By Oz Orman….
The 21st of November marks the 5th anniversary of the passing of legendary Turkish Cypriot footballer, Sevim Ebeoğlu. The boy from Limassol was able to let his football do the talking during the turbulent times that engulfed Cyprus from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Such was his stature, that he was able to convince his football club president to switch his team’s colours to that of his favourite Turkish team, Fenerbahçe S.K. He also became the first Turkish Cypriot to win the top goal scorer award in Cyprus, whilst playing for the Greek Cypriot side, AEL Limassol.
Ebeoğlu, also got to shake hands with the up-and-coming Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios, who had questioned AEL officials why there were two Turkish Cypriots in their side. Sevim was a fan’s favourite for both communities who helped AEL Limassol secure three championships in the 1950’s, as well as a PAKKOS shield, the Cypriot equivalent of the Super Cup. The boy from Limassol, who played on the left wing, even represented Cyprus at international level and secured trials at Coventry City F.C. in England in 1956, before returning to a hero’s welcome to Cyprus to score the winning goal in a crunch match between AEL and Apoel of Nicosia. Sevim’s goal allowed the Limassol side to secure their third league championship and he was paraded sky high around the old GSO stadium in Limassol by jubilant fans, who were mostly Greek Cypriots. How times have changed?
I was told of Sevim’s exploits by my father, who lived in Cyprus during those times. There was a passion for football brought over by the British, who had controlled the island from 1878. The pitches were made of rock-hard surfaces, with very few grass pitches dotted around the island. Before football matches were played and during half-time intervals, water tractors would circumnavigate around the playing surface distributing liquid to soften the gravel, sand, and dust that passed as a pitch. Players would still go in with crunching tackles and many an opponent succumbed to injury. Watching football back then was a social affair as well with spectators dressed in their finest wares cheering on the teams. If a Turkish side was playing a Greek team, fans would wave flags from their respected motherlands to add to the spectacle. As Sevim had pointed out, there was no political distinction during the early part of his playing career. Match officials were always British to counter any claims of bias.
Sevim Ebeoğlu was born on the 3rd of February 1931 in the predominantly Turkish Cypriot village of Alektora in the Limassol district of the island. The small settlement was nestled between the towns of Paphos and Limassol and the Turks also referred to the village as Gökağaç, which when translated means ‘Sky Tree’.
Sevim left the village at a young age and moved with his mother to the bigger town of Limassol. There he attended primary school and fell in love with the beautiful game. One of his teacher’s noticed the young boy’s skills and nurtured and coached him. Ebeoğlu had fond memories of those times and worked with his classmates to buy footballs for practice. The football-obsessed youngster even became custodian of the football equipment and slept with them at his home, much to the chagrin of his sister, Fecriye.
As Sevim progressed in to Secondary school he took up playing for L.T.S.K. (Limassol Turkish Sports Club). There the teenage Ebeoğlu excelled and became top goal scorer as well as securing a league championship medal. This then put him on the radar of bigger clubs on the island and the Greek Cypriot side, AEL Limassol from his home town came calling. Sevim didn’t have to think twice and joined AEL, who were in the Cypriot First Division. There was no transfer fee and clubs only provided kit. As well as playing football he had to bring in an income of some kind and became a trainee tailor in the town. He would make his AEL debut in the 1951-52 season.
There were other Turkish Cypriots who played for Greek Cypriot sides, but Sevim was the standout player. He recalled tough encounters against the only Turkish Cypriot side in the Cyprus top flight, Çetinkaya Turk S.K. AEL Fans questioned his loyalty when both sides encountered one another, but he always found the target to silence any doubters.
The following season saw Ebeoğlu become the top goal scorer, a first for a Turkish Cypriot as he netted 14 goals to help AEL secure their first hat-trick of championships of the 1950’s. In 1953, he married Günay and they would go on to have three children. Life was going well for the boy from Limassol and he received an international call-up for Cyprus to play two friendly away matches against near neighbours Israel. This was before independence and the team was a mixture of Turkish, Greek, and Armenian Cypriots. Sevim would go on to represent Cyprus a further two times. He looked back at this time fondly.
1954 saw AEL secure their second league title. Club President, Nicos Solomonides was off to London to purchase some new shirts for the team and asked his star player for his opinion. Sevim managed to persuade the club’s owner to ditch their traditional kit of blue and white for his beloved Fenerbahçe S.K. colours. Since then, the yellow and blue of one of Turkey’s biggest team’s adorn the kits of AEL Limassol and this was all down to Ebeoğlu’s influence. Imagine that happening today? A player having the power to determine their team’s kit colour, eat your heart out Messi and Ronaldo!
The Cyprus Emergency of 1955 reared its ugly head and impacted on football on the island. According to reports, Çetinkaya Turk S.K. were due to play the Greek Cypriot side, Pezoporikos of Larnaca. The match was due to be played at the home of the Greek Cypriot side. However, the fixture was called off with the Turkish club’s officials and players being told that the venue was closed to ‘Turks’. It later transpired that the pitch was owned by the Greek Orthodox Church and it barred Turkish Cypriot participation.
In the same year, Turkish Cypriot teams moved away from the official Cyprus Football Association (K.O.P.) and formed their own federation, which was never sanctioned by any football governing body. Since then, Turkish Cypriot teams have not engaged in official matches outside of the island or Turkey. Attempts to integrate both communities’ federations have failed, with political pressure put on both football associations. So much for F.I.F.A. wanting to keep politics out of football.
Due to Nicos Solomonides’ contacts, Sevim managed to secure trials away from the troubles occurring on the island, and in 1956, Ebeoğlu travelled to England with his wife and played for Coventry City F.C. in a series of reserve games. Although news reports from the time highlighted his talents, there was never a firm offer to play football professionally. After four months in England, the boy from Limassol headed back to the island and would have his legendary status cemented in Cypriot football history.
AEL Club President, Nicos Solomonides messaged Sevim to return home to play in a winner-takes-all-all championship decider against Apoel of Nicosia. On arriving in Limassol by boat, he was fast-tracked through customs and made it to the GSO stadium in time for the 11 a.m. kick-off. AEL supporters were ecstatic when seeing their star Turkish Cypriot player on the field. True to form, Sevim was on hand to score the winning goal and give AEL their third league title of the 1950’s. He was hoisted aloft at the final whistle by AEL fans, who were too busy celebrating to care about ENOSIS (Union with Greece) or anything else.
Although he had secured legendary status with the winning goal against Apoel, Sevim never felt safe, even though he received assurances that he would be looked after by AEL officials. He would leave the club after seven years and join the Turkish Cypriot side, Doğan Türk Birliği S.K. another team based in Limassol. There he coached and played for the side and in 1957, he got to play against Hungarian maestro, Ferenc Puskás.
When the Greek-backed coup occurred in 1974, Turkish troops entered Cyprus. Greek Cypriot militia rounded up Turkish Cypriot males in the south of the island when they realised that Turkey had only landed in the north of Cyprus and areas around the capital, Nicosia. The irony of ironies that Sevim would end up at a P.O.W. camp at the very stadium he had starred for with AEL Limassol. Conditions were tough for the estimated 1,750 men. Where was the so-called help and support that AEL officials had muted to their former footballing talisman? It appears that during these turbulent times, it would be survival of the fittest.
As military operations ceased, Sevim and the other men at the GSO stadium, which passed as the P.O.W. camp were reunited with their families. The following year, Sevim and a majority of the Turkish Cypriots from Limassol headed north for a new life. Ebeoğlu made a new start in Kyrenia but hadn’t forgotten about his old teammates from AEL. He’d received messages from them to come to Limassol and that he would be looked after. It would take until 2003, for Sevim Ebeoğlu to make the journey to the south and to be reunited with his old friends and companions.
In the 2012-13, the footballing gods converged to allow Sevim’s two loves. AEL Limassol and Fenerbahçe S.K. to meet in the group stages of the Europa League. Ebeoğlu, would go on to receive awards and plaudits for his efforts for reconciliation between the two communities.
He hoped to see a united football league, where both Turkish and Greek teams flourished and that the Cyprus National Football team featured players from different ethnic backgrounds.
However, in 2018 aged 87 he passed away. He never got to see his wish come true. He was buried with the flags of AEL, Fenerbahçe, and Doğan Türk Birliği draped over his coffin.
Sevim Ebeoğlu is buried in Karaoğlanoğlu and do please watch the video below to see his full life story.