Two months before the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Sascha Düerkop is speaking to Off-Field over a patchy Skype line ahead of calls with the BBC and CNN. He is entertaining as many media outlets as possible to spread the word about the ambitious football organisation he helped to launch only five years earlier. “People who had never heard of us before now know there’s another home for international football.”
Weeks before a young, exciting and ethnically diverse French team lift sport’s most prestigious trophy with a performance that embodies their country’s famous motto, Düerkop is also championing the values of liberty, equality and fraternity as he describes a footballing vision of his own as the General Secretary of CONIFA: the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. The essence of CONIFA, proclaims Düerkop, is summed up with another quality that fits neatly alongside the slogan of the French Revolution. Identity.
Whether discussed in relation to Brexit, immigration or gender, it is the subject that defines our times. And it is the point of difference that gives Düerkop and his fellow volunteers the confidence that, despite FIFA’s World Cup audience of 3.4 billion, there remains room for a disruptive challenger. One that makes no attempt to be an arbiter of a person’s identity.
It’s why, days after our call, Düerkop welcomes an intrigued press pack to the muggy basement of London’s Stay Club, the student accommodation that, for 10 days in early June, acts as the base for 16 competing teams in CONIFA’s third edition of their World Football Cup, suitably named to avoid unwelcome letters from Swiss lawyers. Sandwiched between the end of the Premier League season and FIFA’s international showpiece, the scheduling ensures a large crowd of scribbling journalists keen for copy during the pre-Moscow lull. It’s a savvy touch from a modest organisation that nevertheless takes every opportunity to remind those listening that they are still new to all of this.
The media are introduced to teams including Tibet, Tuvalu, Cascadia, Kabylia, reigning champions Abkhazia and hosts Barawa – the Somali diaspora living in the UK – as they get to grips with the scope of a tournament that invites states, de facto states, regions, minority groups and sports-isolated territories to take part. In other words, the football associations not permitted to play under FIFA’s altogether more rigid structure.
“If we do have any political message it’s that we want to ask people what they feel they belong to and not impose it on them. So, we don’t have a strict catalogue of places that we’ll fit you in, but we’ll ask you what do you feel you belong to, and you can have a team for that,” explains Düerkop.
“It’s very important to us, unlike FIFA, that we don’t take the decision if you are a country or not, but we refer to experts in all criteria. So, for ethnic minorities, we refer to Minority Rights Group International. For linguistic minorities, we need a language with a certain ISO code. We always refer to third parties who have more people knowledge than we have.”
With 47 members (CONIFA avoid the term “nations”) from over five continents, this pop-up confederation already boasts a community of 334 million. They may never rival FIFA for size, income or grandeur, but there’s an argument to say they’re already ahead when it comes to inclusivity.
“We want to come out of the shadow and to be part of global football,” continues Düerkop. “The first phase was to get more teams from all over the world. We are now at a status that every week, two or three people contact me asking ‘how can we set up a new representative team for my minority?’.”
Düerkop adds that there are over 5,500 ethnicities in the world, suggesting that CONIFA’s growth is far from reaching its ceiling. If anything though, admits President Per-Anders Blind – a former referee whose own Sami people have faced persecution in Sweden – they’re wary of expanding too quickly:
“Our growth has been extreme; we need to slow down a little and consolidate the organisation. We’ve created magic with just volunteer work – imagine what we could accomplish if we could work full time on CONIFA. Then, not even the sky would be the limit.”
The somewhat unfair comparison with a 114-year-old FIFA is to be expected. But CONIFA don’t discourage it. If anything, they revel in the contrast, cautioning journalists not to expect any pomp or ceremony at its host grounds, and prompting laughter when Düerkop says that FIFA are a great example “of how not to do things.”
And with Paddy Power as tournament sponsors and 90s pop duo Right Said Fred providing the soundtrack (“This ain’t Moscow, this ain’t Qatar, this is London, home to friends near and far”), CONIFA take a more light-hearted approach than many may have expected given the grave situations – persecution, oppression, exile – that some of the teams involved have endured.
