​The Ecstasy and the Agony: The Brief History of Cyprus Rugby

The arrival of international rugby on Cyprus was a happy by-product of an unhappy history. But despite embarking on a record-breaking winning streak, their dreams of qualifying for the World Cup were dashed by off-pitch bureaucracy.

by Scott Oliver
Sep 18 2015, 12:18pm

All photos by Stavros Toumazou

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

The team with the most consecutive victories in the history of international rugby union is not, as you might suppose, New Zealand or South Africa (both have recorded 17 straight wins, the joint-second longest winning streaks). It's Cyprus, a nation that played its first competitive match in 2007 and who, between 29 November 2008 and 1 November 2014, steamrollered out a run of 24 successive victories, many of them colossal.

It ought to have been enough to set 'the Moufflons' – a nickname derived from an indigenous wild sheep that roams the Cypriot mountains – on the long (and improbable) qualification route to this month's Rugby World Cup. Instead, amidst the exhilaration of that world record-breaking sequence, the Cyprus Rugby Federation (CRF) would receive the heartbreaking news that the International Rugby Board (IRB) had rejected their application for membership and thus denied them access to the World Cup Qualifiers. A dispersed group of largely amateur players who had been part-financing their flights to play international rugby for the land of their fathers would have their dreams choked by the tautest of red tape.

The arrival of international rugby on Cyprus was a happy by-product of an unhappy history (a singular history that the IRB singularly failed to give due consideration). Prior to 2003, the only organised rugby played on the island had been by British servicemen on the two large 'Sovereign Base Areas', strategically vital military installations kept by the British as part of the agreement for granting Cyprus its independence in 1960 (in order to protect her trade routes through the Suez Canal, Britain had administered the island from 1878, taking full sovereignty from Turkey in 1923).

Britain also became, alongside Turkey and Greece, one of the new Cypriot constitution's 'guarantor powers'. However, after 14 years of distinctly uneasy power-sharing and increasing strife between the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities, all played out against the Byzantine intrigues of the Cold War, the fragile democracy was shattered. On 15 July 1974 an Athens-sponsored coup by Greek-Cypriot paramilitaries calling for enosis (union) with Mother Greece ousted the president, Archbishop Makarios. Five days later, Turkey retaliated by invading and, during a short but bloody conflict, occupied the northern third of the island until a truce was brokered on July 30.

From that day 'til this, Cyprus has been partitioned along the ceasefire line: to the south of the so-called 'Green Line' sits the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus; across the barbed wire of the UN-controlled Buffer Zone is the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a de facto state recognised solely by Turkey (and referred to on Cypriot maps as "Area Under Turkish Occupation Since 1974").

As well as the huge internal displacement – Greek Cypriots living in the north frantically fleeing south, Turkish Cypriots making the opposite journey – large numbers of the islanders, proficient English speakers through compulsory schooling, emigrated to the Anglophone lands of the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia, where they would eventually pick up a love of rugby. One such was Theo Lenos, manager of the Moufflons, who grew up in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. In 1996, not so long after Joel Stransky's famous drop goal fell from the High Veldt sky, he headed to Cyprus to study hotel management, returning five years later to open a pub that would later become the cradle of Cypriot rugby.

Shuffle past Hollywood, Flairs and "The World Famous Lineker's" on Paphos' unlovely Ayiou Antoniou, 'the Street of Bars', and you'll find a watering hole-cum-rugby shrine called the Keg and Barrel. Its walls are adorned with signed, framed shirts from a multitude of famous clubs and half-a-dozen TV screens showing whatever union is on offer from around the world. On international match weekends Lenos will be busily skipping under a photo of that Stransky drop-goal, ferrying vast portions of stroganoff to one squad while the other goes through a training session a few kilometres up the road at the 8,000-seater Pafiakos Stadium, the Moufflons' home patch. It's delightfully amateur, in the original and best sense of the word: done for love. (The CRF is entirely voluntary, and only four of the players are professionals.)

It was second-generation expats returning from South Africa who, in 2003, founded the island's first native, civilian rugby team, the Paphos Tigers. They arrived for their first game at the Akrotiri army base without any kit, borrowed some, proceeded to win and were quickly added to the four-team Joint Services RFU garrison league; they finished joint-top in their first season, outright winners the next. Cypriot rugby had taken its first tentative steps.

