“This ain’t Moscow, this ain’t Qatar. This is London.”
The tournament anthem for the ConIFA World Football Cup blares out as a group of nearly 150 journalists from around the world take their seats in the basement of a north London hotel. Unlike two years ago when the tournament was hosted in the isolated and politically sensitive territory of Abkhazia in faraway Eastern Europe, most of the assembled press are from the world of sport rather than politics – or so we’re told by ConIFA’s affable general secretary, Sascha Duerkop, at the start of the briefing.
It’s a shift that has suited the tournament organisers. Questions from the floor about the risks being taken by players and coaches participating in the tournament and pressure from governments around the world are fielded cheerfully but summarily by the panel, comprising Duerkop and the ConIFA president, the giant Swede Per-Anders Blind.
“Sometimes, political competitors try to make a diplomatic issue of things, but none of our teams have ever experienced any problems,” says Duerkop.
The tone that the organisers are trying to strike is clear: this is about inclusion, transparency and football existing above and outside the world of politics.
There is a seriousness to the event that ConIFA have gone some way to try and offset. That punchy anthem that opened the press conference was penned by 90’s pop outfit Right Said Fred, and there isn’t a single collar and tie to be seen among the tournament officials.
“We remind you that the tournament is the World Football Cup,” we’re told by our host, sports lawyer and ConIFA affiliate Kieran Pender. “There’s a certain other organisation that objects to us using the name World Cup.” The room responds with quiet amusement.
The dichotomy with FIFA is a theme. Without FIFA, there would be no ConIFA. The organisation exists in opposition, providing a home to non-FIFA affiliated nations, de-facto nations, regions and minority peoples.
“We have nothing against FIFA,” says Duerkop. “They’re a great example of how to and how not to do things. We try to be transparent and publish all we have.”
To that end, all of ConIFA’s financial affairs are available online for public viewing, and all internal meetings are open to the press. “We have nothing to hide,” says Duerkop.
Founded in 2013, ConIFA currently has 47 members, but these represent just a fraction of the 5,500 recognised ethnicities the world over.
“We aim to give everyone a platform to play football, regardless of politics, history or religion,” says Pender. “To express their identity, as they see it, through football.
“We’re a broad church. Our members include states, partially recognised states, contested territories, ethnic minorities and sports-isolated territories.”
The church is growing. The 2016 World Football Cup in Abkhazia was by invitation. This time, 36 members applied to take part, meaning a qualification process was necessary to determine the final 16. As Duerkop makes clear, it would be impractical for, say, Matabeleland to fly to Kabylia, relative neighbours within the ConIFA family, for a qualifying game. Instead, teams picked up qualification points in games against local clubs and other unrecognised territories.
The top 15 teams from that process are now here in London, with the tournament having begun on Thursday. Their spread is truly global, from Ellan Vannin, representing the Isle of Man, to the Western Armenians of Turkey and the Padanians of northern Italy, to the farthest reaches of the Oceanic region and the former British colony of Tuvalu.
Some of the represented territories are involved in ‘hot’ conflicts, disputes that are ongoing between states and internal separatists. To that end, the involvement of Northern Cyprus led to the Cypriot community in London registering a written protest with ConIFA over the team’s involvement.
And in the same week that the Syrian government gave its formal recognition to Abkhazian independence, leading to the severing of diplomatic ties between Syria and Georgia (of which Abkhazia is legally a part), ConIFA’s claims to be apolitical appear to be only partially upheld.
That reality is nowhere more clear than in the case of Tibet, who claimed the final place at the tournament. The team didn’t take part in the formal qualification process, but were granted a place at the competition on a wildcard.
“It’s not possible for Tibet to play qualifying matches, but we wanted them at the tournament,” says Duerkop. “We’re proud to represent the Tibetan people, and that the Tibetan people are represented here. This is not at all an attack on the Chinese people.”
In spite of the intended spirit of things, there remains an intensely diplomatic edge to the involvement of many of ConIFA’s members here in London. The ConIFA world map is unrecognisable from any we’re familiar with, which serves as a reminder of the recentness of most modern borders.
The 195 sovereign states that comprise the 21st-century globe are little more than a snapshot of a constantly shifting picture, an arbitrary moment in history. ConIFA gives a voice to those peoples who fell on the wrong side of the narrative as the world gradually rearranged itself from one of empires to a cluster of nation states.
There are logistical difficulties in supporting an international football tournament on what is essentially a volunteer basis. The Matabeleland team, managed and led by English coach Justin Walley, were still £4,500 short of the money needed to get their squad to London less than 48 hours before they were due to play their opening game against Padania. On arriving at the tournament, they were gifted the equipment they needed for training by Northern Cyprus. There may be wild disparities between the resources at the disposal of the participants here, but the spirit of ConIFA is doing what it can to bridge the gap.
The tournament hosts are formally Barawa, a small territory in southwestern Somalia whose football association operates as a diaspora interest in London. The Barawa team are all local players. Some even went to school together. It’s a far cry from the difficulties faced by those participants who have had to scrape last-minute funding together just to get a team on the plane.
Though the tournament is happening far from their ancestral home, the Barawa coach, Abdikarim Farah, feels a keen sense of local pride in his side’s role as hosts.
“We’re all Londoners,” he says. “It’s been a privilege. To host it here in what is, in our eyes, the most diverse city in the world, it’s a privilege.
“Our ultimate aim is to raise awareness. Before the tournament, before we even joined ConIFA, there wasn’t much knowledge of the southwest of Somalia. Deprivation, terrorism – the place is always in the media for the wrong reasons. The football community, as you’ll see here, is a large community. To be part of it, to tell our story, to play our football. It’s a real honour.” It could almost be ConIFA’s motto.
“It’s hard to anticipate the future because we never expected to be here four years ago,” says Blind. “We’ve only scratched the potential of what we can be so far. But we have to be aware of our limitations, because we are a volunteer organisation. Our resources are limited. If we had the right resources, we could change the whole world.”
At present, such dreams have to be tempered. ConIFA have virtually no financial resources to offer its members. They cannot build stadiums in Tibet, or fund coaching schools in Matabeleland. To that end, they promise to support any member who wishes to pursue membership of FIFA, as they did when Kiribati sought unsuccessfully to make the jump last year. The ConIFA mantra, to provide a platform to play, means looking out for its members’ futures, even if those futures may be outside its family.
But there will be limits to how protective that family is able to be. Some of these players have taken great risks to be in London. The Kabylia side, from the Atlas Mountains of northern Algeria, withstood immense government pressure before the start of the tournament. Team manager Aksel Bellabbaci was arrested and threatened by Algerian police, and those players in the squad who are based in Kabylia were warned that they won’t face an easy return to the country after the competition.
“The police fear that we will do something good here,” says Bellabbaci. “They don’t want Kabylians to be shown in a good light.”
The tournament concludes on June 9, with the 2016 finalists Abkhazia and Panjab the favourites to go all the way for the second successive edition.
“There was a public holiday declared when Abkhazia won the tournament in 2016,” says the team’s coach, Beslan Ajinjal. “If we can repeat the success, I believe the people will celebrate in the same way again.”