Feb 16, 2016

Abkhazia: Sukhum to Host Football World Cup of the Unrecognized

The Confederation of International Football Association (ConIFA) is organizing the second ConIFA World Cup, which will take place in Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi between 28 May and 5 June 2016. The tournament is supposed to give the association’s 33 members – all of which are unrecognized states, minorities or stateless peoples and therefore are not eligible for FIFA membership – the opportunity to partake in an international football competition.


Below is an article published by Fusion:

The twelve teams that will participate in this year’s World Cup are already set. Now, you might be asking yourself: “This year’s World Cup? What have I missed? What year is this? Will Messi be fit?” Well, according to most experts, it is still 2016 and Messi is not fit. But the World Cup is on, because people all over the globe love soccer, and that includes people in places that are not internationally recognized as countries, and people who don’t have claims to any lands.

Not having an officially recognized patch of land for your people to call its own is nothing but an unfortunate accident of history and diplomacy. And the people at ConIFA, the Confederation of International Football Associations, don’t believe that these circumstances should prevent people from partaking in international soccer competitions, which is why they are organizing the second ConIFA World Cup, scheduled to kick off this coming May.

ConIFA lists 33 member associations from unrecognized states, regions, minorities, micronations, stateless peoples, and generally any place or group that is not allowed to have a FIFA membership. And its World Cup – held every two years – is indeed, as the organizers call it, “the biggest stage of international football outside of FIFA.”

This year’s World Cup will be played in Abkhazia, an “autonomous republic” in North-Western Georgia by the Black Sea in the Caucasus. “Autonomous republic” means that Abkhazia considers itself independent and is controlled by a separatist government, but Georgia, the United Nations, and most countries in the world recognize it as being part of Georgia.

All of the ConIFA World Cup games will be played at the Dinamo Stadium in Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital, and the tournament will run from May 28th to June 5th.

Of course, a tournament comprised of unrecognized states will inevitably have logistical issues. For instance, there are only two ways to reach Sukhumi. One of them is through neighbouring Russia, which might be the easiest option since Russia is one of the countries that recognizes Abkhazia and maintains somewhat of an open-border policy with them. You can take a train from Moscow, or a bus from Sochi, which is only a few miles from the border (though you might still need a visa if you are not Russian). The other way is to cross the border is from Zugdidi in Georgia. This can prove unwieldy, however, as visiting Abkhazia is illegal under Georgian law.

If you manage to reach Abkhazia, you’ll get to witness some very interesting national teams competing in the tournament, including Chagos Islands, Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus, Padania, Panjab, Raetia, Romani People, Sápmi, Somaliland, United Koreans in Japan, and Western Armenia. A few rounds of qualifiers were played, but on January 9th ConIFA members elected these 11 teams to join hosts Abkhazia at the World Cup.

The teams represent “nations” with some fascinating backstories. Sápmi (also known as “Lappland”), for example, is a region encompassing parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia where the Sami people live. The Sami are indigenous people from the Arctic Circle, and they hosted the inaugural ConIFA World Cup in 2014 (in spring, thankfully) in Östersund, Sweden.

There is also the team from the Romani People, or Roma People, who are a “stateless nation,” an itinerant group spread over Europe and the Americas with no particular common homeland. Their team for the World Cup will be managed by Brera FC, a team from the Italian seventh division known as “Milan’s third team.”

In Italy, discrimination against Romani people is a grave problem, and soccer, sadly, is no refuge. Just last month, AS Roma’s Daniele De Rossi called Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic (who is from Croatia) a “zingaro,” an unfortunately common Italian slur equivalent to “gypsy” that is often used to refer to anyone from the Balkans.

Brera’s president Alessandro Aleotti said that, in an effort to change the perception of Romani people, Brera’s scouts will recruit a national team by looking for players in 18 European countries. Andrea Mazza, Brera’s manager, will be the coach of the Romani People team.

Another interesting team is the one of The United Koreans of Japan. This team represents those in Japan who can trace their ancestry to Koreans (from both the south and north) who migrated to Japan during the latter’s annexation of the former in the early 20th century, or during the Korean War in the 1950s. These people are usually referred to as “Zainchi” (or “foreign”) Koreans, and are often considered an ethnic minority in Japan and denied citizenship under the country’s strict naturalization laws.

The team they will send to the World Cup will be an offshoot of FC Korea, a team that plays in the Japanese fifth division and that, since its birth as Zainichi Chosen Football Club in 1961 through 2002, was linked to pro-North Korean organizations in Japan. According to the ConIFA organizers, they are trying to look for new challenges, as J-League citizenship rules have made it hard for them to advance in Japan’s soccer pyramid.

There is also a team representing Padania, a word used to describe northern Italy. The name, originally just a vague describer for the Po Valley region, was appropriated in the 1990s by the Italian right-wing party Lega Nord. Lega Nord has sought independence (or autonomy) for Padania, as many of its members believe that the more agrarian south of Italy is holding back the more industrialized north. For this, Lega Nord has been often accused of racism and xenophobia, an accusation that has not been aided by the behavior of some of its members.

In 2013, for example, Kevin Prince Boateng was playing a friendly for AC Milan against Pro Patria in Busto Arsizio, but famously decided to abandon the game because of the racist chants coming relentlessly from the home stands. At least six people were investigated for instigating the chants, including Riccardo Grittini, a member of Lega Nord and of the government of the nearby town of Corbetta in Lombardy. Grittini was Padania’s goalkeeper in the 2014 World Cup.