Inside the CONIFA World Cup for unrecognised states

For these teams, football is more than a game; it’s also a way of asserting their national and ethnic identities.

The Abkhazia team [Nathaniel White/Al Jazeera]
The Abkhazia team [Nathaniel White/Al Jazeera]

Sukhumi, Abkhazia – Sarhank Mohsin Nader gets ready for the game. There will be fewer spectators than he is used to when playing in FIFA tournaments for the Iraqi national team, but when he puts on the Kurdish national kit, he knows the pressure will be even greater.

The Kurdish coach feels that pressure too. As the team prepares to go out on to the pitch, he urges them to: “Go out and prove that we deserve our own state.”

The Kurdistan team is one of the 12 teams participating in the World Cup of Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA). It was established in 2013 as a non-profit organisation comprising football teams from small countries, nations, unrecognised states, cultural regions, minorities and isolated territories around the world. Their inaugural World Cup tournament took place in Sweden in 2014 and the organisation plans to hold one every two years.

Another team taking part in the tournament is Abkhazia. The region is also hosting the tournament. Abkhazia’s self-declared independence in 1999 has been endorsed by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. But for much of the international community, Abkhazia remains a part of Georgia.

The opening ceremony of the CONIFA World Cup tournament took place on May 28 [Maria Jose Riquelme del Valle/Al Jazeera]

Georgian officials have complained that the CONIFA tournament is illegal since it it lacks Georgia’s authorisation within what it considers to be its territorial boundary. According to Georgian law, participants entering Abkhazia through Russia would be entering Georgian territory illegally.

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Once known as the Soviet Florida, Abkhazia is bursting with greenery during this time of the year.

Sitting at a cafe on a promenade in the capital, Sukhumi, scented by salt, osmanthus and magnolia trees, Kan Taniya, Abkhazia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, sees things differently.

“We have the right to rule our territory, we paid for it with our blood. This event is a step to be more connected to the world, and with it we want to show that Georgia cannot isolate us,” he said.

The players’ expenses, accommodation and food are paid for by Abkhazia, and the income generated from the sale of tickets will go to the Abkhazian Football Association. But, according to Taniya, the tournament will probably make a loss. Still, the purpose of the event is not economic, he insisted. It simply aims to show Abkhazia in a positive light to the world.

The CONIFA World Cup is taking place in Abkhazia, once known as the Soviet Florida for its climate and beaches [Nathaniel White/Al Jazeera]

Attracting visitors has been a priority for the breakaway republic. To this end, the authorities have worked to renovate buildings and upgrade infrastructure, including the Central Stadium in Sukhumi.

From the stadium, CONIFA’s president Per-Anders Blind explained how this World Cup has nothing to do with politics and borders.

“Our aim is to show that football can be a tool to bring our members to the global stage. We all have the same right to exist,” he said.

Chewing on a little pouch of “snus’, a Swedish chewing tobacco, Blind described how the idea for the CONIFA World Cup was inspired by his own life experience.

“My father is a reindeer herder in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains. I was born and raised as part of a group of forgotten people, the Sami, and endured discrimination because of that.”

“Perhaps because of this, I have sacrificed my own money and relationships to ensure that anyone can take part in an international tournament,” he said.

The Sami, also known as Laplanders, are taking part in the event.

Speaking with Al Jazeera only a few hours before the opening ceremony, as Russian troops checked the stadium’s grandstands for explosive devices, Blind explained: “FIFA and we serve different purposes: it’s just not the same representing your ethnicity and representing your country.”

Russian soldiers check the Sukhumi stadium for explosive devices [Nathaniel White/Al Jazeera] 

Although the CONIFA World Cup bears little resemblance to the FIFA version, some spectators see this as an advantage.

Among the mostly local audience, two British tourists attended one of the first games.

During half-time, Martyn Jones explained how the perceived arrogance of some elite players has alienated him from other popular international tournaments.

