With Copa America action hotting up and Euro kicking off, the world’s football focus is on these two popular continental tournaments. Not so in Abkhazia, a disputed State on the Black Sea. Instead, the tiny Eastern European region is celebrating a World Cup win of its own. A World Cup that is for countries which, well, aren’t exactly countries.
World football’s governing body FIFA recognises 211 nations. The 12 which do not enjoy FIFA’s support have come together for a World Cup of their own, conducted by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa). The teams that make up Conifa belong mainly to unrecognised States, minorities, State-less people and diaspora communities.
Among the teams that took part in the Conifa Cup was Panjab. Surprise finalists at this year’s edition, they are a British-based team representing the Punjabi diaspora from Northern India and Eastern Pakistan. They were formed and included in Conifa two years ago on the ground that there was a strong sense of belonging to the community.
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Sascha Düerkop, the German general secretary of Conifa, says the main reason for including them was that people identified with Punjab as a nation. “There are people who feel Punjabi more than they feel Indian or Pakistani. We respect that and don’t question it. That’s our overall philosophy,” he told The Indian Express over the phone from Abkhazia. “This isn’t a political message, though. We aren’t claiming that Punjab should be a country or anything like that.”
Panjab isn’t the only team with connection to the subcontinent that is a member of Conifa. Tamils, too, are a part of this federation. They weren’t a part of this year’s World Cup, but were there for the inaugural edition that took place in 2014 in Sweden.
Their inclusion in Conifa and participation in the World Cup attracted several threats. “Sinhalese groups weren’t happy that Tamils who have roots in Sri Lanka and India were playing together. We have lots of love for the Sinhalese people but this isn’t about Tamils and Sinhalese, it’s about giving people a platform to play football which they otherwise wouldn’t,” Düerkop says.
They may not intend to be political in nature, but Düerkop knows they are treading a fine line. The host nation of this year’s World Cup itself remains a disputed territory. Abkhazia declared itself as an independent nation in 1999, a decision that was supported by Russia. But Georgia still claims Abkhazia to be its territory.
During the tournament, Russian troops ensured that stadiums remained secure, which Georgian officials complained was illegal, according to an Al Jazeera report.
And that’s just one instance. Take Kurdistan, comprising Kurds from Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Or Szekely Land, representing a Hungarian-speaking part of Romania, as well as Somaliland and the Chagos Islands, whose inhabitants were evicted by Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s to build the US military base Diego Garcia.
“We look at these regions for reasons other than politics,” Düerkop says. “But we strictly forbid any political message. Flags are allowed but there is no place for banners or political messages in a Conifa stadium. It’s not a propaganda event.”
Becoming a Conifa member isn’t as tedious as managing a FIFA membership. One sends in an application and there is no requirement that the region be recognised by the United Nations or any other country. The decision to admit the member is taken by a vote by existing members.
Each team pays an annual fee of 500 euros. “We are a small organisation and work voluntarily. We have day jobs,” says Düerkop, who is a mathematician.
Calling FIFA’s rule to accept members “very foggy”, he adds, “Till last year, we were told the regulations were that only countries recognised by the United Nations could be a part of FIFA. But a couple of weeks ago, Gibraltar and Kosovo were accepted as members. If you compare Abkhazia to Kosovo, it’s the same status, apart from the fact that more people recognise Kosovo.”
Contrary to the billions spent for the FIFA World Cup, the Conifa’s version not surprisingly operates on a shoestring. Since the organisation itself does not have any revenue stream, the players’ expenses, stay and food are paid for by the host nation. There is no prize money.
Like the administrators, the players too are semi-professionals, mainly playing in Sunday Leagues. Chagos Islands’s Ivanou Leone, for instance, works as a barman at London airport when he is not playing football.
While made up entirely of semi-professionals, Panjab, in fact, is one of the most “professional” teams in Conifa. In their two-year existence, they have roped in a reputed kit sponsor and now train at England football team’s training centre St George’s Park.
The team’s founder, Harpreet Singh, whose parents are from Ludhiana but settled in Birmingham, says they see the tournament as bringing the Punjabi community together. “We are not in this for any political reasons. There are 125 million Punjabis in the world and we want to bring them together,” he says.
Panjab lost the final to Abkhazia 6-5 on penalties. Such was the euphoria in the host country that the government declared a public holiday the following day.
Düerkop, understandably, is thrilled: “A week ago, Abkhazia was known only for being a war-zone, a disputed territory. But now, people are talking about it for footballing reasons. And that’s exactly what we want.”