The ConIFA World Cup Preview

With this weekend’s Playoff Finals signaling the end of the domestic football season, and a yawning sixteen day chasm opening up before the World Cup kicks off in Russia, there’ll be plenty of football fans wondering how they’re going to fill the time in between. Fortunately, the third ConIFA World Cup begins in earnest on 31st May, with sixteen teams representing independent football associations from across the world arriving in London to contest the only international tournament open to non-FIFA recognised nations. We’ve taken a closer look at what ConIFA is all about, and who’s in the running to lift the trophy on 10th June. 

“We stand for football in its pure form, playing for the love of the game,” Paul Watson’s mission to bring competitive football to independent states across the world was borne from a slightly more self-indulgent place. Now the UK Commercial Director for the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA), Watson’s journey began in 2007 when he and his friend Matt Conrad looked into the possibility of becoming international footballers by emigrating to the lowest ranked nation in the world, gaining citizenship, and infiltration the national football team. Their research took them to Pohnpei, a tiny island in the Senyavin Islands archipegalo, situated in the Pacific Ocean as part of the Federated States of Micronesia. When Watson and Conrad arrived, they discovered that natrualisation would be a far bigger undertaking than expected, so eventually decided to take on coaching duties of the national team. Having taken the Pohnpei side on a tour of Guam, and overseen the nation’s first ever win, and later coached in Mongolia, Watson’s understanding of these often ignored nations and territories and their need for competitive sport led to the foundation of their own football association.

ConIFA was founded in 2013, and since then has provided representation for nations, minorities, isolated dependencies and cultural regions across the world, giving opportunity for players who neither identify with a FIFA-recognised nation, or have been ignored by the country of their birth to experience football on an international stage. Since forming, ConIFA has welcomed forty-nine members into the confederation, from Yorkshire to Kiribati and, while the association itself stoutly identifies as a-political, many of its members have founded their own teams on political grounds. The likes of Tibet, United Koreans of Japan, Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus are groups not only not recognised by FIFA, but in most cases ignored by the nations that encapsulate them geographically. These members, and by extension their footballers, are orphans of the world, and by offering a platform to compete against those in the same boat, ConIFA provides them with belonging.

In 2014, ConIFA hosted its first ever World Cup. Sápmi were chosen as the hosts, with the tournament scheduled to be played in Östersund in Northern Sweden, with all games being held at Östersunds FK’s  Jämtkraft Arena. Much like the FIFA World Cup, ConIFA’s inaugural tournament was by invitation only, and eleven teams arrived to participate alongside the hosts. In the lead-up to the tournament Quebec and Zanzibar were forced to pull out – the former in order to comply with FIFA membership application directives, while the latter were unable to obtain visas. South Ossetia from Eastern Europe and County of Nice would take their places, with the two sides meeting in the semi-finals. The competition was largely a success, though some sides would find themselves performing a notch below the standard of their competitors – Darfur found themselves on the end of nineteen and twenty goal thrashings in their two group games – it was a competitive and fiercely contested tournament. Latecomers County of Nice eventually won the trophy on penalties, beating Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man in the final.

nice

Two years later Abkhazia, a disputed territory on the coast of the Black Sea, were awarded hosting rights for the second ConIFA World Cup, with the twelve team line-up decided through a variety of means. Aymara, the first South American member of the confederation, were invited along, though subsequently withdrew, while Padania and County of Nice qualified on account of reaching the ConIFA European Cup final in 2015. Raetia, formerly a province of the Roman Empire, qualified via the Benedikt Fontana Cup beating Franconia, while Ellan Vannin came through the three-team Niamh Challenge Cup to earn their place, though they would later withdraw. Held in the city of Sukhumi and the town of Gagra, the 2016 tournament welcomed seven new teams, though the level of ability on show varied far more than the first edition. Somaliland, Raetia and the Chagos Islands were all identified as whipping boys in the group stages, conceding a combined 44 goals over the course of their six games. Come the knockouts, however, games were more closely contested, and once again a penalty shootout was required to decide the winner of the tournament, with hosts Abkhazia triumphant.

This year, the ConIFA World Cup has gone nuclear. Not only has the competition been expanded to 16 teams, bookmaker Paddy Power has been signed up as the tournament’s official sponsor, offering enormous exposure in the United Kingdom. Though Barawa, a port town in Somalia, were officially chosen as hosts, the Barawa Football Association are based in England and represent the Somali diaspora, meaning that the 2018 tournament would be held in and around London. Having previously been split between one or two stadiums, this year’s World Cup involves ten venues from Greater London, Essex and Berkshire, with National League side Sutton United’s 5,000 capacity Gander Green Lane the most high profile ground involved, and the final being held at the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium in Enfield.

