In Qatar, the dust, in both a literal and figurative sense, is just settling after a barnstorming three weeks of football produced a raft of historic moments; the drama, controversy, and intrigue which characterised the World Cup’s build-up somehow managing to permeate events on the field.
A total of 206 nations may have vied for a place in the 2022 instalment of FIFA’s showpiece competition, but only 32 descended on the Middle East last November. But the glitz, glamour, and glory of the World Cup Finals didn’t evade just those 174 remaining member associations—many others, excluded from football’s international governance structures, were also consigned to watching the planet’s biggest sporting festival unfold from home. Tucked far away from a frenzied media circus, who appear more resolute than ever in their efforts to focus exclusively on the ‘elite’ forces of the game, are the nations, territories, and diaspora representatives of CONIFA: the Confederation of Independent Football Associations.
Established in June 2013, CONIFA truly is a movement like no other, with its sole objective to provide a platform, a place in football, for communities that have been marginalised, suppressed, or lack credence in the prevailing discourses of geopolitical discussion. Harnessing the talents of players from de facto states, separatist territories, and minority and ethnic groups, the confederation presides over an extremely unique cultural blend of organisations. In offering a formal stage for this inarguably eclectic mix of ‘nations’ to compete, CONIFA is in effect a re-calibrated, scaled down version of the FIFA model, although its values, guiding principles, and charitable endeavours are a far cry from the much-maligned practices of football’s formally recognized international governing body.
At a superficial level, CONIFA’s function is to arrange fixtures and competitions between its registered members. However, in reality, this organisation serves to materially impact those it represents in a number of positive ways. Its mission statement, to “build bridges between people, nations, minorities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football” is a pledge not taken lightly. Arguably, it empowers individuals, often feeling exhausted and undermined from years on the periphery, in whatever form that feeling of exclusion takes, to step forward and participate. It unites those who have shared similar experiences, creating opportunities for mutual cooperation, and enabling groups of people to realise that others are experiencing the same struggles. Furthermore, the confederation helps to expose injustice and false narratives, and cast a fairer light on causes that have been previously ignored. As the clichéd adage goes, history is always written by the victors—for many CONIFA members, their stories are simply dismissed, swept aside by the agendas of those who assume the greatest control in international politics. The sub-plot here is that this exact dynamic is also true in a footballing context; the officials roaming the corridors of power in FIFA’s Zurich headquarters align themselves to a Westernised view of the world order, with little room for those outside an ‘accepted’ group of football associations.
In this way, CONIFA’s efforts and outputs produce a sort of antidote to the contemporary trappings of the modern game; a far cry from the heavily commercialised, profiteering and corrupted landscape which football finds itself immersed by today. Football has been punctured by those hell-bent on its monetization, and most international and domestic governing bodies have succumbed to their advances, reaping the financial rewards in the process. The confederation, however, exists in a space which leverages many of the positive traits we traditionally associate with the beautiful game—facilitating a footballing product free from the circling vultures, and, as a consequence, freely promoting and protecting the true spirit and authenticity of the sport.
Surely this is an appealing notion for many fans across the globe?.
If football’s following masses were to turn their attention towards the exploits of CONIFA, they would be pleasantly surprised by the infrastructural framework it has steadily constructed over the nine years since its inception. The organisation has registered members hailing from all four corners of the globe, and acts as the representative football governing body for lands which encompass a cumulative population of over 700 million people. It stages a number of pan-continental tournaments on a regular basis, with its ‘World Football Cup’ serving as the marquee competition in its rolling calendar of events. Last year, the inaugural African Football Cup and South America Football Cup both took place, won by Biafra and Maule Sur respectively, complementing a schedule which already boasts a European Championship. Given that many of its constituent members face extremely challenging conditions in their respective homelands, whether as a result of conflict, poverty, or oppression, CONIFA also routinely hosts friendlies and charity matches. A recent contest between Western Papua and a side representing social media platform TikTok served to encapsulate the true essence of the CONIFA movement, with all proceeds from the match—which saw the two outfits battle out a pulsating 5-5 draw—sent to the children of the Indonesian province, a part of the world where many young people are unable to access education.
If coordinating these types of events wasn’t already tough enough, CONIFA is a fan-owned, grassroots venture, and therefore relies almost entirely on gate receipts and goodwill. Funds can be generated through sponsorship, but this can prove an unstable and contentious source of income. Amongst a group of members who are often locked in dispute with ‘recognised’ countries, brands can be resistant to lend their name to CONIFA-endorsed events, fearful that any advertising efforts could undermine their presence in certain international markets. For example, a prospective sponsor lined up for the 2018 Football World Cup later withdrew after discovering Tibet would be participating in the tournament; the business in question wanted to expand their trade into China, and were concerned that endorsement of a competition which promotes the sovereignty of the Himalayan region would jeopardise negotiations with Beijing. The members themselves must also regularly perform minor miracles in order to attend their respective fixtures, having to generate enough funds (usually against a backdrop of isolation, uncertainty, or even genuine danger) to conduct their footballing operations. The logistical issue of travel alone, with squads having to navigate long, arduous journeys in incredibly difficult circumstances, would be enough to strike fear into the administration team of any FIFA-registered nation.
However, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by CONIFA and its diverse array of affiliate associations, this inimitable movement somehow conspires to produce a very watchable spectacle. Not only do events often attract substantial audiences (the aforementioned 2018 edition of the confederation’s World Cup, staged in London, delivered sellouts at several of the city’s non-league stadiums), but the actual quality of football on offer is also very reasonable. Of course, if spectators are expecting to see a similar technical standard to that witnessed in a typical Champions League tie, then they’ll likely return home disappointed. However, a sizable cross-section of players, who proudly adorn the jersey of their ‘nation’, have played in fully-regulated, competitive leagues; indeed, with a heavy hint of contradiction, one or two have even participated in Europe’s premier club competition.
Marius Stankevičius, who before retirement represented Padania, an area of northern Italy with historical separatist links, made two Champions League starts for La Liga stalwarts Sevilla. The commanding Lithuanian defender, who also lifted the prestigious Copa del Rey during his time in Andalusia, is not the only player belonging to a CONIFA-affiliated outfit that has experienced the big time – in this regard, the list is extensive.
Northern Cyprus, who have registered a second-placed finish in their last two major finals appearances, are able to draw on the talents of a number of reputable players—with versatile forward Ahmet Sivri, a graduate of Galatasaray’s academy and now plying his trade in Turkey’s third-tier, and the vastly experienced Kenan Özer, who has previously turned out for Süper Lig heavyweights Antalyaspor and Konyaspor—currently at their disposal. The state of Abkhazia, located on the banks of the Black Sea in Georgia’s western expanse, formally recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, used to profit from the abilities of Dmitri Maskayev, a man who at one point was signed to Torpedo Moscow during a commendable fifteen-year playing career.
A decent portion of the Zanzibar squad play for sides in the respected Tanzanian Premier League, whilst the United Koreans in Japan, an outfit which represents those who travelled eastwards after Japanese intervention in the Korean peninsula, has seen some of its playing roster progress to the ranks of the North Korean national team. Even tiny Yorkshire, whose creation was inspired by the nominal swathe of pro-independence fervour which pervades the picturesque English county, has harboured previous professional players, with defender Alex McQuade and attacker Paddy McGuire, formerly on the books of Shrewsbury Town and Bradford City respectively.
But what of CONIFA’s long-term viability? Various similar projects, which attempted to elevate the status of these so-called ‘lesser’ nations, have failed to withstand the test of time. Past efforts were largely leveraged through the NF-B (‘Nouvelle Fédération-Board’), who, in similar fashion to the current purveyors of alternative ‘international’ football, gave its member associations the opportunity to compete in properly-arranged tournaments. The ‘VIVA’ Cup became the most successful and consistent manifestation of their enterprises, which took place on five occasions, usually biennially, between 2006 and 2012. A breakaway competition known as the ‘ELF’ Cup, led by Northern Cypriot KTFF officials after the Turkish enclave had been controversially stripped of hosting the inaugural VIVA Cup, was also staged in 2006, but never surfaced again. Other events, such as the FIFI ‘Wild’ World Cup, which was ironically won by Northern Cyprus just a few months prior to their self-commissioned ‘ELF’ Cup, have been unable to offer any longevity. The Island Games, which prides itself on its football segment, also provides a reasonable outlet for provincial teams, but only outfits with direct links to a select handful of European nations are eligible to participate.
However, CONIFA looks, feels, and arguably is different to those which have gone before. For a start, its tournament scheduling is far more consistent. Had the latest Football World Cup— due to be played out in North Macedonia in lieu of the logistical difficulties of reaching ‘host’ nation Somaliland—not been cancelled as a result of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, CONIFA would already be on the cusp of staging its fifth global tournament (earmarked for Mexico in 2024), and therefore be in range of surpassing the VIVA Cup’s modest tenure. It also bodes well that the confederation has the capacity to harness multiple continental competitions, a feat which suggests that a controlled and dependable organisational system is in place. Furthermore, it has far more members than any other previous institution which claims to act as the representative body for non-FIFA registered nations, with over 50 teams now aligned under the CONIFA banner.
Yet, perhaps the keenest indication of CONIFA’s superior output is something far more intangible. For its marginalised members, who can often only hope of receiving universal recognition on the world stage, establishing bonds with those who are subjected to a similar level of derision and disregard is key to their struggle. An empathetic ear, or a shared sense of suffering, can provide the fuel to carry on; CONIFA is a vehicle which facilitates this process. The unifying power of football is harnessed, as groups of people, who otherwise feel as if they’re perpetually staring into the abyss, are given hope, respect, and perhaps most importantly, legitimacy.
The confederation’s charm is in its modesty. It isn’t trying to revolutionise football; it just wants to help teams who have been banished to the shadows of the international game. A fitting metaphor for the types of people it so ably represents.
CONIFA may not compete with FIFA in terms of commercial power or prestige, but it has plenty of heart, soul and integrity—could it be said that the same traits are championed by those in charge of football’s international governing body? Perhaps by looking at the efforts of those on the periphery of the sport, Infantino and co. could learn a lesson or two.