The Champions League final is on 26th May, and the World Cup starts nearly three weeks later. So how do ordinary mortals survive if starved of competitive football for so long.
Fortunately, there is an answer, the CONIFA World Football Club will start on the final day of May and run for 10 days, bringing live football to stadiums around London, and streamed football to everyone else via the sponsor, Paddy Power’s website.
CONI-who? I hear you ask, and how do they get to organise a World Football Cup?
So, starting with CONIFA, it is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. It is an umbrella organisation for a number of associations which for one reason or another cannot gain admittance to FIFA. It currently has 49 members, and these members claim a population of over 300 million people. CONIFA itself was formed in 2013, bringing together associations that had already competed in competitions organised by the NF Board, and attracting new members into the fold
The World Football Cup (so named as to avoid any trade mark confusion with FIFA’s event soon afterwards) is the major tournament. This is the third running of the tournament, which is held every second year. Prior to CONIFA, there were five VIVA World Cup’s organised by the NF Board, and the FIFI World Cup organised by St. Pauli FC. These were played with varying number of teams but overall the number of teams and competitiveness of the matches has increased each tournament.
So, the next question is who are the Non-FIFA nations?
FIFA itself has more members than any other international body, including the United Nations. One reason for this is that in the past, it has included many small territories that the UN does not recognise as Nations. Hence the United Kingdom is not a single member of FIFA, not even the four obvious ones, but also includes a number of British Overseas Territories that joined FIFA some time back – such as Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans. With Gibraltar recently joining, the British contingent stands at 11 teams. Britain has more than anyone else, but we are not alone. The USA, Denmark, and even China are amongst those with multiple representation. The recent addition to FIFA rank of Kosovo and Gibraltar came against opposition, and FIFA have tightened up the rules for new entrants. This leaves a number of countries and territories disappointed, as they cannot get the FIFA recognition even though others in similar situations have already joined.
CONIkFA ties up these with a number of other categories that where the people can be thought to have a “national identity” but are not countries by any definition.
According to CONIFA general secretary, Sascha Düerkop, CONIFA has ten different categories of membership. I cannot list them all, but these are the main ones based on the clubs playing in this year’s World Football Cup.
- Generally accepted independent nations, members of the UN – but not yet in FIFA, (Tuvalu)
- Effectively independent states, that are not globally recognised – and have at least one country that does recognise them (N. Cyprus, Abkhazia)
- Autonomous regions, that may have been able to apply to FIFA in the past, but not under current rules (Ellan Vannin, aka Isle of Man)
- Ethnic groups – a minority within the country they are in (Felvidek, Szekely Land, United Koreans in Japan, Western Armenia)
- Diaspora groups (Tamil Eelan, Panjab, Barawa, Tibet)
- Groups representing minority languages (Matabeleland, Kabylie)
- Regional teams (Padania, Cascadia)
Some of these groupings may be questionable. I am not going into the politics of Tibet for example. In my mind a diaspora group means that the majority of the members of the group moved from the country of origin in the 20th or 21st centuries. While I know the United Koreans are an ethnic group, a mixture of those who migrated (in many cases forcibly) during Japanese occupation and more recent migrants, they could be called a diaspora or a minority language group as well. I cannot say whether the Western Armenians are people who actually live in eastern Turkey (which is the area they originate from), or have migrated elsewhere, and I certainly cannot give the full degrees of separation of Matabeleland and Kabylie from Zimbabwe and Algeria.
Sascha Düerkop told me that the pure regional teams such as Padania (Northern Italy) and Cascadia (North West USA /South West Canada) would not be able to apply in future. Despite this, CONIFA have recently accepted Yorkshire in membership (based on other criteria), but this does mean that an application from Surrey will be turned down, and there is no point in me trying to start a Cheltenhamshire team.
Tuvalu will be unique amongst the teams in London for this tournament as they have taken part in FIFA World Cup qualifying games. The 2007 Pacific Games were used as part of the qualification tournament for the 2010 World Cup and although Tuvalu would not have been allowed to progress, they played four games, including a draw with Tahiti before finishing bottom of their group.
Likely to offer much stronger teams than Tuvalu, are those teams representing the unrecognised nations. These are areas where there is an effective government in control, but another nation still claims the territory and a majority of countries do not support their independence. There tends to be a state that is powerful enough in defence of the current status quo preventing a violent reversion of status.
