Robert O'ConnorComment

A CYPRIOT PREDICAMENT

Robert O'ConnorComment
A CYPRIOT PREDICAMENT

“Mr Cassidy, who gave the referee the money?”

Silence.

Mr Cassidy knew exactly who had given the referee the money but there wasn’t a fibre in his body that compelled him to talk. Five years earlier, the last time football’s rule makers had come for him, there had been a two year ban as he and his club had had their principles undermined and shaken. Not this time, he thought.

His silence would come at a price, he was told. There would be another lengthy ban from football, not to mention the sullied reputation that comes from being associated with the swindler’s most wretched card-trick, match-fixing.

There was an easy way out. The real culprit, a club colleague, was stood just outside the door having accompanied Cassidy to FIFA headquarters in Zurich as he heard the charges that were to be brought against him if he didn’t spill. Still silence. It’s a silence he has kept for nearly 25 years.

Tommy Cassidy spent six years in Cypriot football, first as a player with APOEL of Nicosia and latterly as the club’s manager, but those years brought a test of the Northern Irishman’s moral fibre that few sportsmen ever face. A life in football thrust Cassidy suddenly into the unwelcome role of moral arbiter in a fiercely alien culture. It’s a weight that he still shoulders.

In 1983 the Belfast-born forward felt his career had gone as far is it could go in England. 22 goals in ten seasons at Newcastle United had earned him a role in his country’s finest hour, a substitute appearance in Valencia as his Northern Ireland team defeated the hosts Spain at the World Cup. But on his return the prospect of turning out for Burnley in Division Three no longer appealed and wanderlust struck for a player who had become a national hero overnight.

“It was completely out of the blue,” says Cassidy of the call that was to lead him eight years later to a FIFA disciplinary panel. “One of the lads I was with at Burnley had a contact out there and I just got a call asking if I’d like to go out there for a couple of seasons. I don’t regret it, I absolutely loved Cyprus and it was a wonderful part of my life. My youngest was born out there and I have many, many friends from my time there. It was a lovely time.” He pauses, as if ready to add “But...”. It doesn’t arrive.

Understandable sentiments from a man who awakened sleeping giants APOEL from a 14 year slumber, one that had seen fierce rivals Omonia from across Nicosia overtake them as the country’s dominant side. Cassidy won the double in his first season as manager, wresting the title back from a side with whom APOEL share one of the fiercest rivalries in Europe.

Nicosia’s great rivalry had been born in 1948 after several APOEL members took exception to the club’s support for the ruling military regime during the Greek civil war, and broke away to form Omonia. Seventy years later the rivalry has retained the caustic levels of hatred that caused the schism in the first place; tensions run so high on derby day that after one defeat Cassidy had to be given a police escort back to his home.

For Cassidy the competitive environment was unlike anything he’d known in England, with the Omonia-APOEL rivalry second only in his mind to the bitterness of the Tyne-Wear derby between Sunderland and his former club Newcastle. But there was a darker side to the Cypriot competitive spirit. It was about to invade Cassidy’s world.

It was in September 1985 before a UEFA Cup match against the Bulgarian side Lokomotive Sofia in Nicosia that he first caught sight of the dark heart of football in his adoptive home. “Myself and the chairman went to this little chateau in the mountain for dinner,” Cassidy told the Irish Times in 1998. “There I noticed three little guys with three big blonde birds. I was told they were our match officials. 

“The next day, they arrived at the game with the three girls. Now these guys were 5ft 6in and the girls were 6ft plus with long legs. We drew 2-2 in the first leg and I honestly thought there was something going on.”

That referee was Arseni Hoxha, an Albanian who in 2010 was tasked with the job of cleaning up his country’s domestic game after a spate of match-fixing allegations had rocked football there. In Nicosia however Cassidy believes the three girls seen with Hoxha and his assistants were prostitutes in the pay of APOEL. What he saw at the chateaux in the mountains proved only to be the tip of the ice-burg.

“When the [financial] bribe happened I was in the room, I saw it happen” he says from his home in Newcastle about the moment that was to change everything. “The referee and the two linesmen were invited in and I saw them being handed envelopes. I asked what was in the envelopes and I was told money. I was there in the room when it happened and I just couldn’t believe it.

“It was years later before I next heard anything about it. A journalist called me up at home in Newcastle asking about it and suddenly the next thing I knew there it was in print. That was when I had Sepp Blatter at FIFA write to me asking me to come before a tribunal in Switzerland to face the music. [FIFA vice-president] Jim Boyce, who was a very good friend of mine, contacted me and said that he was completely behind me and that he would support me. That was in 1991.”