This delicate balancing act, between positioning CONIFA as an antidote to a modern game that can take itself too seriously, while raising awareness of the plight of their members, is one that required months of tactful planning and preparation:
“Paddy Power have been travelling with a few of our teams and doing fantastic documentaries about them. They are famous for annoying people, and we all agreed we wanted to annoy and tease the established football a little bit. But we will not make any jokes about our teams,” admits Düerkop.
As the press conference winds to a close, Blind fields one final question challenging him to sum up his organisation in just a few words. After a considered pause, he smiles back at the questioner: “Come to the games tomorrow. You will see. It’s different to anything you’ll have covered before.”
The following day, the tournament kicks off with eight games played at non-league grounds all over the capital. Unlike FIFA’s Gianni Infantino, the CONIFA President is not hob-nobbing with global dignitaries in VIP seats. Instead, Blind is manning the turnstiles at Coles Park, the home of Haringey Borough FC. After greeting fans, he dashes up to the PA system to announce the line-ups and pipe out the national anthems, streaming them through his phone and pressing it up to the PA mic.
The players of Szekely Land and Tuvalu care little that Blind is more backyard pirate DJ than master of ceremonies. They care only that their anthems are finally being heard on the international stage.
Despite a competitive start, the game finishes 4-0 to Szekely Land, representing the eastern Transylvanian region of Romania, home to over half a million ethnic Hungarians known as the Szekelys. A handful of their fans are in attendance, wearing Magyar t-shirts and waving Hungarian flags with gusto.
Their passionate following grows in number throughout the tournament, accompanied by red flares and chants of “RIA, RIA, HUNGA-RIA!”. Comprising players from the top three divisions in Romania and Hungary, Szekely Land make it all the way to the semi-final thanks to shining performances from hulking former Hungarian international Csaba Csizmadia and jinking winger Arthur Gyorgyi.
For Tuvalu, they don’t make it out of their group after the opening defeat is followed by an 8-0 thumping at the hands of CONIFA’s European champions Padania. It’s tough on a young side who’ve travelled nearly 10,000 miles from the South Pacific to be here, by a considerable distance the furthest journey of any team in London. With only four of the squad born before 1990, repeated defeats on their CONIFA debut risked being a chastening experience, had the results on the pitch been their top priority. As it turns out, it was largely a secondary concern.
Among the members taking part in the CONIFA World Football Cup, Tuvalu have more reason than most to feel aggrieved at being unable to play under the FIFA banner. With a population of just over 11,000 spread over nine tiny islands, it’s one of the smallest countries in the world. Nonetheless, Tuvalu is a country, a fully fledged UN member state. Yet despite first applying in 1987, FIFA has repeatedly failed to lay down the welcome mat. According to the President of the Tuvalu FA, Soseala Tinilau, it has nothing to do with their performances on the pitch.
“It is simply because Tuvalu cannot meet two important criteria set by FIFA. One is a stadium of 3,000 capacity, and the other is to do with the number of hotels. We only have one.”
FIFA membership would ensure financial assistance for Tuvalu to improve its facilities. But with the national team continually rejected by FIFA due to its poor infrastructure, it leaves its President with a conundrum of Heller-esque proportions.
“It is a challenging role to play, especially if trying to manage the Association without any financial assistance from the Oceanic Football Confederation or FIFA,” explains Tinilau. “My role is to find opportunities for our players and expose them to a high level of football, while advocating for a full membership in OFC and FIFA.”
It is hoped that joining CONIFA will help Tuvalu get one step closer to both targets. Not only will the country’s inexperienced footballers be able to add tournament nous and travel experience to their technical abilities, but CONIFA – described by Düerkop as a “service organisation” – will actively help off the pitch too, providing assistance and expertise where they can to improve its members’ chances of reaching the lucrative next step on the international ladder. Tinilau reveals that they are planning another application to FIFA in the near future.