“I like to watch [the games] … the skills, the atmosphere … but then I think how much elite football players get paid, and how much tickets to games cost, and I feel guilty because being that makes me part of the problem,” he said.

As the whistle sounded to indicate the start of the second half of the Kurdistan v Szekely Land game, a girl carrying a shoulder tray passed by selling beers, soft drinks and crisps. 

Jones’ travelling companion, Kevin O’Donovan, pointed at one of the players from the Skezely Land team, formed by amateur Hungarian minority players from Romania.

“Look at those guys, I could be one of them. That is what I like about these players, how close and normal they are,” he exclaimed.

Martyn Jones and Kevin O’Donovan watching the Chagos v Western Armenia game [Nathaniel White/ Al Jazeera] 

“The higher you go into the world of elite football, the less it is about sports and the more about business, corruption and ego,” Jones said. Going further, he explained that coming to this sort of tournament for him is also about exploring the world beyond the usual destinations.

“Seeing players playing for their nations is just amazing,” he said.

Niko Besnier, a professor from the University of Amsterdam and co-author of the forthcoming book The Anthropology of Sports, sees this tournament as a reaction to a process that has been going on for the last 20 to 30 years.

“In the FIFA world of high-level sports, people are bought and sold and they end up representing places that they only vaguely know,” he explained, speaking to Al Jazeera by phone from the Netherlands.

“Usually contracted for one or two years, they have little motivation to become anchored in the local communities even if their fans see them as representatives of their particular locations,” Beisnier said.

The game between Kurdistan and Szekler Land ended with a victory for the Kurdish team. But for 24-year-old Laszlo Hohgyai from the Szekler Land team, the final result is not the most important part of the game. Szekler Land is an area in Romania, where the population includes a significant minority of Hungarians.

“We are very strong whether we win or loose,” he said. “We are united as a team and it is a big honour for us to represent our nation.”

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The Kurdish team was victorious in its match between the teams of Szekler Land and Kurdistan [Maria Jose Riquelme del Valle/Al Jazeera] 

From his hotel on the outskirts of Sukhumi, just a few metres from the Black Sea, Hohgyai explained that it means a great deal for him to be able to represent his people at an international event because, as a Hungarian growing up in Romania, he had always felt different and aware of his minority status.

Defeat is not taken badly by the Chagos Islands team either. The team is made up of descendants of those evicted from the Chagos Archipielago by the British government in the 1960s. In a crammed stadium, packed with passionate locals waving Abkhazian flags, they lost 0-9 to the home team.

For 20-year-old Ivanou Leone, who works as a barman at a London airport when he is not playing football, the attitude of his team during the game reflects its members’ attitudes to life.

“We could only afford to bring a team of 13 people here, and at some point during the game we were playing with only nine,” he said. “Still, we fought till the end, we never give up, like our grandparents and their descendants never gave up trying to return to their homeland.”

Besnier finds none of these statements surprising. “Football being the most played sport in the world makes people come together to play and watch, bringing them together with a sense of identity.”

Pride in their identity was one of the things emphasised by the United Koreans in Japan team as well. Seong Chan Ho, the team’s coach, explained how descendants of Koreans taken to Japan during the Japanese colonialisation of the Korean peninsula endured discrimination for decades.

“The most visible ways of discrimination against Koreans living in Japan are now diminishing, but there are still some Koreans who hide their roots with a mix of fear and shame,” the coach said. “Football can be for them what [it] was for many Koreans right after being brought to Japan: a source of courage, dreams and hope.”

Seong Chan Ho’s team couldn’t match Nader’s goal in their match against the Kurdistan team.

Proudly wearing the Kurdish national jersey, Nader declared: “I definitely feel more passionate when I represent Kurdistan. When I play for the Iraqi team I feel a bit strange, I don’t feel that I am representing my nation but a compounded state.”

“But then when I play for my people, I feel more excited than if I was just about to get married.”

The Chagos Islands team before their match during the CONIFA World Cup 2016 [Nathaniel White/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera

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