The Caucasus area of the former Soviet Union is about the most disputed series of territories around the world, with Russian support giving Abkhazia a level of independence while most of the world sees it as a breakaway from Georgia. Abkhazia both staged and won the 2016 CONIFA World Cup and are expected to field a strong side again. A similar long running dispute sees Cyprus divided with North Cyprus not being generally recognised, but Turkish support keeping them independent. Northern Cyprus staged a CONIFA European tournament last summer and finished second (to Padania).
CONIFA works hard at being a non-political organisation, but by including some of the most political of countries as members, they cannot help but be political. Ideally, they would bring together diametrically opposite groupings, but in practice this does not happen. UEFA makes sure that Azerbaijan and Armenian sides do not meet in qualification groups, or European club games due to the various conflicts between these former soviet republics. CONIFA includes Nagorno Karabakh as a member. This is a self-governed state, with a majority Armenian population, but in an area generally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. Hence when CONIFA had an application from a team with an Azeri majority population, their first comment was “You know Nagorno Karabakh is a member – is this a problem for you”. They then took this all the way through the application process without problem, until someone in the Azeri government said they could not join an organisation that has Nagorno Karabakh in it.
Turkey is the main supporter of Northern Cyprus, and has enquired about TV feeds for earlier cups, but then not gone through with this because Iraqi Kurdistan was involved. Now while Iraqi Kurdistan only covers an area within Iraq, the idea of Kurdistan in general includes part of Turkey, so any promotion of Kurdish independence within Turkey would not be allowed – even when the area the team represents does not impinge on Turkish territory. This year, Iraqi Kurdistan have not qualified so the matches can be shown on Turkish TV. The existence of Northern Cyprus is opposed by Cyprus itself and their ambassador put in a protest about them having a team playing in the UK. I feel the protest was only made because it had to be made, and there was no real belief that they would be drummed out. CONIFA have actually used Northern Cypriot involvement to their advantage, staging their matches in Enfield close to the main centre of Turkish and Northern Cypriot communities in London. Similarly, the Panjab team play in Slough – close to the heart of a large Panjab diaspora.
The most controversial of the teams included is Tibet. In the past the Chinese has always raised it hackles whenever there is any action that comes close to recognising the Dalai Lama’s government in exile.
Already this year, the Tibetan situation has created problems in the footballing relationship between China and Germany. The Chinese had agreed to send a youth team to play teams in the South West Regionalliga in Germany – the free team each week in a 19-team league. At the first of these games (in Mainz), pro-Tibet protesters unfurled flags, and there was a scuffle with Chinese spectators, the game was held up, but eventually completed. The DFB said they had no powers to stop protestors from showing up at the games, and the rest of the series of games was not played. I imagine many of the clubs were disappointed, as they were to be paid €15,000 Euros each to play. The incident generated far more publicity than if the protests had been allowed to go ahead with the flags ignored.
In the light of this, an offer from a smaller German club FV Lörrach-Brombach to play the Tibetan team in a friendly prior to the tournament in London was vetoed. The match was originally sanctioned by the local area FA, but later they changed their mind while refusing to state if pressure was brought to bear on the decision. It does appear that the pressure came from the German FA, and not from China itself, and as yet, the Chinese have ignored the CONIFA tournament.
While initially trying to block CONIFA’s predecessors, it appears FIFA and UEFA are now content to ignore the organisation and leave any administration to local football administrations. With the football organisation here in England being what it is, this is guaranteed to cause confusion and a lack of decision. Players for the recently formed Yorkshire Independent FA have been going through a process of deregistering from their clubs before matches, and then signing on again afterwards, so as they are not members of affiliated clubs when the matches take place – and hence not subject to sanction. It is well within the power for any one of the County FA’s within Yorkshire, (the County has four) to register the team.
The Manx team had a similar problem, but after lengthy process this has been solved. Initially, they went head to head with FIFA – but in turn FIFA, UEFA and the FA washed their hands and left it too the Isle of Man FA to deliberate on. Despite the Isle of Man not being an English County, it is treated as one by the FA. For that matter, so was Gibraltar for a long time until they decided to apply for an independent status. Gibraltar never entered FA Competition, but Man does, giving the locals a plethora of “national” teams to support.
