languages. This couple were probably old enough to remember when the fences weren’t there. The beach still looked beautiful, as long as you didn’t glance behind you.
Amidst all this, we bravely continued to play football. We took on Austria again, winning this time, and got hammered by Northern Cyprus. They had an ex-semi-professional on their team who took an impressive free kick, simultaneously scoring a goal and injuring our goalkeeper, who tore his rotator cuff while failing to stop the ball.
By the Sunday afternoon, the main factor in the success of each team was the number of injuries. Lumbars were strained, ankles turned, hamstrings pulled tight. The changing rooms reeked of Deep Heat. Fifty per cent of our older players were ‘carrying a knock’. For the penultimate match, the organisers arranged a friendly – The World vs The World – with all the players who could still run assembled into two teams. It was like a Benetton advert without the grace or beauty. I scored a header, assisted by a pinpoint cross from a young German performance poet. I forgave all previous grievances.
The winners of the Writers’ World Cup were the Hungarians, though there was general agreement that they had cheated, not through actual cheating, but with their youthfulness and skill. Were they real writers? How could they be? We all agreed that talent on the page was inversely proportionate to talent on the pitch, so these players were surely not published. At dinner that evening, one of the Germans went from table to table, asking each of the Hungarians to recite a poem from memory to prove themselves. We googled the publishing history of the boy who’d scored the winner.
On the final day, we attended a panel discussion on the theme of Football Without Borders. The talk was hosted by a former Turkish football commentator whose muscles rippled beneath his polo shirt. There was some pleasure in watching the translator listen attentively as he talked incessantly and without pause, building clause upon clause, forever finding new energy, even as everyone in the room willed him to stop. Days passed. Eventually he paused and looked to the translator. She said: ‘He welcomes you all and makes a joke – but that is behind us now. We move on.’ Whether this display of putting bad times behind her and moving on was intended as a satire on the peace process, we never got the chance to ask. The event was running long and so, halfway through, she had to leave for another appointment.
A view over the fence into Varosha, the ghost town.
A few months after we returned to the UK, we saw in the news a photo of Ban Ki-moon holding the hands of leaders from both Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities and saying that a solution was ‘very close’. It seemed that, where writers’ football had failed, the UN might succeed. But within weeks, the talks had stalled. President Erdoğan – in the run-up to the Turkish referendum on his new powers – had decided to take a strong position on Cyprus. He said Turkish troops would not withdraw unless Greek troops did the same.
This summer, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus will host the CONIFA European Cup for states, minorities, stateless peoples and regions unaffiliated with FIFA. And no, CONIFA is not a joke name. It stands for the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. Their tagline: freedom to play football. Northern Cyprus will be joined by Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the County of Nice, Karpatalya, Ellan Vannin (aka the Isle of Man), Székely Land and Padania. The website shows a photo of a glamorous hotel with jetties that pitch out into the turquoise waters. They wisely do not provide the hotel’s name or address so I am unable to check its ownership status. It looks newly built but it may just be refurbished.
At the time of writing, the Cyprus national team are in good shape to fail to qualify for another European Championship. They beat Israel but lost to Bosnia–Herzegovina, Belgium and Greece. You’d think the Greek team might have taken pity on them. But there’s no room for empathy in the beautiful game.
Feature photograph: Students parade the flags of countries not in attendance. Eastern Mediterranean University Stadium, Writers’ World Cup 2016, Cyprus.