In time, Limassol Crusaders and Nicosia Barbarians would be added, forming a seven-team domestic league under the auspices of the CRF, which was established in 2006, with the national team notching an inaugural 39-3 win over Greece in March 2007 in front of 2,500 supporters. In 2008 Cyprus was admitted to the governing body of European rugby, FIRA-AER. Via the European Nations Cup, they began a swift climb through the lower echelons of the region's rugby structure, up to Division 2C, effectively the sixth tier. By 16 March 2013, when they equalled the world record with a 79-10 pummelling of Bulgaria on a balmy spring afternoon, the surefooted Moufflons' sole stumble had been a 23-14 playoff loss to Israel in September 2008. In a country whose sporting consciousness is dominated by football and to a lesser degree basketball, their exploits were slowly starting to resonate – unsurprisingly, they are the only Cypriot national team with a world record to its name – with the record-equalling game shown live on TV (albeit pay-per-view at €7).

However, the very afternoon that the Bulgarians were being overwhelmed, Cyprus was plunged into a financial crisis that, for a couple of weeks, made it global headline news. While the rugby players nursed well-earned hangovers, their compatriots were taking to the streets of Nicosia in protest at a mooted 60% government levy on all private savings accounts, a ham-fisted effort to meet Cyprus' share of EU-imposed bailout conditions. The implications for the CRF – at the time receiving around 30% of its €100,000 annual operating budget from the Cyprus Olympic Association, and hugely reliant on sponsors sure to feel the pinch themselves – were immediately obvious, if still unconfirmed.

Even so, the most crushing news was still to come for Cyprus' jubilant players. After the ecstasy came the agony. The previous December, at the FIRA-AER annual assembly, CRF president Lawrence Vasiliades had been told that their application to join the IRB as an Associate Member had been rejected. By the time the Moufflons had won their next game, claiming the world record outright in Hungary the following April, their federation were forced to break the bad news: there would be no World Cup qualification process. And, after careful consideration and much angst, there would be no appeal against the IRB decision either, not least because they couldn't afford to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

CRF felt they had "justifiable reasons" to be optimistic about things, having been sent, and signed, a Participation Document for the RWC Qualifiers. Sponsors were in place for the extra staging costs – some €12,000 per game. But no: at the moment of glory, the hour of peak publicity for this emerging sport, the IRB decision would not only snuff out the innocent sporting hopes of the Cypriot rugby team – players who had been travelling back from France, the British Isles, Holland, even Singapore – but also, in conjunction with the financial crisis, rob Cyprus of a never-to-be-repeated window of opportunity to accelerate rugby development on the island. It was already difficult enough to entice back the likes of Chris Dicomidis, the ex-Pontypridd skipper now playing Pro12 with Cardiff Blues, as well as full-time professionals in Scotland, France and Ireland. Yet players of Cypriot heritage had been identified in top-level domestic rugby in Australia and South Africa – the likes of Demetri Catrakilis, then of Southern Kings, now at Montpellier – players who might have fancied a tilt at a World Cup qualifying campaign. However, as CRF Treasurer Duncan Kirby wryly observed: "With the greatest will in the world, they aren't going to travel half-way round the world to play Bulgaria. But if we were in a World Cup..."

Overnight, the Cypriot rugby fairytale had, it seemed, gone from Cool Runnings to Catch-22: they needed to expand their infrastructure in order to attain IRB membership, yet needed IRB membership (and the pull of World Cup qualification matches) to raise their profile and sponsorship revenues, so as to improve that development infrastructure... It was like chasing a grubber kick upfield only for an erratic bounce to induce a knock-on in sight of the try line. Or, as Kirby put it: "It's like having a hangover before the party".

According to the IRB, the Cypriot application for Associate Membership fell short due to the lack of a XV-a-side domestic league "with a minimum of four teams participating", as laid out in the 'IRB Membership Pathway and Criteria'. (In actual fact, there is a degree of flexibility permitted on this issue for countries with populations under 1.5 million – Cyprus has 800,000; the whole island just 1.1 million – and indeed Andorra has Full Membership despite running no domestic league at all.) However, an inspection report by IRB's European Regional Development Manager, Douglas Langley, in February 2012 had highlighted that "The Federation and the country are quite unique with its political and religious issues". And this is where things get complicated...