While Tuvalu are far from the only team in the world frustrated by FIFA’s unrequited love, their yearning for recognition comes with a uniquely pressing concern that makes the chance for their football team to thrive one of national, and global, importance. There can’t be many footballers who are keen to openly discuss climate change, but for Tinilau it is vital that he and his players raise the subject on the rare occasions the media spotlight shines on them:
“The highest level on the island is barely three to four meters above sea level, so when there is a hurricane, storm surges and wave actions inundate the land and make it impossible for us to use the sports ground.”
The players train at Tuvalu Sports Ground, a low-lying sports stadium with a coral surface that makes close control a near impossibility. When it floods, as it does frequently, it’s not unusual to find the players training on the Funafuti airport runway in between landings.
“Sea level rise is a major threat as it also impacts our source of livelihoods, our only staple crop the giant swap taro. The increase in ocean acidification will severely impact coral reefs, negatively impacting marine resources which we depend much on for our daily survival.”
“Climate change can disrupt our plans for the development of football in the country, so it is vitally important to spread the message of the impact through the football team to show that we are still enjoying playing the beautiful game and are resilient in the face of adversity.”
For many of the footballers on show at the World Football Cup, their trip to London represents the first time they’ve played outside of their home nations. For Tibet, the situation couldn’t be more contrasting, with none of the 23 players arriving from the region they are nonetheless honoured to represent. With China controversially governing Tibet since 1951, the football team plays on behalf of the Central Tibetan Administration, exiled in India along with the Dalai Lama.
Given China’s strict political standpoint on the matter, it means the young footballers wearing Tibetan colours on foreign soil are effectively giving up all hope of ever returning to their ancestral homeland. The squad is therefore made of Tibetans already exiled all over the world. Due to the geographical disadvantage, the team first trained together only ten days before their CONIFA debut.
“All the players live in different part of India, Nepal, Canada, Europe and USA”, explains Passang Dorjee, the Executive Secretary of the Tibetan National Sports Association. The TNSA was set up in 2002 by the Dalai Lama’s sister, Kasur Jetsun Pema, to energise Tibet’s youth and provide a way to channel their struggle for identity and culture. Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that they fail to register a win in London. It matters little to Dorjee, or his players.
“The highlights from this tournament was big exposure, experience, the true meaning of sportsmanship and national status, which we have got.”
Although Dorjee says he personally experienced no political pressure or protest from the Chinese government, preparations ahead of the tournament saw the team encounter several stumbling blocks bearing the hallmarks of Beijing. Delays to visas meant their attendance was confirmed just weeks before their first game, while arranging friendlies in Europe proved problematic, as Düerkop explains:
“Tibet wanted to play a friendly match in Germany and they had everything settled, a club was actually inviting them to play and they got the approval. Then a week later the head of the German FA recalled the approval and said, ‘no you can’t play, if you do we will sanction the match and we might actually come to the pitch with the police and clear it’.”
“The reason for that is that the German FA is currently doing a deal with the Chinese FA, so they said it’s not beneficial for football in Germany.”
Düerkop and those at CONIFA are well placed to recognise Chinese governmental muscle when they see it. They witnessed a number of international brands pull out of sponsoring the World Football Cup following the announcement of Tibet’s inclusion, secured – given the lack of qualifying matches – courtesy of a wildcard. For all that the organisation say they are politically neutral, CONIFA’s insistence that everyone should be allowed to play the game is likely ruffle more than a few feathers in international diplomacy.
Few will be as grateful as Dorjee, the Tibetan players and the Dalai Lama himself, who personally blessed the squad at his home in India before they headed to London. “We should take pride in being a Tibetan,” he told them, “so wherever you go, it is very important that you uphold the honour and dignity of Tibet and Tibetan people. Most importantly, carry our values and culture with you as you go”.
Karpatalya represent the ethnic minority Hungarians living in the far west region of Ukraine known as Zakarpathia Oblast. Located among the historic Carpathian Mountains that act as the doorway to Eastern Europe, it shares a border with Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. Before World War One, the region formed part of the Kingdom of Hungary, but it needn’t require an in-depth knowledge of geopolitics to take an educated guess at the team’s dual heritage. Instead, a basic grasp of international flags, or football kits, should suffice.
