Geopolitics and the CONIFA World Cup

Players on Padania celebrate during the CONIFA World Cup in June. (Markus Unger/Flickr)

The World Cup final was a festive occasion with plenty of singing, dancing, and flag waving. In a closely drawn match, Kárpátalja prevailed over Northern Cyprus in a shootout. Earlier that day, Matabeleland scored a winning goal in stoppage time against Tamil Eelam in an even more exciting game. This was not the FIFA World Cup in Russia—organized by the powerful and oft-criticized Federation of Football Associations—which started on June 14 and is nearing its final game. It was the CONIFA World Cup, organized by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, held last month in London. CONIFA brings together teams of a distinct variety and reflects a far different geopolitical reality.

The groups that make up CONIFA do not fit neatly into the existing set of sovereign states, as do the members of FIFA. They represent nationalist projects, minorities, stateless persons, and other groups. Eligibility for joining CONIFA, according to General Secretary Sascha Düerkop, requires that the applicant nation satisfy at least one of several criteria “which we define as a country, minority, linguistic minority, remote place, etc.” While FIFA’s membership coheres with an image of the world map, CONIFA represents a kind of inverse image, revealing the many nations and groups that fall through the cracks. In the years that CONIFA has existed there have been a range of teams, for example one from Darfur that was formed in the refugee camps of eastern Chad, and another from the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean that won hearts at the 2016 World Cup in Abkhazia. There are currently 47 football clubs in CONIFA and 16 of them attended this year’s World Cup.

Despite its non-political focus, CONIFA is directly shaped by geopolitics. This is evident from its membership, which can be divided into four broad categories. The first and largest category includes minority groups within states that are essentially celebrating their local culture. This year’s winner, Kárpátalja, is the Hungarian minority from southwest Ukraine, the historical region of Carpathian Ruthenia. In the semi-finals, Kárpátalja defeated the Székelys, another Hungarian minority who are from Romania. These two groups, along with two other CONIFA members, Felvidék (southern Slovakia) and Délvidék (northern Serbia), are Hungarian-speaking populations inhabiting lands that were once part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Football clubs in this first category typically operate without interference from their central governments. That is because many of these groups are focused more on cultural celebration than politics, such as Ellan Vannin (the Manx-Gaelic name for the Isle of Mann, a self-governing Crown Dependency in the United Kingdom). And yet politics rises in importance for some of them, such as Padania, the separatist region of northern Italy and two-time winner of the CONIFA European Cup, and the Ndebele of Matabeleland, an ethnic minority of western Zimbabwe that suffered human rights abuses during the 1980s. Indeed, the Sports Minister of Ukraine, Igor Zhdanov, has called for an investigation of the Karpatalya team for its “encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and ties with terrorist and separatist groups.”

The second category includes teams from diaspora communities formed outside the homeland for various geopolitical reasons. For example, Barawa is a port town in southern Somalia, and was controlled by al-Shabaab between 2009 and 2014. The Barawa Football Association was formed by the Barawa diaspora community in England. In an interview, their club chairman said, “[our] purpose was to create exposure and inspire the community, particularly young people—to rehabilitate them.”

Other diaspora communities in this category are directly opposed to the governments that rule their homeland. The Tibetan team manager said that they were playing in the CONIFA World Cup as a way to demonstrate their nationhood and to call attention to the human rights abuses of the Chinese government. Similarly, the manager of the Tamil Eelam team, from Sri Lanka, stated that theirs is a message of self-determination—to keep the message alive that they are an independent nation.

In an example of the sensitivities involved, the Sri Lankan government responded to Tamil Eelam’s participation with a letter to CONIFA. “‘Tamil Eelam’ does not exist,” they wrote, “nor has it existed in Sri Lanka, either de facto or de jure.” Moreover, the letter stated that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a terrorist organization “that was brought to an end in May 2009.” By including the Tamil Eelam team, CONIFA will “promote and support divisive, separatist tendencies as well as violence in many countries including Sri Lanka.” This is classic geopolitical language attempting to delegitimize a previously secessionist region by evoking the term terrorism and raising the spectre of secessionist contagion.

The third category consists of teams formed from de facto states like Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, and Somaliland. These teams are formed in regions—their homelands—that have effectively broken away from the central government, declared independence, but remain unrecognized. De facto states are a curiosity as they function more or less like states, but are not recognized as sovereign because the governments that legally govern these territories are able to prevent other states from recognizing them. These are the unwanted states of the international system, and some have endured for decades.

Some of the strongest CONIFA teams come from de facto states. Abkhazia, a breakaway region in northwestern Georgia, won the 2016 World Cup and Northern Cyprus nearly won in 2018. One reason for their success is that they have strong support and are relatively well funded. Indeed, de facto states often participate in international organizations like CONIFA as a way to build legitimacy and diplomatic relations. Moreover, as explained by the team manager for Northern Cyprus, participation in sports helps build unity within the nation. Of course, their participation had geopolitical ramifications: the Republic of Cyprus stated in a letter that CONIFA was legitimizing the Turkish annexation of Northern Cyprus by letting the team play.

CONIFA could be thought of as the FIFA for stateless nations were it not for the last and smallest category of teams: those that are formed from sovereign states that cannot join FIFA. Tuvalu and Kiribati, for example, are small Pacific Island countries that lack a large sports stadium and sufficient hotel capacity, two criteria for gaining entry into FIFA. For them, CONIFA is a sensible alternative.

Like FIFA, a CONIFA World Cup is a parade of nationalities. In London the fans came out to sing and dance in the colors of their nation under banners that are often outlawed. Shaped by geopolitical realities, CONIFA gives these nations the freedom to play.

Ryan Griffiths is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.