As the major leagues of European football have drawn to a close for the summer, football fans will now switch their focus to international football.
There’s a lot on offer too, with most of the world’s star players playing in at least one of the five major tournaments taking place this summer; the men’s and women’s Olympic tournaments, the OFC Nations Cup, the Copa America and EURO 2016.
But what most people won’t realise is that there is a world cup starting on Saturday. And, the beauty of this tournament is that it corrects a fundamental flaw in international football; what happens to footballers who don’t belong to a recognised nation state?
Most countries come into being either through history, warfare or as the result of diplomacy. Most people are fine with such an arrangement; but there are peoples of the world who have a collective identity and history that either transcends borders or is completely different to the country that it has found itself in. All over the world there are ethnic groups, stateless communities and autonomous regions that have all slipped through the net of nation states.
For those nations, gaining international recognition, the pre-requisite for FIFA membership or membership of one of FIFA’s confederations, can be incredibly hard; as politics then comes into play, with territorial claims from other countries stymieing the aspirations of a country to be recognised as such.
Sport is a great way for a nation or a community to demonstrate its own unique identity to the world. It brings a sense of legitimacy and a place on the world stage. These nations want the same opportunities as recognised nations do, and that means the chance to play international football.
There has been a thriving international non-FIFA football scene since 2003, when the New Football Federation Board (NF Board) was founded. The NF Board organised 5 Viva World Cup tournaments, the last of which was held in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012. Despite that tournament being a massive success, with over 20,000 people watching the hosts defeat Northern Cyprus in the final in Arbil; the NF Board dissolved acrimoniously in 2013.
The baton was then picked up by Swedish referee Per-Anders Blind, who had refereed at all of the NF Board tournaments and was a business advisor to the board. Blind, who is ethnically a member of the Sapmi people of northern Scandinavia, formed the Confederation of International Football Associations (ConIFA), who have become the leading organisation of non-FIFA football.
ConIFA’s main goal, as explained by General Secretary Sascha Duerkop, is to “give football outsiders overseen by FIFA or left behind by their mother country FA the chance to win their place on a global stage and advance football-wise and personally... We give them the chance to play for the entity they feel part of in the bottom of their hearts.”
ConIFA also makes it clear that they are all about football, not politics as they are politically neutral. Duerkop says “We do not judge if our members deserve political independence. We want to put them all on the world map by showing their members and people to the world and give them the chance to represent themself (sic)”
Despite ConIFA only having come into existence in 2013, this summer’s world cup will be their third international tournament; following a World Football Cup in 2014 and a European Football Cup in 2015.
The European Football Cup also threw up the first major threat to ConIFA’s political neutrality. Whereas ConIFA are happy to allow anyone to play, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world will necessarily follow suit. The tournament was held in Hungary, and the Hungarians denied visa requests from the teams from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two republics who have seceded from Georgia (who regard both as Georgian territory under occupation by Russian forces); meaning that neither could take their place in the tournament.
ConIFA’s response to this was to select Abkhazia to be the host of the 2016 World Football Cup over bids from Geneva and an unnamed German city, with games to be played in the capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi as well as the city of Gagra.
ConIFA doesn’t have a lot of money. The staff, including the president, work voluntarily; and ConIFA depends on public donations, membership fees, the little sponsorship they can get and income generated from tournaments. This means that teams have to be able to pay their own expenses.
For some nations that’s easier than for others. ConIFA can help teams organise themselves financially but can’t offer any financial help themselves. Earlier this year the Chagos Island team, representing an archipelago in the Indian Ocean but made up of UK based members of the Chagossian Diaspora (the Chagossians were all evicted to make room for a US Naval base) held several fundraising events in order to raise the final few thousand pounds they needed in order to take up their place.
While getting to the tournament can be financially tough, it is also logistically challenging as Abkhazia isn’t that easy to get to. You can get to it through Georgia, but you’ll probably be arrested if you try to, as visiting Abkhazia is illegal under Georgian law. The only realistic option is to travel through Russia, which isn’t always the easiest country to visit either.
Travel from Russia is possible as Russia is one of only four countries to recognise Abkhazia internationally; the others being Venezuela, Nicaragua and, for some reason, Nauru. Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi is only about 100 miles from the Russian city of Sochi.
Following a slightly chaotic selection process, with a slightly abortive qualifying process and teams withdrawing after being selected, including the two finalists from 2014, the County of Nice and Ellen Vannin (the Isle of Man in the Manx language), who withdrew on the advice of the UK government; 12 nations will compete in Abkhazia. 5 of the 12 teams come from outside of Europe. But, all of these teams have an interesting back-story.
The teams are split into 4 groups of three teams, with Group A seeing hosts Abkhazia facing the Chagos Islands and Western Armenia.
Group B sees Iraqi Kurdistan face a team representing the Korean community in Japan (sometimes known as Zainichi Koreans), who migrated to Japan when Korea was under Japanese occupation, but are considered as foreigners; and Szekely Land (a historic part of Transylvania in Romania with Hungarian ethnicity).
Group C sees Northern (or Turkish) Cyprus take on Padania (the North of Italy), a somewhat controversial team as Padania only exists in the minds of Lega Nord, a controversial political party, and Padania have had to disavow themselves from Lega Nord in order to be allowed to play; as well as Raetia, a historic Roman province which covers parts of Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein and Germany.
Group D sees the Sapmi people (from Lapland, which covers northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia) take on Panjab (an area spanning parts of India and Pakistan, though the players are UK-based for the time being) and Somaliland, which seceded from Somalia and, unlike the rest of Somalia, has been largely at peace and has had a functioning government since its secession.
Despite the fact that they had previously been kicked out of the tournament, only to be reinstated following the withdrawal of a team representing the Romani people, Padania are probably the pre-tournament favourites, having won the European Football Cup last year. Details on the squads are hard to find, but Padania have previously been able to call on the talents of Enoch Barwuah, the brother of Mario Balotelli.
They will be challenged by the Sapmi team, and possibly the Panjab team, who contain players who play at a high non-league level in England such as Kidderminster Harriers striker Gurjit Singh and are managed by former Oldham and Tranmere player Reuben Hazell.
All of the teams participating are doing so purely for the honour of representing their country, and possibly the glory of winning. There is no prize money. For those interested, ConIFA have announced they will be streaming the matches through their website.
In all honesty, for the majority of the teams competing in Abkhazia, this level of football will be as high as they will probably ever get. But that won’t stop teams from wanting to play football; non-FIFA football will continue to grow. ConIFA is growing all of the time; Kiribati (who as a sovereign nation would be eligible for full FIFA membership) and Greenland have joined ConIFA this month, with Kiribati’s inclusion meaning ConIFA now has members on 5 continents.
ConIFA have ambitions to spread globally. They want to open offices around the world. They have organised an 8-team beach soccer tournament in Viareggio, Italy in September. There are plans for another European Football Cup in 2017.
Most of the nations in ConIFA have no chance of ever become FIFA members, and little chance of ever being recognised as sovereign nations. But, ConIFA membership means that the people of these nations can see their country or people represented on the international stage and people all over the world may see them as a separate entity. That can’t be a bad thing.