The team’s home outfit mirrors Hungary’s red shirt, white shorts and green socks, while their away kit copies Ukraine’s renowned yellow and blue combo. With both sets of colours also featuring in the Karpatalya badge, the subtle touches are a neat way of reflecting the past and the present of the region. As it turned out, success in London would prompt contentious discussions about its future.
Those watching Karpatalya for the first time can’t help but be impressed. Despite being built for technique rather than tussle, they show no shortage of grit to draw their opening game 1-1 with a muscular Northern Cyprus side, then turn heads by seeing off reigning champions Abkhazia 2-0.
They top their group with a flourish, thumping Tibet 5-1, meaning that by the time they knock out another favourite in the quarter-finals, the North American bio-region of Cascadia, the only surprise for onlookers is the fact that when the World Football Cup draw was made in January, Karpatalya weren’t even in it. Instead, having initially failed to qualify, they owed their unexpected inclusion to fellow minority Hungarians, following the last-minute withdrawal of Felvidek, a team representing the Hungarian diaspora in Slovakia.
If 32-year-old manager and midfielder Istvan Sandor had any problems persuading players to cancel holidays and head for England, then it doesn’t show on the pitch. It helps that Sandor has his Hungary-capped older brother Gyorgy (34) and captain Zoltan Baksa (35) to rely on, with their combined decades of experience in Hungary’s top divisions making Karpatalya’s midfield one of the oldest, yet wiliest, in the competition.
In contrast, Karpatalya’s goalkeeper Bela Fejer possesses the youthful bounce of a toddler at soft play. The 23-year-old, who plays in Romania’s top flight, is heard throughout each match bellowing encouragement to his teammates and engaging in light-hearted japery with the crowd. Where Karpatalya’s trio of midfield elders bring calm and composure, Fejer adds class, cojones and charisma, his short-sleeved luminous jersey merely hinting at the energy bundled within. He proves himself an integral cog not only to his team but to the tournament as a whole, deservedly crowned its best performer.
With Szekely Land awaiting in the semi-finals, themselves in confident mood following a 4-0 quarter-final win over Western Armenia, this all-Hungarian affair conjures up history book excerpts of Magyar dominance. Once again the Szekely fans arrive in their noisy droves, quite literally lighting up the stands at Carshalton Athletic’s War Memorial Sports Ground. An open encounter results in one of the games of the tournament, providing another platform on which Fejer thrives, saving a crucial penalty with a scrambling double save when 1-0 up, and keeping Szekely Land at bay when they threaten an unlikely equaliser from 3-0 down. A late counter sees Karpatalya seal the game 4-2 and secure their place in the final.
In post-match scenes that encapsulate CONIFA’s vision of football without borders, both teams embrace and join in with the terrace chorus of “HUNGARIA”. Overcoming their dismay, the Szekely ultras not only sportingly laud the victors but follow them to the final; flares, fervour and all. With none of Hungary, Romania or Ukraine featuring at FIFA’s World Cup, Karpatalya prove to be the next best thing.
Two days later, a full house at Enfield Town sees Karpatalya crowned World Football Cup champions. Once again facing Northern Cyprus, who had overcome Padania 3-2 in another semi-final thriller, a cagey encounter is settled on penalties. By repelling three Northern Cypriot spot kicks, it is of course Fejer who proves the difference.
But the unexpected success of this minority group is not universally admired. Within days, Ukraine’s sports minister Igor Zhdanov calls on the Karpatalya players to be interrogated for “a frank act of sporting separatism”. It’s followed by a statement from the Ukraine Football Federation announcing sanctions forbidding the players from playing in the Ukraine.
The news comes amid simmering political tensions in Ukraine. Minorities in the country, including Hungarians, had taken issue with new educational laws aimed at restricting the speaking of minority native languages in schools. For the 12% in Karpatalya who declare Hungarian as their mother tongue, this international recognition on a football pitch could well be framed as a victory over those trying to muzzle them. For Ukraine’s part, their twitchiness has its seeds sown in the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia, with similar tensions building in other contested regions. They’re understandably determined to ensure Karpatalya doesn’t become another.