Hosts Barawa have been drawn in Group A alongside 2014 finalists Ellan Vannin, Tamil Eelam and first time qualifiers Cascadia, and will fancy their chances to progress into the quarter finals. Though beaten by Tamil Eelam in their first ever international in 2016’s World Unity Cup, Barawa have plenty of pedigree in their squad, including QPR youth teamers Ode Alfa and Kingsley Eshun, as well as Crawley Town midfielder Aryan Tajbakhsh. Tamil Eelam, one of the whipping boys in 2014, return to the tournament looking to better their previous appearance, and put in an honourable performance against a South Korea U23 side in a warm-up game, losing 4-1 at Meadow Lane. Representing the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, Tamil Eelam’s side is made up wholly of semi-professional and amateur players, though striker Panushanth Kulenthiran was brought through the youth setup at Palermo and spent a season on-loan at Champions League semi-finalists Roma. Ellan Vannin make the short journey from the Isle of Man having played a bit-part role in the story of the Yorkshire international team earlier this year, becoming the first opponents of the newly founded side, and the Manx side – predominantly comprised of players plying their trade in the Isle of Man Football League – look to be the favourites to top Group A. Cascadia, representing the north-west coast of the United States and Canada, are the unknown quantity of the tournament, with the opening match of the 2018 World Cup set to be their first official international. Most of Cascadia’s squad can be found in the American lower leagues and English non-league, though Scottish born striker Calum Ferguson is currently on the books of Elgin City.

abkhazia

Group B pits holders Abkhazia alongside 2016’s third placed team Northern Cyprus and two first-time entrants in Kárpátalja and Tibet. Abkhazia’s win last time out was built on a solid defence, and in fact Beslan Ajinjal’s side have only conceded three goals in their last nine internationals. Their victory over Northern Cyprus at the semi-final stage in 2016 might give them a psychological edge in Group B, and unsurprisingly they head into the tournament as favourites. Defender Anri Khagush, who made eight appearances in the Russian Premier League for Arsenal Tula this season, is the side’s most high-profile player, while top scorer Ruslan Shoniya will be hoping to add to his three goals from 2016. Northern Cyprus are perhaps the most storied team in the competition, having originally been set up as the Turkish Cypriot side in 1955. Since then they have competed at the Islamic Games, as well as winning the FIFI Wild Cup and ELF Cup in 2006. Last year they finished runners up in the ConIFA European Cup, losing out to Padania on penalties. Eighteen year old forward Ahmet Sivri is currently on the books at Galatasaray, and is the only player in the squad contracted to a club outside of Northern Cyprus, while goalscoring midfielder Halil Turan is the man to watch. Playing a tune for political tension, Tibet arrive at the tournament with a remarkable story to tell. A team nicknamed ‘The Forbiddens’ offers a good idea of the challenges faced by the squad from East Asia, made up exclusively of exiled Tibetans. An appearance at 2013’s  International Tournament of Peoples, Cultures and Tribes could best be described as mixed – with a 12-2 win over Sahrawi taking the sting out of 22-0 and 21-0 losses on consecutive days. Tibet have previously faced off against Bhutan – at one point bottom of the FIFA rankings – but the 2018 World Cup is their first foray into a CONIFA organised competition. Kárpátalja ensure they’re not alone, too. Representing Hungarians in the Carpathian Ruthenia, Kárpátalja have the dual novelty of a player-manager in István Sándor and a capped international footballer in György Sándor, who played nine times for Hungary between 2006 and 2014. Though relatively young in international terms – Kárpátalja played their first official game less than a year ago – the quality available in the squad means they’ve got serious dark horse potential.

