As the major leagues of European football have drawn to a close for the summer, football fans all over the world will now switch their focus to international football.
But, between now and the World Cup in Russia, there is another tournament that is fully deserving of your attention, because on Thursday, the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup begins in London and runs till June 9th.
This is the third World Football Cup and is the biggest one so far. 16 teams have qualified to take part, with every continent except South America represented by at least one team.
CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) is the governing body for football in unrecognised nations. They serve to correct a flaw in international football, which is what happens to players from unrecognised nations?
If you look at a map of the world, it’s full of borders that have been defined through warfare, politics or some other arbitrary reason. But all over the world there are people who have a separate, distinct identity that either doesn’t fit with the country they’ve found themselves in, or one that transcends a recognised border.
Footballers in those circumstances have the choice to either represent a country that they feel no affinity to, or possibly discriminates against them and people like them, or they can just stop dreaming of playing international football.
As CONIFA General Secretary Sascha Duerkop puts it, the main goal of CONIFA 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.”
The tournament host nation is Barawa, a region of Southern Somalia. Barawa’s FA is based, and was set up, in London, where there is a Somali Diaspora, which means that London is the host city.
Putting on a tournament is a massive challenge for CONIFA. They are a million miles away from FIFA financially. They are a voluntary organisation, so have a really tight budget.
ConIFA make it clear that they are all about football, not politics. 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 themselves”
This apolitical approach has cost CONIFA financially; but they feel it is a price worth paying as the principle is so important. They missed out on sponsorship from a major Chinese company because Tibet are playing in the tournament. Some stadium owners belonging to London’s Greek or Greek-Cypriot community refused to allow CONIFA to host games in their stadiums because Northern (Turkish) Cyprus will be playing.
Instead of having stadiums bidding to be chosen, CONIFA has had to go out and secure the 11 stadiums this tournament will be played in, which are mostly the grounds of non-league clubs in the Greater London area. CONIFA were determined to pick stadiums whose owners bought into their ethos, rather than just saw it as a money-making opportunity.
CONIFA have secured a major sponsor for this tournament in Irish Bookmaker Paddy Power, but that doesn’t mean that they have the money to pay for teams to come over. The teams are all paying their own way. Some have found sponsors, but many others have had to hold fundraising events and rely on crowdfunding to be able to get to the UK.
Some of those have been quite creative. Matabeleland, a region of Zimbabwe, held a crowdfunding campaign where donors could get an opportunity to train with the team, or lower-level donors could receive a 100 million-dollar note, one of the notes Zimbabwe’s former currency had during its hyperinflation days.
Not all the teams have been able to make it. Earlier this year, Kiribati couldn’t raise the required funds, so have dropped out and been replaced by fellow Pacific island nation Tuvalu. A few weeks ago Felvidek, the Hungarian community in Slovakia dropped out and were replaced by Karpatalya, a region of Ukraine.
Even with the money raised, teams won’t be heading over to go to luxury training camps as the teams in Russia will. Instead, many of the teams will be staying in the dorms of a North London University.
There is also a problem for some teams of getting visas. Unlike in previous tournaments, the problem isn’t with the host, but in this case, there’s some teams that have concerns they will not be allowed to leave their country to compete.
Kabylia is a region of Algeria, with a large Berber population. There is a huge Kabylian diaspora in France; its members include a certain Zinedine Zidane. Unfortunately, the Kabylia team have faced intimidation by the Algerian state and CONIFA took the decision to delay publishing their squad for fear the players wouldn’t have been allowed to leave.
There will be a North American interest in the tournament, as Cascadia will be there. For those who don’t know, which included me, Cascadia is a bioregion encompassing the Pacific Northwest, who consider themselves to be connected culturally and environmentally to each other than the rest of the US and Canada. Cascadia will be captained by former New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders defender James Riley.
The tournament sees the 16 teams put into groups of 4, with the top 2 of each group advancing to the quarter finals and so on.
What is slightly different is that when a team is knocked out of the tournament, they still have games to play because every team is playing for a place from 1st to 16th. Every team will play at least 6 games in the tournament and will be playing games up to the final day, which means that no team will have raised thousands in order to play, only to then be sent home after a few days.
Group A contains the hosts Barawa, Cascadia, Ellen Vannin (the Isle of Man, an island between England and Ireland) and Tamil Eelam, a team representing the Tamil Diaspora around the world. The Barawa v Tamil Eelam game on Thursday evening will also feature the opening ceremony and will be refereed by well-known English referee Mark Clattenburg.
Group B sees defending champions Abkhazia, a republic which broke away from Georgia; Northern Cyprus, who, thanks to the large Turkish community in London, will be very well supported. The group is completed by Karpatalya and Tibet.
Group C contains Padania, which is the northern regions of Italy; Tuvalu, Matabeleland and Szekely Land, which is the Hungarian community of Romania.
Group D sees Panjab, who represent the 120m or so people living in the Punjab states of India and Pakistan and who looked very good in a recent friendly against Liverpool’s u23 team; Kabylia, Western Armenia (which historically was in what is now Eastern Turkey), who won a game 12-0 in the 2016 tournament and United Koreans of Japan, who represent the Korean community of Japan. United Koreans of Japan are coached by defensive midfielder An Yong-Hak, who will become the first player to have played in both the FIFA and CONIFA World Cups, having played for North Korea in the 2010 World Cup.
What makes this tournament especially fun is that nobody really knows who’s going to win. Some of the teams have admitted they know little about their opponents so don’t know what to expect. At the last competition in 2016, teams admitted that they were taken by surprise by the standard of some of the teams competing and it made them go away and take things more seriously.
This tournament will feature of trial of green cards; which will be shown for acts of dissent or unsportsmanlike behaviour –including diving- towards referees and opponents. The idea is that this acts as a bridge between a yellow and red card. Any player shown the green card must be substituted by their team immediately, so it is the individual player, not the whole team who suffers and the recipient can be punished without missing further games through suspension.
Few of the teams competing have a chance of ever gaining FIFA membership. To join FIFA a country must be recognised internationally; and politics prevents that for a lot of the teams. So this tournament is their chance to see their nation represented and their stories told on a global stage.
In conjunction with the tournament, CONIFA are also hosting a film festival, which will feature documentaries about the competing countries and other CONIFA members, which is free for match ticket holders and will further promote understanding about the countries taking part.
I’m really looking forward to this tournament, and can’t wait to get down to London to see a few games. If you’re going to be in the London area, then there are still tickets available. If you can’t make it, then the games will be streamed via social media if you want to check them out.
The CONIFA World Football Cup promises to be a great tournament. It will be an antidote to the over-priced, overhyped and over-commercialised football that we get served. The competing teams are mostly playing for the honour and joy of representing their nation and their passion for the game, which is what football should be about.
CONIFA have filled a gap in international football. They have found a way to represent the unrepresented. They seem to be going from strength to strength and hopefully this tournament gets the recognition that it deserves.