By then however Cassidy was no stranger to the governing body’s disciplinary arm. He’d already been placed in an uncomfortable position five years earlier in 1986, a victim of the political divides that cut across Cyprus like scars.

Having guided his team to their first title since the early seventies, the Northern Irishman had the rare privilege of leading out his team in the European Cup. But this was not the APOEL side of the same calibre and expectations that played Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the same competition in 2012, loaded-up with foreign imports and a mandate to repay some of that investment with eye-catching results on the pitch.

In 1986 just turning out in the first round against the Finns HJK from Helsinki, in the days when the European Cup was still exclusively the fare of champions, was an act loaded with gravitas, especially without the laborious pre-qualifying process segregating the small fry from the big time. Everyone entered on the same terms, and it gave the competition a sense of egalitarianism that sometimes feels missing from the endless rankings and seedings of modern European football.

HJK were dispatched, narrowly on the away-goals rule, a famous victory even for the mighty APOEL, and it set-up a politically charged second-round tie against Besiktas of Turkey. For Cassidy and his players it was an opportunity that might define a career. The Turkish league was more developed than the Cypriot but not such that a victory in Istanbul was fanciful or beyond the realm of possibility. So when the call came that the club was to withdraw before a ball had been kicked, it was a difficult one to stomach.

“The decision not to play against Besiktas was taken completely out of my hands” says Cassidy, the years not having diluted the aching regret in his voice. The political situation between the two countries, whereby Turkey refuses to recognise the government of Cyprus and at the time was lending military backing to the breakaway territory calling itself Northern Cyprus, was another area of Cypriot life where politics placed unworkable strains on sport, and the club’s hierarchy made the call to withdraw from Europe rather than welcome a Turkish side into the capital. The manager was both candid and public in his objections, at first.

“It was the second round of the European Cup, we’d done well to even get that far. So when I was told we couldn’t play I was devastated and I said so, publicly. But it wasn’t just the call of the chairman and the owners. Everybody seemed to agree that it was the right thing except me.” That was until the full extent of the conflict was brought to bear on him, throwing cold light on its human toll.

“I was contacted by a woman” he remembers, lingering over his words that they might locate the poignancy of the story, “who had lost a son in the war between the Greeks and the Turks. She said she was very disappointed in me for wanting the game with Besiktas to go ahead. But I’m a football man, I didn’t know about any of this. She was just so confused and upset that I would consider taking the team to play football in Turkey.

“After that conversation I have to say my opinion changed. I could understand her objection; she’d lost her son to a war and then just a few years later those two countries are playing football against each other. It was a very emotional call, very affecting to speak with someone who had been touched by it in that way, and my mind was changed after that.”

A two year ban followed, as the club stuck resolutely to their guns and refused to honour their tie with the Turkish champions. It left Cassidy conflicted, the European dream snatched away, but for a cause about which he felt newly invested, and the feeling lingered that these were undue punishments for upholding a principal that seemed far more sacrosanct than the bureaucracy of a UEFA competition draw.

Five years later back in Zurich, standing nervously before a FIFA tribunal, those feelings were felt afresh. Here the questioning began but Cassidy didn’t waver. “I’d known who’d handed over the money but it was a close friend of mine and I said I wouldn’t tell them. The panel, it was two Germans and a Frenchman, and they said ‘So you want to help clean up football in Europe but you’re not prepared to tell us who gave the referee the money?’ I said ‘that’s right’. Don’t get me wrong, match-fixing goes against everything I stand for, but I wasn’t prepared to give this person up. He was a friend, and he still is.”

“When I left the room he was waiting for me outside, and he just collapsed into my arms in tears. Through his tears he apologised to me for getting me into all that bother. I got a lifetime ban from Europe, which Jim Boyce later helped get reduced to two years, so when we played Sparta Prague with Glentoran in the Cup Winners’ Cup a couple of years later I was banned from the bench.”

Tommy Cassidy is a man who twice stuck up for his beliefs and found himself banned, in some part, from participating in the game which was not just his living but his life. But he has kept his silence, out of loyalty to a person to whom he feels he owes much. Rare sentiments indeed. 

Robert is @hoovesonfire.

 

IBWM is open to everyone to share their stories. If you'd like to submit an article on any topic, please contact us.