It is, nowadays, a well-known fact that FIFA is bigger than the United Nations. With 211 men’s national teams and a further twelve who have membership of one of FIFA’s affiliated continental confederations, but are not members in and of themselves (in comparison with the 193 member of the UN), the reach of the game’s governing body is truly global. The very nature of nationhood, however, can be complex and fraught. Some parts of the world are seeking self-determination and some are recognised by some countries but not by others, but where do these go when the main condition for joining FIFA is general international recognition as a nation state and membership of the UN? The answer to this question is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, or ConIFA, for short. Broadly speaking, there are five categories of non-affiliated team. These may be defined as follows:
States: There are nine UN-recognised sovereign states – including the United Kingdom, though we are, of course, represented by England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) – which are not member of FIFA. at this time, only one sovereign state, the Marshall Islands, has no national football team either within FIFA, affiliated to a FIF-recognised football association, or playing matches outside of FIFA’s jurisdiction.
Autonomous (or autonomy-seeking) regions and unrecognised states: These states may be defined as regions of larger nations which have a history of autonomy. They may or may not currently have a degree of autonomy and may or may not be seeking independence, and include Catalonia and Galicia. The Faroe Islands fell into this category before joining FIFA in July 1988.
Regional associations: Regional associations are football associations which are also affiliated to national football associations. The Channel Island of Jersey, for example, is affiliated to the FA in England, but still often enters representative in non-FIFA matches and occasionally tournaments.
Stateless people: Stateless people representative sides are drawn from ethnic groups that have yet to gain significant control over a home state, or drawn from an ethnic diaspora, such as the Sami people of Lapland, the Romani people, or even Esperanto speakers. Palestine is an example of a stateless people who have a representative within FIFA.
Other minorities: Other minority ethnic groups within larger countries may form “national” football teams and play in non-FIFA tournaments.
The origins of ConIFA can loosely be traced back to the dissolution of The NF-Board (New Football Federations-Board) in 2013. This was a confederation of football associations made up of teams that represented nations, dependencies, unrecognised states, minorities, stateless peoples, regions and micro-nations not affiliated to FIFA, and one of its founders was Luc Misson, the lawyer who represented Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman in the case that led to the Bosman ruling. It was established in 2003, running five VIVA World Cups between 2006 and 2012 before its dissolution in 2013, a decade after its formation.
ConIFA was set up in the wake of the dissolution of its predecessor. It’s based in Luleå, in Sweden, and currently organises its own World Football Cup and European Football Cup. It has forty-nine members – including, for UK-based readers, Yorkshire – and held its first ConIFA World Football Cup tournament in 2014. For clear logistical reasons, the host nation for the ConIFA World Football Cup will often be unlikely to be able to hold the tournament on its own land so, while the 2014 World Football Cup was hosted by Sápmi, it was actually held the Jämtkraft Arena in Östersund, Sweden, which may sound familiar to some readers as the host of a Europa League match between FK Östersund and Arsenal earlier this year.
The first tournament was invitation only, but two of those competing withdrew. In one case, Quebec were withdrawn by the Quebec Soccer Federation because the federation decided that it would no longer play matches against non-affiliated teams as part of a drive towards obtaining FIFA membership through the North and Central American confederation CONCACAF. The other team to withdraw, Zanzibar, had a less happy reason to do so. They were refused visas to enter Sweden. South Ossetia and the County of Nice – a historical region in south-east France, were invited to take their place.
The twelve invited teams were divided into four groups of three with the top two qualifying for the knockout stages of the competition. The standout results came in Group C, where it was difficult not to feel sympathy for the players of the Darfur team, who were beaten by twenty goals to nil in their opening match against Padania and then by nineteen goals to nil in their second match against South Ossetia, for whom Artur Yelbayev, who had played professionally in the Russian league and had previously been the top goalscorer in the 2011/12 Russian Cup, scored eight times. Elsewhere, Iraqi Kurdistan defeated Tamil Eelam by nine goals to nil in their Group B match. These huge margins of victory were, however, outliers in what turned out to be a tight tournament. Three of the four quarter-finals went to penalty kicks, and the tournament was won by the County of Nice, who beat Ellan Vannin (the Isle of Man) by five goals to four on penalties in the final, after a goalless draw.
Th 2016 tournament was surrounded by controversy before it even started. This time around, there was a qualifying element to it all, with three European tournaments being used as qualifiers, but after the team representing Abkhazia were denied visas to enter Hungary for one of them – the 2015 European Football Cup in Debrecen, Hungary – the decision was taken that they should host it. With matches being played this time at two venues in Abkhazia, the host nation won the tournament, beating Panjab – a team representing the Punjabi diaspora in the UK – by six goals to five on penalty kicks in the final after drawing the match one-all. Panjab, who had been formed just two years earlier, had led the match by a goal to nil before a late equaliser put the hosts level. All of this means that, with this summer’s tournament just around the corner, no ConIFA World Football Cup has been won from open play. This isn’t the case in the European Football Cup, the first of which in 2015 was won by Padania, though they required penalties to beat hosts North Cyprus to retain their trophy in Nicosia last summer.
Qualifying for the 2018 tournament began with Tam Eemil winning the ConIFA Challenger Cup in March 2016, before the last World Football Cup even started. This was followed by Felvitek winning the Hungary Heritage Cup in August 2016 to qualify, and Western Armenia and Tibet winning ConIFA’s wild cards for place at the finals. Barawa, of course, qualify as hosts and Abkhazia qualified as holders. This is the first time that teams from both North America and Oceania have gained places in the finals. Cascadia won the North American qualification competition, whilst Kiribati qualified from Oceania. There remain no South American members of ConIFA at present, meaning that, of the sixteen qualifiers for these finals, eight are European, three are African, three are Asian, with one each from Oceania and North America. The opening match of the tournament will be played between Ellan Vannin and Cascadia at Sutton United’s Gander Green Lane on the thirty-first of May. The tournament follows what we might expect from a sixteen team tournament, with four groups of four providing two teams each for a knock-out stage from the quarter-finals. In addition to this, there will be placement matches to decide the final placings for the other teams in the tournament.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you a tournament guide, including the venues, the kits and a brief run-down of each of the teams that have qualified for the finals. The 2018 ConIFA World Football Cup might not be of the same size or scale as the FIFA World Cup finals, but perhaps that should be treated as a blessing. Entrance prices are affordable and tickets should be readily available. Further details – including ticketing arrangements – are available from the ConIFA website.