Matebeland, alongside Cascadia, arrive at the tournament preparing for their first foray into international football as a recognised nation, representing the western region of Zimbabwe, between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers. Like fellow Africans Kabilya in Group D, also making their first ConIFA World Cup appearance, Matebeland are yet to publicy name their squad for the tournament due to political reasons. The element of surprise may work in their favour, and if they’re to make it out of Group C, they’ll need something special. The side likely to top Group C, and tipped by many to go all the way, are Padania, who provide the tournament with an element of controversy. Padania represent the Po Valley, a northern plain of Italy which considers itself an independent state, and its name has regularly been used by far right politicians in the country as a byword for nationalism. For the teams part, however, politics don’t come into the equation, and in a recent friendly against a side representing the Romany People, Padania’s players could be seen kissing and hugging their opponents in a show of solitude. Having won three VIVA World Cup’s between 2008 and 2010, the Padania side have plenty of tournament pedigree, but they head to the World Cup looking for the elusive place in the final they’ve yet to achieve. Victories at both ConIFA European Cups have had to suffice, but this summer Head Coach Arturo Merlo wants the big one. One look at the experience available in their squad is explanation enough for their success. Amidst a raft of players plugging away in the lower leagues are older heads with a wealth of top-level knowhow. Lithuanian born defender Marius Stankevičius spent seven years with Brescia, making over 150 appearances and playing alongside the likes of Roberto Baggio, Andrea Pirlo and Pep Guardiola. Stankevičius’ defensive partner Luca Ferri helped Palermo to top-flight promotion in 2004, while striker Gullit Okyere was brought through Atalanta’s famous youth system. The key to beating Padania lies in besting their miserly defence – they conceded five goals in nine games across their two European Cup wins – Panjab and Northern Cyprus managed it in 2016, will anyone this year?  Székely Land might fancy their chances. Though knocked out by Northern Cyprus in the semi-finals, the team representing the ethnic Hungarians of Romania did hold Padania to a draw in the group stages of the European Cup, before sticking four past Ellan Vannin. Eleven of Székely Land’s squad play their club football for Romanian third-tier side FK Miercurea Ciuc though full-back Szabolcs Kilyén is on the books at Viitorul Constanța – Romanian League Champions in 2017, but knocked out of the Champions League this season by APOEL. Székely Land will fancy their chances of at least making it out of the group. The final place in Group C is occupied by latecomers Tuvalu, who kindly stepped in to fill the void left by Kiribati, unable to raise the funds to travel to the UK. Like many countries in the South Pacific, Tuvalu is yet to be recognised by FIFA, so has to make do with regular fixtures against fellow islands, often with mixed results. In December’s Pacific Mini Games, Tuvalu secured wins over New Caledonia and Tonga, though the shine was taken off somewhat by routine thrashings at the hands of the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu. 28 year old striker Alopua Petoa is Tuvalu’s main goal threat, having netted eight in ten including a hat-trick against American Samoa, but he and his team-mates will have to be at their very best to get out of a tough group.

panjab

Alongside Kabylia in Group D are 2016 finalists Panjab, coached by former Aston Villa and Tranmere Rovers defender Reuben Hazell. Most of the Panjab squad can be found playing their club football in the lower reaches of England’s non-league pyramid, with Maidenhead United forward Nathan Minhas playing at the highest level in the UK. Goalkeeper Yousuf Butt, capped twelve times for Pakistan, was relegated this season with Danish second division side Greve Fodbold, while Kamaljat Singh is currently contracted to German regional league side SpVgg Vreden. Panjab’s run to the final in 2016 was largely thanks to the goals of Amar Purewal and Gurjit Singh, who scored eight goals between them in Abkhazia but were cruelly denied their first tournament win by the hosts in a penalty shootout. While their warm-up games for this years competition have hardly provided encouraging signs – three defeats and a draw – they’ll arrive confident that a competitive group gives them a chance to play themselves into form. One of the sides knocked out by Panjab on the way to 2016s final await them in Group D, and Western Armenia could provide stiff competition. Having blitzed the Chagos Islands 12-0 before a narrow defeat to Abkhazia in the group stages two years ago, Western Armenia then gifted Panjab a three goal lead, before a second half comeback gave the scoreline a degree of respectability. Since then the team representing the indigenous Armenians of (what is now known as) Eastern Turkey have added an injection of youth into their squad, and arguably boast the most talented group of players at the tournament. Spread across seven countries in Europe and taking in the top flight of Armenia, Slovakia and Kazakhstan, as well as Ligue 2, Western Armenia have a squad packed with international pedigree. Goalkeeper Gevorg Kasparov has been capped 29 times by Armenia, along with 42 cap midfielder Artur Yedigaryan, and twice capped Hiraç Yagan. Young full-back Gevorg Najaryan, meanwhile, is on the brink of the Kazakhstan senior side. Whether this top level experience translates into progress remains to be seen, but as up and coming sides go Harutyun Vardanyan’s look the pick of the bunch. Fellow 2016 quarter-finalists United Koreans in Japan, the most Ronseal side in the tournament, might have something to say about that, however. Coached by An Yong-Hak, a Japanese born North-Korean who spent his playing days flitting around the J-League and K-League, UKoJ arrive hoping to better their 7th placed finish of two years ago. Given a dearth of top level quality in the squad, the chances of them progressing past the groups hangs in the balance, and it may be down to the coach himself, named among the squad, to inject a little leadership and knowhow into his team.

Ten days of football awaits and, if after a season of spending-sprees, overpaid primadonnas and England’s impeding failure have got you down, the ConIFA World Cup might just provide a timely reminder of the beauty of football and the difference in can make to people’s lives. Once orphans of the world, these footballers and their supporters have now found belonging. And not even FIFA can take that away.

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