On May 31, the third CONIFA Football World Cup will get underway in London. Participation in the tournament is limited to teams representing what the organisation calls “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories”, a blanket definition under which fall the likes of Cascadia, Tibet and this edition’s nominal host, Barawa.
The tournament is made possible by a tight-knit group of unpaid administrators, who devote so much of their time to the confederation that they could be easily mistaken for full-time employees rather than volunteers. One of these officials is Paul C Watson, CONIFA’s Commercial Director, who is perhaps best known for his 2012 book, Up Pohnpei, which tells the story of his time as a football manager and coach in the Federated States of Micronesia.
“At the age of 25, as definitively failed footballers, me and my flatmate Matt [Conrad] finally realised that our England caps weren’t ever going to come,” Watson explains. “Rather than give up gracefully and get a new dream, we decided to find the world’s lowest-ranked international football team, qualify to play for them and get our taste of international football.”
Within a year-and-a-half of this resolution, Watson and Conrad had instead ended up creating a league and a national team on Pohnpei, an island located several thousand miles from the nearest continental landmass. By the time the duo departed, they and the national side had also applied to join FIFA – an application that remains unanswered.
Watson’s time in the Pacific resulted in an appreciation of the often complex nature of identity within international football, and ultimately led to his involvement with CONIFA.
“The whole experience showed me this other world where football can often be massively important but isn’t given a chance,” he says. “There are also many people whose identities can’t be represented in the FIFA structure, where if you’re from Catalonia you’re Spanish; if you’re Tibetan, you play for China. The system just doesn’t work for many people and that’s why CONIFA needs to exist…
“Simply put, FIFA’s system tells you your identity, CONIFA’s asks you your identity. We believe that everyone should be given the chance to play football and that everyone should be able to say who they want to represent.”
CONIFA, then, is very much about self-determination. The confederation accepts the labels that people want to put on themselves – or alternatively the ones they want removed – and allows them to compete under whatever banner they choose. For some members, like Yorkshire, this means fostering a sense of community in a marginalised region; for Abkhazia, the breakaway Georgian republic that hosted the previous Football World Cup in 2016, it’s a deadly serious existential issue.
This, inevitably, presents certain problems. CONIFA is steadfast in emphasising its apolitical nature, but with teams like Northern Cyprus and United Koreans of Japan competing in London, politics are sometimes unavoidable. “For example, just by recognising Tibet, we have problems with certain sponsors,” says Watson.
CONIFA is partly comprised of teams representing separatist and irredentist movements, some of whose interests are opposed to those of their fellow members. But, unlike FIFA, who have deliberately kept apart certain countries in the recent past, CONIFA’s approach is simply to ban political or nationalist statements during match days and events.
“It’s true that there are some teams who don’t agree politically and some who don’t recognise each other,” acknowledges Watson. “Western Armenia for example isn’t recognised by Turkey, so Northern Cyprus can’t recognise them, but part of the amazing thing about CONIFA is that the teams themselves will always respect each other on the field. In a way, it promotes understanding between cultures to meet their opposites and play.”
It’s hard not to be taken in by Watson’s enthusiasm, which reflects a wider optimism among CONIFA officials. Clearly, they believe in what they’re doing, and see the organisation as something of an antidote to the occasional toxicity of certain other football federations.
— Goal Ireland (@GoalComIreland) February 17, 2018
“We stand for football in its pure form, playing for the love of the game,” is Watson’s summation. And, with movements like Against Modern Football beginning to gain real traction in the face of the game’s increasing corporatism, CONIFA’s message is one that could end up being spread far and wide. London 2018 will be their chance to show the world what they’re all about.
“This is undoubtedly our biggest event and a massive step up in our profile. I believe and hope this will be the springboard for CONIFA,” says Watson. “We have more and more members coming forward. We currently represent over 320 million people, but there are many more teams out there who could join.”
There’s weight to these words. Amid a moderate amount of fanfare, the Yorkshire Independent Football Association recently played its first match as a CONIFA member, versus the Isle of Man in Pontefract. YIFA chairman Philip Hegarty stated at the time, “Every single one of these [CONIFA] regions, to some greater or lesser extent, feel like their culture isn’t being given a voice or representation in some way.”
If the 2018 World Football Cup goes well, many similar associations may soon follow Yorkshire’s example in using CONIFA to find that voice.