Liemarvin Bonevacia, Philipine van Aanholt and Guor Marial are not household names. At least not in Britain. In the world of competitive athletics they are in limbo. They compete but do so for no nation. They represent themselves and their families but are borderless. Regardless of national status the IOC allowed them, very encouragingly, to sprint, sail and run at the world’s premier athletics event – the London 2012 Olympics - as independent Olympians. Politics, passports and pettiness were forgotten as these athletes competed under the Olympic flag.
Such a flag doesn’t fly outside the FIFA headquarters. Football’s governing body is in a state but doesn’t recognise the stateless allowed 207 countries to partake in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. While the world’s press were chasing stories about Messi, Neymar and Suarez in the run up to the summer a different type of football festival was taking place in Sweden. This is a cup for the unreported world, the territories who are not recognised by FIFA but who love the badge of their region enough to do something about it.
On the 1st of June Darfur United and Padania FA played the opening match of the CONIFA 2014 World Football Cup in Östersund, Sweden. Squads from South Ossetia to Nagorno-Karabakh took part in the 12 team tournament with the County of Nice beating the Isle of Man’s Ellan Vannin to lift the trophy having only established themselves as a team one month prior to the start of the championships.
The tournament gave the chance for many otherwise forgotten fans to feel a part of world football and allowed the curtain of a competitive footballing atmosphere to drape itself over this new world stage. The team from Darfur played its first ever match on a grass pitch and despite losing both group games 20–0 and 19–0 the chance to play international football was more than just being about winning or losing. It was about friendship and culture and exhibiting this to the rest of the world.
It’s not a tournament where a group of washed up, rejected Sunday league players can get together, fill out some forms, create a badge and play football. It’s a highly competitive event which, despite the lack of media attention and hype, boasted some current and ex professionals among the likes of Éric Cubilier who played 54 times for AS Monaco. He appeared for the County of Nice while Claudio Cecchini, once of Ancona, and Enock Barwuah – the brother of Mario Balotelli - wore the shirts of Padania, a region from northern Italy.
CONIFA promotes the game among the fans too with matches streamed free of charge online and tickets for the bronze medal match and final combined cost just €11. The games at the tournament took place in tiny football stadium in the middle of Sweden and although there were some drubbings along the way many of the second round matches went to penalties.
None of the competing territories currently have any chance of being politically recognised and thus will continue to be excluded from FIFA. Perhaps this is a good thing for the moment as international football is rife with political undertones. The Gibraltar/ Spain incident reached boiling point last year when the Spanish FA threatened to withdraw national and club football, including the giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, from European competition for granting “Team 54” European status. Gibraltar looks set to join FIFA and could pave the way for other regions to follow suit.
The tournament wasn’t without its problems. In the days leading up to kick off the Azerbaijan football federation requested that the Nagorno Karabakh team, which represented a break away region close to Azerbaijan, should be prevented from participating. CONIFA, not looking to chase votes from oil rich nations, stood firm and permitted them to play.
CONIFA, a not for profit organisation, promotes people from sportingly isolated regions and whom share a joy of playing international football. They have a constitution and promote youth and cultural exchanges and their overall objective is to raise people through football by strengthening minorities and contributing to world peace. There is no FIFA-esque administration or charity status. With more than 5, 500 ethnicities on the planet and hundreds of sportingly isolated areas the body provides a global arena for autonomous regions to compete. With social media and the growth of the consumer tribe there is a belief that to be recognised as independent state first there must be a representative football team.
From a footballing point of view the 12 team competition was a success. Per Anders Lund, the president of CONIFA, hailed the tournament as a triumph as it stayed true to the meaning of the word representation;
"There is no prize in cash. Players that normally just represent local clubs are now competing for their whole region, and are bringing home pride and dignity for their people".
During the event the players showed understanding and respect towards each other. They know many of the territories are experiencing increased political tensions or war. There is a feeling of togetherness among them. Valery Makiev who represented South Ossetia said "I will [hold] this tournament forever in my heart, I discovered how good people are also outside my own country." When was the last time a professional footballer uttered similar sentiments?
Areas of political tension have forever existed somewhere on the planet and minority regions will always search for independence. Large countries break up into smaller ones. Those smaller ones break up again and from the resulting micro states derive minorities. These minorities, who look to go it alone politically, can come together on the pitch, have their anthem sung, their flag waved and their voice heard just like at any major tournament with the exception that the World Football Cup delivers its promise to bring the game to new people and develop it in new corners of the globe.
The glamour and pizzazz of the world’s elite footballers is a million miles away and beauty is brought to the beautiful game. Fans and players alike can feel different but belong. It truly is for the good of the game.