Whether Ukraine have legitimate concern, or are guilty of a PR gaffe that clumsily brandishes its minorities as separationists, it leaves CONIFA with yet another balancing act. This time, it requires showing no political allegiances while simultaneously supporting the rights of its teams to play football:
“CONIFA is alarmed by calls to interrogate players from the Karpatalya team,” said a statement. “To the best of its knowledge, the players, administrators and officials of the Karpatalya football team have never expressed any separatist sentiments or ambitions. The team has a long-standing, demonstrable history of publicly embracing the region’s dual heritage.”
“CONIFA also considers the FFU’s proposal to de-register Karpatalya players to be draconian. We believe that everyone should be able to represent their identity via football. CONIFA stands with the players of Karpatalya and will monitor developments closely. We urge Minister Zhdanov and the FFU to reconsider their position.”
“Why are so many of England’s World Cup footballers from Yorkshire?” read The Guardian headline during the country’s most successful World Cup campaign in 18 years. Six of Gareth Southgate’s squad, including Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire, hailed from the county labelled as “God’s Own” by those who live within it.
Six years earlier, a similar theme developed when it became apparent that, had Yorkshire competed on its own during London 2012 Olympics, it would have finished 12th in the medal table. Given that the county also boasts the current English cricket captain and a recent US Masters golf champion, it’s hard to contest that Yorkshire and sport go together like tea and toast.
But could a Yorkshire football team really compete at international level? Thanks to CONIFA, we’ll soon find out.
“It first came about as a fun conversation around a coffee machine at work in the late 90s. We were talking about the likes of Nicky Barmby and Kevin Davies at the time. Then the idea was resurrected in 2016 in a conversation online with like-minded folk, and in 2017 I just decided to give it a go.”
Philip Hegarty is the Chairman of the Yorkshire International Football Association. In just over a year, the warehouse worker has seen his cheeky idea spiral towards global recognition. Once he’d settled on a badge, kit, sponsor and anthem (‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’ At’ ) Hegarty invited Yorkshire-born footballers to attend trials in January 2018. Over 150 applications were received from semi-professional players eager to represent their county on the international stage.
“Our email inbox became almost unnavigable we had so much interest in our players’ open day. Getting a decent quality of player was always going to be a bit more difficult, but manager Ryan Farrell and assistant Micky Long have lots of contacts between them and the team we have now is absolutely fantastic.”
Five months later, watched by 627 fans at Hemsworth Miners Welfare FC in Pontefract, Jordan Coduri of non-league Penistone Church scored Yorkshire’s first ever international goal in a 1-1 draw with Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man), at the time ranked CONIFA’s fourth best team. As of August 2018, Yorkshire remain unbeaten with comprehensive wins over Chagos Islands and Barawa following their CONIFA debut.
“The main ambitions for the team are to qualify for major CONIFA competitions, improve Yorkshire’s profile abroad, and to give something back to the communities here,” says Hegarty, who spent five months preparing the application to CONIFA. Given that Yorkshire wasn’t an obvious fit within the organisation’s stated criteria, Hegarty’s application cited its unique dialect, its Nordic heritage (“The Vikings” is the team nickname) and included recent academic research to prove its strength of identity. Thanks to Dr Pete Woodcock of the University of Huddersfield, whose 2014 survey found that 40% of the region felt more Yorkshire than English, CONIFA voted unanimously in favour.
Despite encountering several sceptics, Hegarty was never in doubt that Yorkshire’s footballers would be desperate to wear the blue shirt: “They’re from Yorkshire, they’re proud of being Yorkshire, and they want to show the world what folk from our region can do. They don’t get paid. They turn up purely out of pride and passion.”
While the UK wrestles with the increasingly-frought execution of Brexit, Yorkshire’s own political backdrop reflects a more localised debate on identity and belonging, with the subject of a “One Yorkshire” devolution never too far from the news agenda. And while Hegarty isn’t afraid to discuss his views on the topic, he is reluctant for his football team to become a political vehicle. Nonetheless, in typical forthright Yorkshire fashion, he has no time for diplomacy when it comes to any doubters:
“There are a small number of naysayers. I don’t take much notice of any criticism from outside Yorkshire because, to be quite frank, if they’re not from Yorkshire they don’t matter!”