In the FA County Youth Cup, the Isle of Man reached the quarter finals this year, beating Cumberland, Lancashire and Middlesex before losing to Norfolk. This, I believe is limited to youth players at Island clubs, while as far as I know, their opponents do not use players from the professional clubs. The Isle of Man also played in this season’s FA Inter League competition. For this, players must be with a club in the league, and must never have held a professional contract. They do not have to be Manx, though – allowing amateur footballers who settle on the Island to play for this team immediately. In this, the Isle of Man beat the eterborough & District League and the Liverpool League before losing to the North Riding league. In 2006, they won this competition and went on the play in the UEFA Regions Cup – representing England. They took the field wearing England colours, not those of Man, so three lions, rather than three legs on the badge. The Isle of Man also play in the Island games competition, which plays in the odd numbered years, (while CONIFA use the even numbers). The Island games team would apply a residential qualification (as minimum) for incomers, while the CONIFA team can choose its own parameters, making it the only one likely to include Manxman who have moved off the Island. Despite the various rules, the majority of all three men’s representative teams are the same.
CONIFA is popular with ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring states. The borders in this area of Europe were drawn leaving areas with a Hungarian speaking majority that were not Hungary. Two have qualified for this tournament, Felvidek and Szekely Land (in Romania). Felvidek is the area on the Slovak borders, centred at Dunajska Streda. At various time, Slovak authorities have had different policies about the use of the Hungarian language and the showing of flags. There is still a general rule prohibiting any national flag except the Slovak one at football grounds. DAC Dunajska Streda gets the biggest crowds in Slovakia, thanks mainly to its position as a flagship for the Hungarian community. Sascha commented on the use of flags bearing the words, Red, White and Green to get past the Hungarian flag ban. When I went four years ago, they said it with balloons – as can be seen here. Supporters at the front are holding balloons in club colours, while behind that, the Red, White and Green of the Hungarian flag can be seen
Talking to Sascha, I got an idea of the amount of enthusiasm those running the tournament have for their cause. Even with the headaches this must create. As tournaments approach, running CONIFA is a full-time job, but they do not pay their officials. They do not even always get expenses. During his week in London, Sascha not only gets to drink with people like me, but also has to finalise details for venues, transport and accommodation – and hope that they can get enough sponsors and ticket sales to make the numbers add up. While the sponsorship from Paddy Power is generous and essential, it does not completely cover transport and accommodation.
The games are being played at grounds right across London, with the full fixture list and a link to buy tickets on the official page, www.conifa.org. I have mentioned the connection with the bookmaker, Paddy Power – who have been running campaigns to support the competition, but I particularly commend this one, which explains more about the philosophy behind CONIFA, https://news.paddypower.com/conifa/2018/03/21/conifa-president-per-anders-blind/
For those wanting to see the best teams, the obvious place to start would be the semi-finals in Carshalton the final games in Enfield. I feel that the rest needs to be seen, so on the final day, I will head to Enfield for the final (6 pm) after seeing the 15th/16th placement game at Bedfont (12 noon). The tournament uses six dates over ten days, and every team plays on every match day. Food for thought for professional managers who complain about their schedules.
I have seen comments from people who made it to Abkhazia for the last tournament that some teams were no more than Sunday league kickers, but with a more organised qualification structure, the weakest are not being represented this time around, so we may not get any double figure scores. The strongest teams are likely to be those that have home countries and can get support there, with the probably exception of Tuvalu, where the player pool is too small. Hence we may expect good performances from Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus, and also strong teams from the two Hungarian ethnic sides (Felvidek and Szekely Land). Padania gets support from the smaller cities in the region and may well be able to field some good semi-professional players. I’ll be interested to gauge the strength of the United Koreans in Japan, and Cascadia – as both have their domestic seasons running at the same time.
The preliminary squads will be announced in the next week, and while one cannot expect many famous players, the United Koreans team will include An Yong Hak, who has 38 caps for North Korea, including starting all three group games in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, (and incidentally in the qualifying game I saw in Pyongyang).
If you are only interested in the highest quality of football, and over hyped TV coverage, then ignore all this and wait for the World Cup to come to our screens. If you want your football to be more fun, then the CONIFA World Football Cup is the place to be.