LONDON — “We have nothing against FIFA,” CONIFA General Secretary Sascha Düerkop told a tittering press corps on Wednesday. We were all sitting in the basement of a student accommodation block in North London. “They are very great to learn how not to do things.”
Founded in 2013 with the goal of organizing and representing the world’s non-FIFA-affiliated international teams, the Confederation of Independent Footballing Nations has by now grown bigger than its founders could have imagined. Five years after its inception, 47 teams representing “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories” fall under the confederation’s banner. These teams are spread out over five continents, from Donetsk to Kurdistan, Quebec to Zanzibar. The third CONIFA World Football Cup—not “World Cup,” because there’s an organization that gets tetchy when that phrasing is used—kicked off on Thursday in London’s gray summer suburbs. Sixteen teams, many of which have fought through not just preliminary rounds but political turmoil and financial strife are taking part; the final is scheduled for June 9. Abkhazia will seek to defend the title they won on their disputed home soil in the Caucasus two years ago; Cascadia, from America’s Pacific Northwest, will make their debut; Barawa, representing the Somali diaspora, will look to overturn the odds in a tournament that they’re technically hosting.
Non-FIFA teams have played organized matches against each other for decades, and the games have often been more passionate and hard-fought than their obscurity would suggest. But here, in England’s capital, a short underground ride away from Europe’s most voracious sports papers, CONIFA and its teams are suddenly very visible.
It’s good, then, that they sorted out an official song for the event. And it’s magnificent that they recruited the English Europop duo Right Said Fred to write and perform it. The YouTube video for “Bring the House Down” was played out to a dumbfounded group of players, coaches, and journalists at the start of last night’s pre-tournament meeting, with its singalong-choir “na-na-nas” bobbing into the room over a coin-op beat.
“This ain’t Moscow/This ain’t Qatar/This is London, home to friends near and far,” lead singer Richard Fairbrass moans through the verse, taking another sly shot at FIFA and its next two World Cup hosts. The video itself crams in all the panoramic shots of participating countries that you’d expect, as well as action clips from CONIFA games past. Beyond that, though, it is almost entirely slo-mo goal kicks, corners, frustrating midfield tussles, and agricultural tackles. It lasts three-and-a-half minutes, during which no goals are scored. It’s a marvel.
Still, with FIFA as the background antagonists (“We have nothing to hide,” CONIFA Media Director Kieran Pender says), “Bring the House Down” doesn’t seem silly. It’s an improvement on the Will Smith-featuring song that’s supposed to soundtrack this summer’s better-known international tournament in Russia. Right Said Fred’s effort is hopelessly upbeat, rhyming “CONIFA” with “believer” and telling everyone to “sing your own song,” but every football tournament plays up the smiles and unity and cross-cultural Good Vibes. The hope is that the CONIFA World Football Cup and its against-the-odds members might actually make good on that.
Upstairs, after the press conference, players from United Koreans in Japan gathered for a makeshift team meeting; the Western Armenia team lounged around in after-dinner conversation; Tuvalu’s coaching staff struggled to fight back the jet lag on comfy chairs. They are competing on behalf of countries or peoples that much of the world ignores, playing to hundreds of flag-waving supporters who might not have cared about football until a team they never imagined they’d see showed up. The standard of football is expected to be higher than ever this year, with a few semi-recognizable player names in the mix. And so we’ve put together a CONIFA World Football Cup guide, to help you pick a team to root for.
This year’s hosts aren’t expected to win much—their manager, Abdikarim Farah, set his team the goal of making it to the quarter-finals. But they do have prolific 19-year-old striker Kingsley Eshun up front. He’s on the books at Championship side Queens Park Rangers, and though he’s not managed to get a proper foothold in English football just yet, he has scored eight goals in nine games for the diaspora team. The group is closely bonded, with some of the players having attended school together in London. But they’ll have to contend with the restrictions of Ramadan this month, with most games kicking off before sundown.
