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ConiFA World Football Cup: What can FIFA learn from the people’s World Cup?

George Fortey

Now the FIFA World Cup is well underway, a reminder for those who missed what happened in the ConiFA World Football Cup that took place a few weeks ago.

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Paddy Power got behind the obscure event

You may not be aware, but the World Football Cup has already been decided. 2800 miles west of Moscow In Enfield, London, a team named Karpatayla were crowned the winners of the third ever ConiFA World Cup. With a side completely made up of amateur players, all representing the Hungarian minority who live in Carpathian Ruthenia (south-west modern-day Ukraine) this is not your average international football team, but then again this is not your average World Cup.

Founded in 2013 ConiFA stands for the confederation of independent football associations and represents nation states and peoples who aren’t recognised by FIFA. Despite the huge amount of countries that are members of FIFA, there are a surprising number of people whose nation or identity does not fit into the organisations frame work. Perhaps the two best examples of these sort of nations would be The Isle of Man and Tibet. People who identify as being part of these places could previously only represent neighbouring countries that FIFA recognise such as China for Tibet and England for the Isle of Man. This meant that they would feel a loss of identity from where they truly came from.

Tibet and the Isle of Man (renamed as Ellan Vallin from their local dialect) are just two of the 16 teams that have competed over the last two weeks in the 2018 ConiFA World Football Cup held in London. Every one of the teams has their own a fascinating story to tell and are all absolutely thrilled to represent their unique identity on an international stage. The diversity of the people that have been represented is truly amazing, even for an international tournament. At one end of the scale you have teams such as Cascadia, who originally formed by people in Canada and the USA to promote an environmental Greenpeace style movement. At the other end you have teams that have had to overcome incredible hardship to have their identity recognised such as Abhekazia a nation made up of people from the much disputed and dangerous border between Russia and Georgia.

The ConiFA World Football Cup has a very similar format to its FIFA counterpart with one nation hosting a group stage followed by the knockout style tournament. Replica kits and programmes are sold at each match and the tournament even has its own official anthem. But this is where the similarities with the FIFA World Cup ends.

The main goal of ConiFA is to provide representation for every type of identity around the globe but It is also trying to set be the opposite of everything FIFA has stood for. The ConiFA World Football cup is strictly not for profit with referees and staff all working on a voluntary basis. The finances are openly displayed for all to see, with the only form of revenue coming from sponsorship from partners Paddy Power and the sale of very reasonably-priced tickets. The tournament has put honesty and legitimacy at the forefront of the game. The introduction and success of a green card is one of the most recent steps that ConiFA has taken. This card is used for any acts of dissent or diving. Once given a green card the player must leave the field but can be substituted to allow the team to remain with 11 players so that acts in the heat of the moment reactions are not too harshly punished.

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The Kabyle side that took part in the tournament ©Amazigh World News

The tournament has also got put grass roots football at the centre of its agenda something that FIFA has had no interest in doing. The green card will hopefully clamp down on the disrespect shown towards referees that is particularly prevalent at amateur level. Additionally, the use of 10 non-league stadiums across London to host these matches has gotten many fans back in touch with their own local clubs and communities. The electric atmosphere created by these, smaller more compact, grounds are a stark contrast to the huge but vastly empty grounds seen in previous FIFA World Cups.

Which all the fascinating stories behind each team, it is easy to forget that competitive football was played. Despite the amateur nature of the players and teams involved the tournament provided just as much excitement and drama than any previous FIFA competition. Almost immediately two of the better-known teams of Tibet and Tuvalu produced quite a shock as they both finished bottom of their respective groups, surprising even the most knowledgeable of ConiFA fans.

One of the early pace setters of the tournament was Padania, a minority formed from people living the Pavoy valley region of Italy left over from communist rule. They are relative veterans of the format having taken part in the previous two World Football Cups and famously even had Mario Balotelli’s brother Enoch playing for them. Padania breezed through their group with maximum points including a 6-1 victory over Zimbabwe based Matabeleland a team who have had one of the more interesting journey to get to the finals. They were formed in a small region of Zimbabwe which had undergone horrific purging by President Mugabe’s troops in the 1980’s. Through football many of the players and supporters have re-found their identity, but with Mugabe’s regime still in charge the team have had to train in secret to prepare for the cup. It was even reported that their own bus driver was revealed to be a government spy who tried to sabotage the team’s preparations.

In the quarter finals and Northern Cyprus really stood out as one of the teams to watch with a massive 8-0 victory over Barawa. Similarly, to Matabeleland, Barawa are also a minority from a war torn African nation this time hailing from Somalia. Barawa were one of the newest teams of the Tournament having joined ConiFA in 2016 and to get out of the group stages was a fantastic achievement that brought great joy to their all-singing all-dancing supporters. Elsewhere holders Ahbekazia were knocked out by the surprise package of Karpatalya whilst Padania continued their great form beating Panjab 2-0.

The Semi-finals proved to be a step too far for Padania as they went out of the competition losing 3-2 to Northern Cyprus whilst Karpatyala overcame Romanian-based Szekeley Land to reach the final for the very first time. The final itself was a tight and tense affair with the match ending in a 0-0 draw. In the penalty shoot out the Karpatyala goalkeeper Bela Fejer stepped up to become a national hero making three crucial saves to give his side victory in front of 2500 fans at the Queen Elizabeth II stadium.

The Conifa World Football Cup may be small in scale but to a selective number of people and nations it means everything. ConiFA’s messages of identity honesty and legitimacy are ones that truly need to be taken forward into the wider football world. The organisation is making fantastic strides forward by using sport in the right way. To join people together and to make them feel part of something, not just to make money or gain influence. I fear that the success that ConiFA has achieved will be lost in the media maelstrom that is Russia 2018, but at least for 10 days in June, it was shown that the magic and beauty of football can still be a beacon of hope for people around the world. It’s just a shame we have to wait another two years for the next one.

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