London (AFP) – Far from the showpiece razzmatazz of this year’s World Cup in Russia, 16 teams kicked off Thursday at an alternative world championship for those sidelined by the official competition.
The CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, being contested at non-league grounds around London, sees the likes of Tibet and Northern Cyprus mix with southwestern Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland, the Punjabi diaspora and the Abkhazia breakaway region of Georgia.
CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, is the non-profit federation for teams outside FIFA, the sport’s world governing body.
With a wider interpretation of international identity, its 47 members include sovereign states, nations, minorities, isolated dependencies and cultural regions.
“Many of our members have a history that is quite tragic,” CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind told AFP.
“Even if they never met before, they come on the same pitch and share similar stories.
“Many of these teams have been bullied, abused and neglected from governments, perhaps somebody wanted to take their territories. So there is a respect and understanding.”
At least 30 players taking part have played in one of Europe’s top divisions, according to the Times newspaper. Some have played in the Champions League.
The tournament has grown bigger than even its volunteer organisers expected and CONIFA is counting on London’s diaspora communities turning up to support the teams.
– Drums and dancing –
The 10-day tournament kicked off Thursday.
Reigning champions Abkhazia beat Tibet 3-0 in front of around 300 spectators at a suburban sports ground in north London, where fans dressed in national colours banged drums, chanted and danced pitchside.
“It’s history for us to play,” Tibet striker Pema Lhundup Sherpa told AFP afterwards.
“We feel really proud and really happy that we represent our nation here in England, and show the whole world that Tibetans also know how to play soccer.”
Ellan Vannin — the Isle of Man in its Manx Gaelic language — beat Cascadia 4-1, in the first-ever match for the side representing Canada’s British Columbia and the US states of Oregon and Washington.
Northern Cyprus were held 1-1 by Karpatalja (ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine) while Panjab hammered Kabylia 8-0.
Szekely Land (Hungarians in Romania) beat Tuvalu 4-0, while United Koreans in Japan and Western Armenia shared a goalless draw.
An Yong Hak, 39, coaches and plays for the Korean side. Just eight years ago, he was playing for North Korea against Brazil in the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg.