From Abkhazia to Zanzibar: how CONIFA are uniting the world through football

From Abkhazia to Zanzibar: how CONIFA are uniting the world through football

On the evening of 14 June this summer, at the palatial Luzhniki Stadium in central Moscow, a second or two either side of 6pm, the referee’s whistle will sound, kick-off will be initiated, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be given life. As tournament hosts Russia invite Saudi Arabia to duet on the grandest stage in football, the showpiece of the world’s game will commence and a global audience hundreds of millions strong will watch on with wide eyes and bated breath.

A timeless spectacle though it is almost certain to be, it is worth noting the FIFA World Cup is not the only global footballing event belonging to the summer of 2018. In fact, it isn’t even the only World Cup scheduled for the month. That is because between 31 May and 9 June, London proudly hosts 16 of the most historically diverse, politically eclectic and geographically diffused football teams a tournament could ever hope to assemble as they contest the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup.

The third of its kind, following prior World Cup tournaments in 2014 and 2016, the upcoming competition is sure to be CONIFA’s most enterprising thus far. Hosted in England’s capital, “the spiritual home of football” as the organisation so affably deems it, a unique opportunity awaits for CONIFA to spread their message of acceptance, equality and positivity far beyond the reaches of their noble endeavours to date.

To be played on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup – a competition drenched in controversy regarding the human rights abuses, racial and sexual discrimination, doping and corruption allegations that continue to rest upon the shoulders of its controversial host nation – CONIFA’s alternative World Cup shall operate under the guidance of a moral ethos that has never before needed to be heard quite so desperately by those enamoured with the perhaps-not-so-beautiful game.

Founded in 2013, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) was established with the official aim of overseeing international competition among the non-FIFA affiliated associations across the world.

For many years, most non-FIFA international football matters were voluntarily governed by CONIFA’s predecessors, a group calling themselves the New Football Federations Board, who formed in 2003 to perform such duties as hosting alternative international tournaments for those denied recognition by FIFA. Their most impactful brainchild was tantalisingly named the VIVA World Cup and was held to varying degrees of success on five occasions in the homes of five unrecognised teams; in Occitania in 2006, Sápmi in 2008, Padania in 2009, Gozo in 2010 and in Kurdistan in 2012.

Despite these landmark tournaments, the New Football Federations Board ceased operation in 2013, citing internal conflict, and so CONIFA readily assumed the mantle, eager to build ambitiously upon the groundwork already in place. This particular process officially began with their very own World Cup (or World Football Cup, so as to tactically sidestep any trademark infringements with FIFA) in 2014.

Hosted during the first week of June, in the snow-thrashed Swedish city of Östersund, the inaugural CONIFA World Football Cup brought together 12 teams. Comprised of stateless nations, unrecognised countries, self-declared republics, de facto regions, ethnic groups and indigenous communities, the 12 teams present were Arameans Suryoye, Iraqi Kurdistan, Tamil Eelam, Abkhazia, Occitania, Sápmi, Padania, South Ossetia, Darfur, Ellan Vannin, County of Nice and Artsakh.

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The participants pencilled in for the tournament proper had originally included teams representing both Quebec and Zanzibar but the former withdrew in order to focus on mounting a credible application to join CONCACAF while the latter were denied the visas required to travel to Sweden and so South Ossetia and County of Nice willingly obliged in their absence.

Following a competition quite unlike any other, which ran parallel to a city-wide festival celebrating the cultural diversity of the teams involved, the tournament closed with a final between late arrivals County of Nice (the “historic region within Southern France … looking to represent their cultural and historic region on a global stage”) and Ellan Vannin (the “self-governing crown dependency, located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland,” more commonly known as the Isle of Man). After prospering on penalties, the great honour of lifting the maiden CONIFA World Football Cup trophy went to the County of Nice.

From afar one could be forgiven for assuming the CONIFA World Cup to be some bizarre sideshow or warm-up act for a tournament less trivial. Certainly, there is whimsy to be embraced when witnessing such a myriad of disparate teams facing off with one another, particularly when exaggerated results – of which Padania’s 20-0 thrashing of Darfur in the competition’s group stage was just one of many – go much of the way to ensuring the neutrals enjoy the spectacle and remember the occasion.

However, for those who head up the organisation, and even more so for those shin-padded folk on the inside, who compete with a pride that seemingly knows no bounds, the tournaments could not be any more necessary.

Through their competitions, CONIFA openly encourage football for football’s sake, the “joy of playing” as they call it, powered by an unwavering belief that everybody should be free to play the sport – FIFA-recognised or not. But the organisation remains poignantly aware of the capacity of the world’s most beloved sport to inspire change; of its ability to unify people, champion causes, empower beliefs and raise awareness.

Its various mottos leave little room for misinterpretation: “freedom to play football”, “raising people through football”, “bridging the world through football”. The only tangible difference seems to be that for some who compete in CONIFA-organised competitions football is the aim, while for others it is merely the vehicle to a destination even greater than a World Cup.

For the Sápmi team – hailing from Lapland and representing the minority group of the Sámi people that inhabit northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – the CONIFA World Cup enables a culture potentially at risk of extinction to come together with a common aim, to fight for a common cause, reinvigorating their people and helping to preserve their waning heritage.

