By: Supriya Nair
Men don’t need passports to dream of becoming Messi, as people the world forgot know
While exercising hearts, minds and morals in readiness for next year’s football World Cup in Russia, look back a moment to the last international football tournament to take place on the soil of the former Soviet Union. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) World Cup was played in the summer of 2016 in Abkhazia, northwestern Georgia, a breakaway region proclaiming independence from its parent country.
Pressing its home advantage, Abhkazia triumphed over 11other participant teams of CONIFA. Started in 2013 as a non-profit organization in — where else? — Sweden, CONIFA is a collection of stateless football federations not recognized by FIFA. It isn’t the only football organization that tries to bring unrecognized states and communities together for a game, but it is the largest and most organized yet.
The origins of its two dozen member nations range from the utopian (the Panjab Football Federation represents the Punjabi diaspora, whose homeland is divided between India and Pakistan) and the politically oppressed (Palestine is an early member state) to disenfranchised indigenous populations, such as the Saami people of Scandinavia; and hard-right federations such as Padania, northern Italian separatists who fear racial and cultural contamination from Italy’s poorer south and immigrants of color.
If it were easy to decide whether a nation is more important than a society or a culture, many philosophical treatises and weekly columns would remain unwritten. FIFA, by happy accident, is widely considered (above all by itself) one of the world’s more benign adjudicators of that question.
By and large, football’s goalposts do not shift for reasons of politics or military intervention. Any internationally recognized country may, through its football association, apply for FIFA membership. The association’s statutes include a clause for the admittance of associations in “a region which has not yet gained independence”. Admission is contingent on permission from the country on which that region is dependent. Kashmir won’t be competing in a World Cup any time soon — but Palestine and Chinese Taipei (what FIFA calls Taiwan) are both eligible to do so.
This generous pragmatism has its limits; but CONIFA, while separate from FIFA, is something like a natural consequence of the larger organization’s rules, not a reaction. Denaturalized humanity has to be accommodated somewhere, and history, courts and governments may conspire against their self-determination — but they will always have football.
The tournament at Abkhazia included teams such as Iraqi Kurdistan, Somaliland, the United Koreans of Japan, and the Chagos Islanders, representing those exiled from their homelands in the Indian Ocean by the British.
A team representing the Romani people were forced to withdraw from competition because of issues with travel permits. Ellan Vannin, of the Isle of Man, decided not to travel because the British Home Office issued a travel advisory against visiting Abkhazia (you could say they voted “Leave”). Panjab played, but two other teams from southern Asia, Tibet and the Tamil Eelam, did not.
The next CONIFA tournament, which will be held in London in 2018, may offer a chance for yet another set of players whose origins lie in the South Asian neighborhood — the Rohingya people, represented by Kuala Lumpur’s Rohingya Football Club, a team run with support from the United Nations. Its players include men who escaped Myanmar’s ongoing programme of alleged ethnic cleansing by jumping into water to swim up to their rescue boats.
Malaysia, which cancelled footballing relations with Myanmar late last year in objection to the violence, is reportedly full of smaller teams of Rohingya players. So are countries ranging from Ireland to Australia to Bangladesh. So is India. In 2014, the Genius Rohingya Football Club drew 1-1 in a friendly with an Afghan team called Youngistan (because we share a set of bad habits, I suppose) in Delhi. The Shining Star FC, a team of men whose day jobs include laptop repair and autorickshaw driving, was formed in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar and practice at a ground in bustling Chittaranjan Park.
Yet India, once almost irritatingly proud to speak up for displaced populations and oppressed minorities, has ceded its moral and political leadership to such an extent on anti-Rohingya violence that it can’t even bring itself to let these men and their fellow refugees stay in the country. It won’t issue refugee status, won’t recognize UNHCR identity cards, and won’t condemn ethnic violence so grave that it’s been compared to the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews.
And for all the media coverage those CR Park kickabouts have gotten over the last couple of years, no one even thought to ask if we could give them a boost to a non-profit event run by peace-loving idealists. Perhaps it is because, as we are being persuaded, it’s in our best interests to keep quiet and squeeze the orphans out of the playground.
Perhaps it is because a little football is a dangerous thing, and men don’t need passports to dream of playing –or being – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even the world’s most forgotten people know this. We will remember when we see them at a World Cup one day.
■ SUPRIYA NAIR The halfway line: on the intersection of sports and life
■ The next CONIFA tournament may offer a chance for the Rohingya Football Club —its players include men who escaped Myanmar’s alleged ethnic cleansing
♦ Write to Supriya Nair at punemirror.feedback @gmail.com