On 31 May, two weeks ahead of international football’s showpiece event, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on 14 June with the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the state-of-the-art Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, another football world cup began its third edition in the more sedate settings of Gander Green Lane in Sutton, England.

Where Luzhniki will accommodate no less than 81,000 spectators, Gander Green Lane, the home of English fifth-tier side Sutton United, struggled to fill its 5,000 seats for the opening game of the 2018 Confederation of Independent Football Association’s (Conifa’s) World Football Cup between Ellan Vannin and Cascadia, which the latter won 4-1.

Conifa is a Luleå, Sweden-based non-profit that acts as a global umbrella organization for teams that don’t come under FIFA—representing nations, minorities, isolated dependencies and cultural regions.

The first edition of the Conifa World Football Cup, held every alternate year, was organized in 2014 in Östersund, Sweden.

A cursory look at the list of Conifa’s members might make people of a curious bent pull out a map or do an internet search to locate places and communities such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Kurdistan and Rohingya, which are not recognized as separate entities by the international community.

Located north of Iran in the south Caucasus region, Nagorno-Karabakh is considered to be part of Azerbaijan. The ethnic Armenian region, which fought for independence from 1988-94, is now controlled by the Armenia-backed local army. Conifa offers it the only chance of participating in international football.

South Ossetia’s Elbaev Artur scores against Darfur United. Photo: AFP
South Ossetia’s Elbaev Artur scores against Darfur United. Photo: AFP

Abkhazia, in north-western Georgia, is recognized as independent by only four nations. Kurdistan, sandwiched between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, hopes to establish an independent state consisting of territories from all its neighbours. The Rohingya, the minority Muslim community from Rakhine state along Myanmar’s western coast, have been in the news owing to their treatment at the hands of the majority community. Most of the over one million Rohingya are now living as refugees in Bangladesh.

A study of Conifa members, then, is a window to the political complexities that dot the globe.

One curious inclusion in Conifa is the Shropshire-based Panjab team. According to Sascha Düerkop, the Conifa general secretary who works as a scientist in Germany, they qualify for Conifa membership by virtue of “being a minority in India, according to the Minority Rights Group International".

In the second edition of the World Football Cup, Panjab lost to hosts Abkhazia in the final in a penalty shoot-out after the match was tied 1-1 at full-time.

The team was founded and is run by the British born and raised Harpreet Singh. A chartered accountant by profession, Singh says on the phone that despite the team’s current top position in the Conifa rankings, it has struggled in recent games, owing to its troubles in integrating new players into the team set-up.

Abkhazia head coach Beslan Ajinjal (right) congratulates the team after their goal against Tibet. Photo: AFP
Abkhazia head coach Beslan Ajinjal (right) congratulates the team after their goal against Tibet. Photo: AFP

One squad that got the home-team treatment in the latest edition was Panjab. “They are always a strong team and their games were well-attended, averaging 400 spectators in Slough, where they played their group games," says Paul Watson, commercial manager of Conifa and an organizing member of the 2018 event, on email.

Panjab, however, couldn’t replicate their final run from two years ago, and lost 0-2 to Padania.

A team like the United Koreans in Japan is a perfect example of how Conifa sees itself: as a platform for minority communities to come together on a football pitch.

Comprising Korean descendants who came to Japan during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, these ethnic Koreans live in ghettoized communities.

Düerkop, who has been part of the organization since its inception, says on email: “The idea came from the players and their teams and they inspired us to build a sustainable network of the ‘forgotten’ and unheard nations across the world."

Conifa’s initiative, however, isn’t the first of its kind. Between 2006-12, there was the New Federation Board (NFB), which organized five editions of the VIVA World Cup before folding up. Düerkop acknowledges that it served as an inspiration for the new body in its aim to “provide a professional platform for not always professional teams".

Conifa member Québec are in the process of becoming a Concacaf (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) member and will hope one day to become part of Fifa. Most Conifa members would be delighted with a similar outcome.

Düerkop doesn’t see his organization “as a competitor or ‘anti-Fifa’ movement".

One conspicuous difference between the tournaments in Russia and London is in the level of facilities available to the players and officials. Unlike the billions of dollars that host nations splash—right from the bidding process to organizing the Fifa World Cup—Conifa’s costs are usually borne by the organizing football associations.

The 2018 title sponsor, however, is Irish bookmaker Paddy Power. Teams still had to fund their own airfare.

It is almost a given that most parent states, especially for members like Kurdistan and Tibet—who are trying for independence—would not facilitate the issuance of visas.

Düerkop admits this is a big challenge for players. “Many of our teams consist of players with passports that make it hard to travel (North Korea, Somalia, etc.) or come from an oppressed region or de facto nation that isn’t recognized internationally. The parent state does officially protest and tries to use a diplomatic channel to convince the host nation (the UK this year) to not issue visas. However, until today, we have always won the diplomatic battle and were able to bring every team to the World Football Cup successfully, luckily," he says.

But Düerkop isn’t blind to the sheer optics of the presence of a Kurdistan or an Abkhazia at a tournament. And Conifa does try to regulate political messaging.

Düerkop says, “We do strictly forbid any political messaging, just like the Olympic charter does. However, we appreciate that ‘having a national team’ is a political message already—if that is Palestine or Kosovo in Fifa or Abkhazia, Tibet and Kurdistan in Conifa. We regulate the political aspect by briefing all teams regularly to not campaign politically and show any ‘Free Tibet!’ signs, for instance, which is well respected by all of them."

A young Tibet fan in the stands. Photo: AFP
A young Tibet fan in the stands. Photo: AFP

Most players at Conifa events are amateurs or semi-professionals who ply their trades in the lower leagues of their parent countries. Düerkop estimates that about 25% of all players are professional, adding that the latest instalment has players from the top flights of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Hong Kong.

The UK edition got some top-level pedigree with the participation of “former Lithuania international Marius Stankevičius, who played for Lazio and Sampdoria (in the Italian top flight) and qualified for Padania by five-year residency," says Watson.

While the first edition in Östersund played to a sparse audience, the last event in Abkhazia was nearly sold out. This year, the average attendance has been 250; it reached a peak of 1,500 for the group game between Tibet and Northern Cyprus at Enfield.

“In London, we have fans coming from Italy to support Padania and Japan to get behind the United Koreans in Japan, Americans coming to cheer on Cascadia and neutrals from Holland, Germany and even Mexico," says Watson.

The first edition of the Conifa World Football Cup had 12 participants. This year, there are 16, indicative of a growing interest in the competition. Düerkop says there have been informal talks with Gilgit-Baltistan for membership and talks are on with the German minority in Kazakhstan (Volga Germans), Easter Island and Nauru, to name but a few.

He adds, “Our main aim is always to bring people from across the world together that wouldn’t meet otherwise. Having Tuvaluans meeting Tibetans is just an important mission to make the world a more connected place, at least mentally."

The final of the 2018 Conifa World Football Cup will be played between Northern Cyprus and Kárpátalja on 9 June.

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