At the time, Cyprus in fact had a seven-team XV-a-side league (adding an eighth team, in Larnaca, in early 2013). But, four of the clubs were RAF and Army teams playing on British soil and as such were affiliated to the English RFU. As far as IRB are concerned, they were foreign teams. As Kirby explained, "Strictly in accordance with the regulations, every time we play them we should ask permission, as a touring side, which is ridiculous because we're playing in the same league!" To add to the complexity, there were three clubs in Northern Cyprus – Kyrenia Pumas, Morphou Warriors and Famagusta – who could in theory welcome teams from the south but would not be able to make the opposite trip themselves due to Visa regulations for TRNC residents without Cypriot ID cards.

The main barrier to incorporating one or all of the Army and RAF teams under the CRF aegis was financial: specifically, the Serious Injury and Death insurance cover that works out significantly cheaper for the RFU, who can spread the risk across a large number of registered players, than for the CRF, with its already stretched resources. It was all highly frustrating. "The IRB asked for a four-team league," remarked Kirby. "Cyprus has an eight-team league. They have said 'Ah, but the British could leave'. They won't, of course, but even if they did, they wouldn't take the pitches!"

To a certain extent, the Membership and Pathway Criteria are important safeguards against the cultivation of Petri-dish teams laden with imported players fast-tracked through citizenship in order to artificially bolster a national XV. It is there to ensure the authentic establishment of a rugby culture. Nevertheless, at a crucial juncture in Cypriot rugby's development, the IRB overlooked these unique historical and political circumstances – the sole 'red flag' issue in their report. Instead of promoting Cyprus as an example of the swift growth of a genuine rugby culture, and of their own development policy, the rejection was an unnecessarily punctilious act of bureaucratic wet-blanketry for a governing body with the avowed mission "to promote, foster, develop, extend and govern the Game of Rugby Union Football".

There is perhaps no better example of rugby taking root in Cyprus – and the coach who oversaw the world record run, former Combined Services player Paul Shanks, purred that "the Cypriot body shape lends itself more to rugby than to football" – than wing three-quarter Fidias Efthymiou. Born and raised in Limassol, he first picked up a rugby ball aged 17 and after a year with the Academy found himself fast-tracked to the national side, making his debut against Slovenia in Paphos on his 18th birthday. When asked what it would mean to represent Cyprus in the 2015 World Cup, Efthymiou simply broke out in goosebumps, speechless. In that simple, involuntary physiological reaction lay the truth of Cypriot rugby development.

To compound the CRF's sense of grievance, at the same time the IRB nixed Cyprus' World Cup dreams – even removing their results from its website in an almost Stalinist act of historical revisionism – they were fast-tracking the UAE's application through: just months from Associate to Full membership, despite the IRB's Membership and Pathway criteria stipulating a minimum of 24 months, and despite citing this point several times to both the CRF and the wider media in the aftermath of their decision on Cyprus. Tellingly, UAE was lauded for "assuming a leadership role in what is a strategically important region for the development of rugby".

Furthermore, Greece was welcomed into the fold alongside UAE, as the IRB explained in a press release that made no mention of CRF's rejection: "Despite not meeting all membership criteria owing to the certain unique circumstances in Greece, special dispensation was given for a 12-month probationary period. This was granted to allow the Union every possible opportunity to bolster domestic competition and development programmes". If Greece could be granted provisional Full Membership owing to its 2013 financial crisis (which turned out not to be quite so unique) and conditional upon making short-term improvements, why not Cyprus, with its genuinely unique uniqueness, thus allowing them to play the RWCQs? "Cyprus is more developed than many other countries," argued Vasiliades in 2013. "We asked about the rugby foundations in certain countries and were told 'Ah, but they are historical members,' from the time before IRB became more strict about it. Well, either you have criteria or you don't". In the light of their heavy-handed treatment by the Goliath of the EU Central Bank, it felt like another case of 'little old Cyprus'.

The irony of all this administrative inconsistency is not lost on Kirby, who was working in Greece in 2001 when an IRB delegation visited with a view to establishing a federation in the lead-up to the Athens Olympics, where they hoped rugby union would be a demonstration sport. At the time there was one rugby team in the country – "this was in the era when anyone chucking a ball around could get IRB membership," he quips – a group of expats who played the odd casual game against teams off the ships. Yet the IRB delegation arrived sure Greece was running a 10-team league, and had the documentation to prove it. As it turned out, a Greek PhD student in Bulgaria had concocted the whole thing. It was a paper league, a bureaucratic mirage. "Back then in Greece with a few drachmas and 20 signatures, if you knew someone who'd stamp the paper, you could found a club". The IRB, it seemed, was somewhat less rigorous back then.

