Having retired from refereeing two years ago, Per-Anders Blind now divides his time between looking after his herd of reindeer and serving as the President of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), the primary aim of which is to provide representative football to stateless nations and ethnicities.
Himself the son of a reindeer-herder from the Sápmi cultural region in northern Scandinavia, Blind was largely responsible for birthing CONIFA from the embers of the N.F.-Board, the body that previously governed non-FIFA international football.
“When that organisation collapsed in 2013 I was asked to help create something new, something better,” says Blind. “I spent several months writing a new constitution, based on democracy and transparency, which was run and governed by the members rather than the board.”
From having a grand total of zero members in 2013, 45 constituent IFAs now fall under the umbrella of Blind’s confederation. CONIFA has grown rapidly, yet has so far managed to avoid compromising the basic tenets and spirit of that original constitution.
“We want the board to serve the members, not vice versa,” says Blind. “When it comes to voting, members have the highest number of votes – a normal CONIFA member, an IFA, has 10 votes, but as president I have one vote. So, the president and board are always in a minority.”
CONIFA, therefore, contrasts sharply with other football federations, within which the executive tends to be rather more totalitarian. Blind and his board understand that they are facilitators, not dictators – but then, of course, CONIFA’s remit is very different to most of football’s other governing bodies.
“If you at our colleagues in the business, FIFA, they have very strict rules in relation to joining. We are more open, and give ethnicities and indigenous people from around the world to present themselves to the world for the first time…
“Often, these groups have been bullied or abused by their governments and other regions or peoples, and consequently lack self-esteem. CONIFA allows them to have pride and find strength in their identity.”
Blind’s own Sami people, who compete within CONIFA under the banner of FA Sápmi, are one such example. The Sami have endured an ongoing battle with the Swedish government over hunting, herding and fishing rights, eventually resulting in some landmark court judgements in their favour during this decade. Moreover, according to Richard Orange of The Guardian, “The Swedish state has a dark history of persecuting the Sami, banning the Sami languages from schools, while Sweden’s National Institute for Race Biology from 1922 spearheaded a sterilisation programme which saw many Sami women rendered infertile.”
Consequently, for Blind, CONIFA’s message is one close to home. He, like many of the confederation’s higher-ups from similarly marginalised cultures and regions, has reason to put faith in its power to educate and unite.
“For me, lack of knowledge is very dangerous. It creates fear,” Blind explains. “People on the outside looking at CONIFA often have preconceptions about certain groups or ethnicities – but now we can show them the real thing, that these groups are not scary. In my mind, we have a vision to show everyone that we are one people on this planet, even though we have different traditions.”
But running a confederation on such overtly ideological grounds is not easy.
There aren’t many sponsors willing to plough their money into what is effectively a philanthropic, international grass-roots football not-for-profit run entirely on a voluntary basis. Though it has grown rapidly in the nearly five years since its foundation, CONIFA suffers from a serious lack of resources.
Yet it remains focused on the still-untapped potential of its identity-based approach: with an estimated 5,500 recognised ethnicities dotted around the globe, CONIFA have merely scratched the surface. There’s plenty of room for growth, but Blind has a typically balanced perspective on the organisation’s direction.
“We will continue to grow, but we are not chasing members as we were before. We need to take care of the ones we currently have. We don’t have a headquarters, but we’re trying to build up representative offices around the world. It’s important to have a presence on each continent. Even if you’re global, you need to act local.”