Far from the showpiece razzmatazz of this year’s World Cup in Russia, 16 teams kicked off Thursday at an alternative world championship for those sidelined by the official competition.
The CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, being contested at non-league grounds around London, sees the likes of Tibet and Northern Cyprus mix with southwestern Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland, the Punjabi diaspora and the Abkhazia breakaway region of Georgia.
CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, is the non-profit federation for teams outside FIFA, the sport’s world governing body.
With a wider interpretation of international identity, its 47 members include sovereign states, nations, minorities, isolated dependencies and cultural regions.
“Many of our members have a history that is quite tragic,” CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind told AFP.
“Even if they never met before, they come on the same pitch and share similar stories.
“Many of these teams have been bullied, abused and neglected from governments, perhaps somebody wanted to take their territories. So there is a respect and understanding.”
At least 30 players taking part have played in one of Europe’s top divisions, according to the Times newspaper. Some have played in the Champions League.
The tournament has grown bigger than even its volunteer organizers expected and CONIFA is counting on London’s diaspora communities turning up to support the teams.
– Drums and dancing –
The 10-day tournament kicked off Thursday.
Reigning champions Abkhazia beat Tibet 3-0 in front of around 300 spectators at a suburban sports ground in north London, where fans dressed in national colors banged drums, chanted and danced pitchside.
“It’s history for us to play,” Tibet striker Pema Lhundup Sherpa told AFP afterwards.
“We feel really proud and really happy that we represent our nation here in England, and show the whole world that Tibetans also know how to play soccer.”
Ellan Vannin — the Isle of Man in its Manx Gaelic language — beat Cascadia 4-1, in the first-ever match for the side representing Canada’s British Columbia and the US states of Oregon and Washington.
Northern Cyprus were held 1-1 by Karpatalja (ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine) while Panjab hammered Kabylia 8-0.
Szekely Land (Hungarians in Romania) beat Tuvalu 4-0, while United Koreans in Japan and Western Armenia shared a goalless draw.
An Yong Hak, 39, coaches and plays for the Korean side. Just eight years ago, he was playing for North Korea against Brazil in the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg.
The tournament’s nominal hosts are Barawa, the London-based exiled side representing southern Somalia.
“It’s Ramadan for us so most of the players will be fasting, so that’s an additional challenge for us,” said manager Abdikarim Farah.
Padania, representing northern Italy, were the pre-tournament favorites at 2/1 — with possibly the tournament’s top player Marius Stankevicius, 36, who has played for Lithuania, Lazio, Seville and Valencia.
Padania thrashed opponents Matabeleland 6-1 in their opener.
The Zimbabwean regional side’s effort relies entirely on online crowd-funding, largely through replica shirt sales.
“The pitches we’ve been using are not as good as here, but that is an advantage because we have managed to play quite interesting football on those bumpy pitches,” Matabeleland player Ndlovu Praise told AFP.
– Big names miss out –
2018 is CONIFA’s third biennial World Football Cup.
The County of Nice, from France, won the 2014 championships in Oestersund, Sweden, while Abkhazia hosted and won the 2016 competition.
Qualification for London 2018 relied more on competitive matches than invitation, meaning some better-known CONIFA members missed out — including Greenland, Monaco and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Ukrainian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the Romany side, Sapmi (Lapland), Rohingya, Chagos Islands, Darfur, Somaliland, Western Sahara and Zanzibar also failed to qualify.
Former English Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg will take charge of the final.
Besides red and yellow cards, officials can issue a green card for dissent and cheating, whereby the offending player is replaced by a substitute.
All match tickets cost £11 ($14.60, 12.60 euros) and the tournament even has its own official anthem: “Bring The House Down” by “I’m Too Sexy” pop brothers Right Said Fred.