A bioregion that runs (depending on who you ask) from around Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia, the idea of Cascadia as an independent concept has seen a resurgence in the last few decades. To most fans of the Timbers, Whitecaps, and Sounders—and many of kids who cram into downtown condos—the idea of Cascadia represents a connection with nature, a leftist ideology, and a disillusionment with American corporatism. But “cultural identity” can be a thorny concept in the Pacific Northwest, and the far-right figured that out long before the dive bars got turned into bank branches. As for the football, Cascadia manager James Nichols, currently the assistant at English eighth-tier side Kendal Town, has spent the last few weeks dishing out instructions to players over group chats, so spread out across the world is his team. But he’ll be able to call on MLS stalwart James Riley, the team captain, one of the tournament’s best and most experienced players.
Ellan Vannin are representing the Isle of Man, an island off the coast of Liverpool in the Irish Sea that never joined the United Kingdom. Here’s a cool fact about the self-governing British Crown dependency: their first legislature was put in place by the Vikings 1,000 years ago, which means they have the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world. Another one: Ellan Vannin have been helping to raise money for their twin team, Darfur United, who represent refugees on the Chad border. The Manxmen are looking to make the semi-finals this year after withdrawing from Abkhazia 2016 on the advice of the British government. Judging by these wildly shaky videos of captain Frank Jones punching in goals against teams like Greenland and Cumberland, they’ll scrap for everything, and will celebrate like they’ve won the whole damn thing every time they score.
The Tamil diaspora team draws its players from all across Europe: France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, and a team charmingly named FC Supernova in Canada. Captain Panushanth Kulenthiran is the standout—he’s been on the books at Palermo and Roma, though he never got onto the pitch for either. Their results have been erratic lately—a 9-0 loss to Iraqi Kurdistan seemed demoralizing, but Ragesh Nambiar’s team then went out and beat Darfur 10-0 in a rematch a few weeks later. They’ll have plenty of support in London, where they’ll hope things level out.
How the current titleholders aren’t outright favorites for this year’s tournament is a mystery. Their team is built around right-back Anri Khagush, who played last season at Arsenal Tula in the Russian Premier League. He was a starter on the BATE Borisov team who stunned Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in the Champions League four years ago. He’s a superstar in these surroundings. Aleksei Bondarenko, Abkhazia’s long-serving 39-year-old goalkeeper, provides a stable base at the back, and he saved two penalties on the way to victory in 2016. In a competition peppered with teams who haven’t played knockout football as a unit before, Abkhazia’s experience should take them a long way.
Representing the ethnic Hungarians by the Carpathian mountains in westernmost Ukraine, Kárpátalja only made their tournament debut last year at the CONIFA Euro Football Cup in Northern Cyprus. Their key player is György Sándor, who played nine times for Hungary and almost certainly remains the only footballer in history to have spent time at Plymouth Argyle (UK), Litex Lovech (Bulgaria), Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia), and Perth Glory (Australia). His brother, István Sándor, is the team’s player-manager.
This politically fraught de-facto nation is the only team at this year’s CONIFA World Football Cup whose participation was officially challenged. The National Federation of Cypriots in the UK protested the use of the Council-owned property in Enfield, where at least one of their games will be played, arguing that the game would “promote an illegal occupation regime, encourage secessionist policies, and insult Enfield’s significant Cypriot population—many of whom are refugees.” On the pitch, the focus will shift to London-born striker Billy Mehmet—once a Republic of Ireland U21 international—and young forward Ahmet Sivri, who has impressed scouts since moving to Turkish giants Galatasaray last year.
Football’s been played in Tibet since 1913, and the game picked up in the early 20th Century before the Cultural Revolution effectively dismantled the sport’s progress. Their first modern international match came against Greenland in 2001—it went ahead despite China’s threats to cut off diplomatic ties with Denmark over the arrangement. (It’s all in the 2003 documentary The Forbidden Team if you have a couple of hours this evening.) This is their first appearance at a CONIFA tournament, so it’s difficult to know how they’ll get on in a stacked group. For many back home, their participation is a point of pride in itself.