Despite the heartbreak of all this, bootstrapping Cypriot rugby development with (provisional, probationary) Full Membership was arguably not even the most important implication of the IRB's decision. There were huge potential socio-political ramifications for the increased profile of the Moufflons on the island in the wake of their success, for they were, in 2013, the only Cypriot national team in which Turkish Cypriots played alongside Greek Cypriots. Indeed, scrum-half Burhan Torgut, born in Birmingham, and prop Dervis Devren, from Dagenham, were the first ethnic Turks to play for a Cypriot team since the island's acrimonious division in 1974. You only had to witness them belting out the Cypriot national anthem, however, to see their palpable commitment to the Moufflons. "I hope that me and Burhan are used as symbols of what it could be like if there was no border," said Devren.

Of course, as FIFA's position over Russian anti-gay laws and Qatar using indentured labour to build its World Cup stadia demonstrate, sports administrators like to imagine that, in the staging of their vastly lucrative global extravaganzas, they inhabit an apolitical bubble, a leisure utopia free of the cut and thrust, the struggle and strife of everyday life. And yet, the most iconic moment in the brief history of the IRB's World Cup – Nelson Mandela, in Springbok jersey, handing the Webb Ellis Trophy to François Pienaar – was super-saturated with symbolic political meaning; so iconic, that Clint Eastwood gave it the Hollywood treatment in Invictus. Truly inspirational. Indeed, Torgut – perhaps naively, perhaps with precisely the sort of optimism that is required to shed the heavy old baggage and look forward – duly observed how, "From day one I've always wanted to be an example of how to unite the country. I'll use the example of South Africa. Those guys were racially discriminated against whereas with us it's just political, so we aren't as badly off as them. If South Africa can get over Apartheid in 1995 with a World Cup win, I don't see why we can't heal wounds through sport".

While those 'apolitical' administrators pay lip service to sport's importance as a vehicle for social harmony and integration, this aspect of Cyprus' "unique political and religious circumstances" was evidently lost on the IRB. Although they will doubtless feel content with having upheld procedural norms and bureaucratic propriety, they have singularly failed in arguably the most fundamental task of their metier: "to promote, foster, develop [and] extend" the sport, the basis of which – the universal appeal, the lifeblood of all sports – is the emotional investment of its participants, their hopes and dreams and love for the game.

Of all sportsmen, rugby players should perhaps be most inoculated against the fates, given that the course of matches, seasons, careers, even an entire life can hang on the capricious bounce of their odd-shaped ball. Yet some interventions are harder to take than others, and the IRB's short-sightedness left an aftertaste as bitter as the famous Cypriot lemons.

Could Cyprus realistically have reached the World Cup, a path that would have involved beating the winners of Europe's 2D, 2B, 2A and 1B divisions, then the third placed team in 1A (Russia, as it turned out), before going into the Repechage playoff with the third-best African team (Zimbabwe) and then the Americas's fourth-best (Uruguay)? Almost certainly not, especially given that rugby is not a game that admits many out-and-out shocks (you cannot 'park the bus', as with football, because the scoring area is too big, and even playing tight, 'putting it up the jumper', only works when sides are relatively evenly matched). But the three-time triple-crown winning former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, who watched Cyprus' record-equalling victory over Bulgaria, reckoned they were playing "two or three levels too low".

But the point is that a group of amateur players who have part-financed their travel on their country's world record run of victories, and a group of support staff who have invested their heart and soul in a simple sporting dream, were denied their (admittedly long) shot at glory. For a team that carries a Spartan warriors' motto on their jersey – "Either with this, or upon it", the traditional farewell mothers gave to their war-bound sons, a reference to the heavy shields that deserters would be forced to drop in their act of cowardice – it seems particularly perverse that they have been prevented from finding their true level on the 'battlefield', denied the chance to lose on their own terms.

* Cyprus' unbeaten run ended on 15 November 2014 with a 39-20 loss to Latvia. Three days later, the CRF was finally admitted to the IRB as an Associate Member, just in time for the 2019 qualification.