Halloumi and football: Difficult choices

Halloumi and football: Difficult choices

Turkish Cypriot Economy, Tourism, Culture and Sports Minister Serdar Denktaş is fuming nowadays on two issues. While it is rather normal to have ministries on both sides of the Cyprus dividing line coming together in a web of areas, from tourism and environment to sports and rural development and education, when it comes to managing a working relationship of the two peoples of the island after more than a half-century of efforts, no magic formula could be found so far. Yet, the Greek Cypriot ministry in charge of agricultural production has been in efforts to establish its reign throughout the island in regards to halloumi production, and Denktaş is saying “No way.” Turkish Cypriot footballers, on the other hand, are threatening to join the Cyprus Football Federation (KOP) of the internationally-recognized government in southern Cyprus, saying they were fed up with being left without a future for so long.

The Greek Cypriot Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment Ministry asked the EU last July to grant halloumi Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. Acquiring such a status would mean halloumi production will come under strict regulations, but it could only be produced on Cyprus and under the registered methods. If the fact is that halloumi constitutes almost a quarter of the combined overall Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot exports, the importance of getting the PDO becomes all the more clear. Yet, on Cyprus, everything to the benefit of one or both peoples of the island must be contentious.

The Greek Cypriot side did not consult or get approval from the Turkish Cypriot side when applying for the PDO last year. This has become a routine of the Greek Cypriot side anyhow. Why would they get approval from the Turkish Cypriots? They long ago unilaterally threw the constitution and the founding agreements of the republic giving Turkish Cypriots partnership rights into a dustbin and declared the republic as solely theirs. The EU and the international community of nations recognized it as such; why would they now consult on any matter with their “former” partners?

Well, but the north is already suffering from international isolation. If halloumi received PDO and only the “Cyprus Republic” could produce and export halloumi or hellim, would that not be yet another gross injustice to Turkish Cypriots? Denktaş and his people are now waiting to hear the EU’s opinion and what magical formula they will find to grant the island the PDO regarding halloumi production but protect the rights of the Turkish Cypriots as well. It appears rather difficult, but as is said in democratic governance, if there is a will, there is a way.

The “threats,” or perhaps better described as “blackmail,” by the footballers stems also from the international isolation – which is not limited to politics or the economy but covers all areas, including education, sports and cultural exchanges – of northern Turkish Cypriot territory. Frustrated from being cut off from the world for more than five decades, a few years ago the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus Football Federation (KTFF), through the good offices of FIFA and UEFA executives, signed a deal with the KOP, which effectively made the KTFF something like a soccer club affiliated with the KOP. That development drew a very strong reaction from the Turkish Cypriot people, and the 42 clubs of northern Cyprus so far could not endorse and put into action the KOP-KTFF deal.

The isolation veil over the north is so thick that Turkish Cypriot clubs could not even officially play against Turkish clubs, and what’s even more disgusting is they are losing their players for free to Turkish league clubs, and for no transfer fee. Why? Because the KTFF has no official status. Players of Turkish Cypriot clubs are all considered “amateurs” who can join any club without a transfer fee.

What’s more, playing in the Turkish league has been more tempting, as playing for Turkish teams amounts to leaving the isolated Turkish side of the island to play in the international football arena.

For weeks, intense talks have been continuing between Denktaş’ ministry and sports executives in Turkey at all levels to reach a deal on this issue. The KTFF, on the other hand, has decided to let the Turkish Cypriot people hear about the problem and talks with Turkish officials, saying if the problem could not be solved with a satisfactory agreement by the end of March, then no one should accuse the KTFF and the soccer clubs if they joined the KOP and thus the international sports world.

The move is particularly shocking and perhaps even appalling for both the left-right coalition government and for President Derviş Eroğlu at a time when the island is heading fast to presidential elections in April. Even if the issue has not yet popped up in campaign rhetoric, as football is the favorite sport in north Cyprus as well, it is unavoidable that sooner or later the issue will become a hot potato for politics. Can anyone say Turkish Cypriot clubs should continue playing locally and forget about joining the international sports world? Or, can anyone say Turkish clubs should continue recruiting bright Turkish Cypriot footballers for free?  But, who can say in exchange for acquiring the possibility of playing in the international arena, Turkish Cypriots should abandon the Turkish Cypriot national struggle for equal sovereign rights and accept becoming a subordinate of the Greek Cypriot KOP?