The people of Matabeleland, in the westernmost part of Zimbabwe, were subjected to massacres and grotesque abuses under the now-departed Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. Their team—nicknamed The Warrior Birds—will play their first international match in London after joining CONIFA in 2016 and struggling to raise the cash to travel across the border after that. Jon Holmes at Sky Sports wrote about the team yesterday—they had to raise $25,000 to be here, and coach Justin Walley is just thrilled that they made it through immigration and customs in the UK. If that doesn’t endear you to Matabeleland, take a look at their jerseys, which are by far the tournament’s flashest.
Padania, representing the eight northern regions of Italy, are heavily favored this year after winning the past two CONIFA European Football Cups and placing fourth in Abkhazia 2016. Enoch Barwuah, who is Mario Balotelli’s brother, has played for the team in the past, but this year their talisman will be former Lithuanian national team captain Marius Stankevičius. The defender is 36, but he played for Sampdoria, Lazio, Sevilla, and Valencia in his heyday. Goalkeeper Ricky Zarri goes to college at UNC Greensboro—he’s majoring in International Business, apparently—so there’s some American interest here, however tenuous.
The team of the ethnically Hungarian Székelys in Romania, they finished third at last year’s CONIFA European Football Cup. Bludgeoning center-back Csaba Csizmadia won 14 caps for Hungary a decade ago, and he’ll anchor the team. But László Szőcs, a member of the Romanian futsal team, could be fun to watch on a full-sized pitch, outdoors, in the middle of an English summer. Futsal-soccer crossovers haven’t been given enough space to flourish since indoor soccer faded from the American imagination.
The bookmakers have the Pacific island nation coming dead last this year, and decisive 50-1 odds seem insurmountable in a tournament made up of mostly unknown performers. But Tuvalu—drafted in at late notice after Kiribati withdrew—have plenty to play for. They’ve been actively seeking FIFA membership for well over a decade, so they won’t allow themselves to be embarrassed. And every member of their 21-man squad plays in the Tuvalu A-Division, so cohesion won’t be an issue under head coach Lopati Taupili. They’re in a tricky group, and it’s hard to see them finishing above third place, but the bookies are being harsh. (NB: Since writing this, Tuvalu have played their first game of the tournament. They lost 4-0 to Székely Land. The house always wins.)
Kabylia asked CONIFA to withhold the names of their players until today, when the tournament began; they’ve had to play qualifiers for this tournament in secret; Kabylia FA President Aksel Bellabaci was arrested by Algerian authorities last year; many of their players have spoken out about visits from the Algerian police, who have reportedly threatened players participating for the team. Getting onto the pitch for their first game in London will be like a World Cup Final in itself.
The Punjabi diaspora’s team have had some tricky games in the lead-up to this year’s tournament, and their results have been shaky, but there’s also no shame in a 4-1 loss to Liverpool’s U21 team. They lost in the final in 2016 after defeating Western Armenia and Padania in the knockout stages, so they’ve got some tournament pedigree. They’re another team who can claim to be on home territory this time around, with just two players coming from overseas, and they’ll have numbers in the terraces for every game. Plus, just about every one of their players will be hoping to impress the scouts on the touchline. Keep an eye on Amar Singh Purewal, who’s scored 10 goals in 11 games.
Playing under the unified Korean flag that dominated front pages during PyeongChang 2018, United Koreans in Japan aim to represent the 800,000 or so Zainichi Koreans who still live in Japan today. The team traces its origins back to 1961 when a group of Koreans fought through entrenched racism and exclusionary policies to form the league team FC Korea. Some players are eligible to play for North Korea, some for the South. But the star is 39-year-old player-manager An Yong-hak, who played for the DPRK at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and spent much of his career with Japanese giants Nagoya Grampus and Busan I’Park.
Western Armenia is, as a result of a brutal history, now a part of eastern Turkey, so the Western Armenian national team represents a diaspora more than a territory. While the FIFA-affiliated Armenia team has struggled in recent years, wasting the prime of generational talent Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Western Armenia has been a constant force in CONIFA. Established internationals like Artur Yedigaryan and Gevorg Kasparov prop the team up, so they have a chance of making it out from this year’s Group of Death.
Alex Robert Ross is a writer who spends most of his time in London. He’s currently a Contributing Editor at Noisey, VICE’s music vertical. You can follow him on Twitter.