Dubbed “the rebel world cup” by the Guardian, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) provides an alternative to FIFA for unrecognized nations, stateless peoples, ethnic minorities, and isolated territories. The organization is based out of Luleå, Sweden, the same country in which the first CONIFA World Cup took place in 2014. It was held in the northern city of Östersund by the traditionally nomadic Sami people of Lapland. Now, more than forty peoples are members of CONIFA, from the Republic of Artsakh in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, to Kurds across the Middle East, to our very familiar Quebec. Hosting both European and World Cups, CONIFA brings global sporting events to areas that would otherwise never be able to participate in the international community’s athletic competitions, let alone see validating international attention. The 2018 edition will be played in London, England from May 31-June 9, and will feature teams like Western Armenia, Abkhazia, Tibet, and Barawa.
As a result of the high percentage of displaced peoples who are members of CONIFA, it is sometimes impossible to host a global sporting event in the regions represented. This is the case with the 2018 CONIFA World Cup, with Barawa Football Association representing the Somali diaspora while hosting the event in London. Despite the obvious difficulties for a people abroad from their homeland, it is advantageous both to CONIFA and the hosting groups to have their sporting events in large international cities, London being both the largest and most cosmopolitan location of a CONIFA tournament yet. Drawing attention to the sports of underrepresented and unrecognized peoples is one of the few paths to international validation that is available to these groups, and hosting the event in London will bring a larger audience than ever to the tournament.
It is in the very nature of CONIFA to attract controversy. In providing an opportunity for unrecognized groups to participate in the international community, it also validates those that have extremely difficult and sometimes problematic histories. CONIFA’s 2016 World Cup was hosted in Abkhazia, a breakaway republic from Georgia. Abkhazia has existed in one form or another for more than two thousand years, both as an independent state and as a part of conquering empires. It has, however, been long recognized as a distinct entity from Georgia — under the Soviet Union it had status as an autonomous region within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was absorbed into Georgia, but in 1994 gained de-facto independence in a vicious war that included the ethnic cleansing of Georgians. Only nine countries recognized Abkhazia as a state and about half of those are themselves unrecognized. It is widely considered to be an illegitimate state, and one with a very bloody history at that. The U.S. state department describes the country as a “Russian occupied” region of Georgia. In 2008, Georgia fought a disastrous war in the region, attempting to forcibly re-integrate the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (another CONIFA member). South Ossetia has also conducted ethnic cleansing against Georgians and has displaced more than a hundred thousand people. Still, Abkhazia remains the most successful member of CONIFA and favourite for the 2018 tournament. CONIFA’s vision claims to support international understanding and global relations through the joy of playing football. It is important, however, to recognize that while self-determination is a right for many of the minority groups and regions that CONIFA represents, many of these groups have problematic histories of their own. Sport is never, as CONIFA hopes, simple.
The rebel world cup is a mixed bag in other ways too: it includes, for example, Cascadia, a supposed cultural union of British Columbia, Washington state, and Oregon — more an elaborate joke than an unrecognized people. Other teams, such as that of Iraqi Kurdistan, enjoy fairly broad international support and seem well on their path to independence. Some teams also represent populations separated from their homeland, such as the United Koreans of Japan.
Perhaps CONIFA’s greatest value is in its alternative position to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), a deeply corrupt and problematic organisation. CONIFA, while problematic itself, allows football fans to imagine a world without FIFA, where the sport has a mostly positive political effect on marginalized groups.