“One of the sports writers for the Yorkshire Evening Post said it was a joke gone too far. I’d probably say the same about his career.”
CONIFA’s rules will prevent the Yorkshire team from being used as a propaganda tool. Which, even for those pro-devolution, is probably a good thing. The injustices faced by other CONIFA members risk making Yorkshire’s misgivings with a London-centric government seem insignificant in comparison.
Should Yorkshire achieve success – with Hegarty quietly confident his team could make the final four of the next World Football Cup in 2020 – then it’s likely to inspire more UK regions to try their hand on the international stage. Where Yorkshire and the Isle of Man have led the way, the likes of Jersey, Guernsey and Cornwall could conceivably follow, each with their own associated agendas and political contexts. Given CONIFA’s neutral intentions, their continued expansion is likely to hinge on its volunteers’ ability to deal with increased criticism and objections with the resolute certitude of a Yorkshireman.
What shouldn’t be lost among CONIFA’s admirable quest is that they’re also providing a fresh new voice on how the game of football can be organised and played. Being unaffiliated to FIFA allows them to tweak and innovate as they see fit.
Thus, they scrapped the concept of extra-time in favour of heading straight to penalties, while the format of the tournament ensured that eliminated teams would continue to play each other to determine the finishing position of every side. It meant even those who failed to progress from their groups, such as Tibet and Tuvalu, were still guaranteed to play the same number of games as the teams who progressed to the final. It’s a format that encouraged even the weaker teams to make the journey.
And while the rest of the world would soon be debating the merits or otherwise of VAR, in the parallel football universe devised by CONIFA, the green card was the eyebrow-raising innovation on display. Intended to deter diving and dissent, use of the card by tournament referees (headlined by former Premier League official Mark Clattenburg) forced the player in question to be immediately substituted. German referee René Jacobi believed it was an effective deterrent:
“After the first green cards, we found that speaking with the players on the pitch and warning that this behaviour in the next situation will get them the green card helped the referees quite a lot. Players realised that a booking with the green card for unnecessary situations in a tournament with only six games hit them harder than being friendly and focusing on the game itself.”
“The green card from the referees point of view is a good implementation, because it focused on the personal bad behaviour that teams cannot correct from the inside.”
But not everything went to plan in London. Düerkop’s pre-tournament admission that the process for squad selection remained a flexible soft spot for the organisation (“we leave it to the teams to decide who they feel represents them”) led to an unseemly spat when Ellan Vannin withdrew following elimination due to their objection to a late Barawa call-up. The future of the Isle of Man’s membership remains in the balance.
Clearly, improvements can be made. But it’s difficult to begrudge a fledgling organisation the odd regulatory lapse when their core aims are humanitarian, not financial.
“We have a vision of creating a better world – bridging divides and creating a world where no-one is a stranger. Even today, some of our members are facing their own personal hells every day. They live in refugee camps, they run from their homes to escape war and genocide. Some live in disaster areas,” reads President Blind’s programme notes, revealing that CONIFA’s ultimate goal is to start a foundation to help its members. Football, he believes, “is a tool for a higher purpose”.
It’s true that, what may seem frivolous to some and downright disagreeable to others, is proving liberating to those who feel disenfranchised within football’s existing world view. Those representing Tuvalu, Tibet, Karpatalya and Yorkshire will attest to that.
And while their anti-establishment outlook won’t please everyone, CONIFA believe they are at least consistent with their approach. That, in a summer made memorable by the phrase “it’s coming home”, they are adhering to that very philosophy.
Home, according to CONIFA, is wherever you believe it to be.
Passang Dorjee, TNSA
Sascha Düerkop, CONIFA
Philip Hegarty, YIFA
René Jacobi, CoF
Soseala Tinilau, TNFA
Tomoaki Inaba (Flickr)