A similar inspiration underpins the involvement of the United Koreans of Japan – the largest minority in Japan, consisting of both North and South Koreans, who routinely face discrimination in the country of their birth – as CONIFA competitions offer a sporting outlet through which people can find union and gain temporary release from the daily struggles of their lives among people who share their burden.

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Whereas for the likes of secessionists Abkhazia – whose official status of de facto independence and self-government is flagrantly ignored by Georgia who still declare Abkhazia to merely be a part of their own country – competitions hosted by CONIFA provide the opportunity to promote their homeland’s daily toils and shine a spotlight on the political turmoil their population of some 240,000 people are forced to endure.

It is in fact through Abkhazia’s continued involvement in CONIFA competitions, in particular, that two of the organisation’s most pressing topics are best brought to light: politics and legacy.

Firstly, Abkhazia are among the most heavily politicised of all CONIFA members and their routine participation serves as a constant reminder of CONIFA’s own stance on politicising football or, rather, their efforts to prevent it. In taking the decision to host their 2016 World Football Cup in Abkhazia, CONIFA received a number of protests from Georgia and Azerbaijan, both of whom openly defy Abkhazia’s claims of independence. This evidently served as no real deterrent as with CONIFA’s 2018 World Football Cup’s willful inclusion of Tibet a slew of further protests from China will surely come their way and yet there are no signs of the organisation backing down.

That is, however, as far as CONIFA will venture into politics; acknowledging and subsequently challenging indifference on the grounds of equality is as grand a statement as they are willing to make.

Furthermore, in regards to those competing under the CONIFA banner, the organisation makes no attempt to obfuscate their rules regarding political campaigning during their competitions: there is simply to be none. Teams are encouraged to fly their flag, sing their anthem and utilise the allure of the tournament to rally behind any domestic causes they so wish. But their various ideologies must remain dormant while they compete. After all, they are there to play football.

Secondly, there are few places in the world where the positive impact of CONIFA’s competitions are so blatant as in Abkhazia. Capitalising on their memorable debut appearance at the 2014 CONIFA World Football Cup, Abkhazia went on to host and ultimately win its follow-up tournament in 2016 and, as a result, have precipitated the growth of one of the strongest fan bases of all CONIFA members. This relative football success has forged for the Abkhazian people a contemporary way of celebrating their heritage and vocalising their patriotism without invoking oft unavoidable talk of civil politics or war.

“The tournament turned the country upside down. The next day was declared a public holiday by the president and 10,000 people celebrated in the streets all night when [Abkhazia] won,” CONIFA’s general secretary Sascha Düerkop recalled in conversation with The Set Pieces. “After the final whistle, an elderly woman came to me and she told me ‘all we celebrate in our festivals is always about war. This is the first time we won something as the people of Abkhazia.’”

Through CONIFA’s work, the people of Abkhazia were afforded the opportunity to construct for themselves a sporting history denied through FIFA’s unwillingness to recognise them. That is not to say FIFA are wrong to do so – rules are rules and CONIFA seek not to challenge FIFA. Instead, they simply offer an alternative and their legacy in Abkhazia, and in countless other nations, serves only to underline the importance of their work.

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In addition to the matches themselves, the organisation also insists upon encouraging open cultural exchange wherever possible, on and off the field, in order to further celebrate and embrace the equality of CONIFA’s varied members.

This manifests itself in a multitude of practices, from having all participants lodge in the same hotels, in order to create living spaces similar to Olympic villages where players from opposing teams can openly socialise, to having players sing, dance or present the unique qualities of their multifarious cultures and histories in organised social events. Much of this is the work of CONIFA co-founder and president Per-Anders Blind who rather fittingly hails from a minority himself: the aforementioned indigenous Sámi people of Scandinavia.

Having first hand experience of the type of dismissal and discrimination reserved for minorities such as those he was born into, and with an innate love of football and a working knowledge of its immense potential for promoting equality, it is only natural that at the intersection between Blind’s personal struggles and the sporting mechanism for its potential eradication on a global scale should a project such as CONIFA be found.

“My father is a reindeer herder in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains. I was born and raised as part of a group of forgotten people and [as a result] endured discrimination.” Blind explained as he recalled the organisation’s origins to Al Jazeera in 2016. “Perhaps because of this, I have sacrificed my own money and relationships to ensure that anyone can take part in an international tournament.

“For me, [CONIFA] is a peace project. We have a mission to create a global arena for the forgotten people, we have so many members that are not recognised around the world. We want to educate the world about all the different ethnicities and indigenous people that we have on this planet.”

“We are particularly proud that the 2018 World Football Cup will be such an international spectacle,” Düerkop declared on the organisation’s official website, “[providing] a platform for our members to showcase their cultures, histories and footballing ability.” And provide a fitting platform they shall.

In this summer’s exhibition a CONIFA competition will, for the first time, play host to countries hailing from each of the planet’s five major footballing continents – Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania – proving that the organisation are now, more than ever, fulfilling their mission statement in uniting the world through football.

Yet in spite of the enormous scale of their work, CONIFA remains a non-profit organisation and its staff are all volunteers. Needless to say, there are no billion-dollar salaries remunerating their commitments to the game, lavish bonuses lauded after successful tournaments or bulging envelopes passed under tables to ensure host-status for keen nations.

Instead, there simply exists a devoted team passionate about upholding ethical standards in everything they do, aiming to, as they so eloquently put it, “build bridges between people, minorities, nations, ethnicities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football.”

By Will Sharp  

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