The 2016 ConIFA World Cup provides an international stage for stateless populations

The 12 teams that will participate in this year’s World Cup are already set. Now, you might be asking yourself: “This year’s World Cup? What have I missed? What year is this? Will Messi be fit?” Well, according to most experts, it is still 2016 and Messi is not fit. But the World Cup is on, because people all over the globe love soccer, and that includes people in places that are not internationally recognized as countries, and people who don’t have claims to any lands.

Not having an officially recognized patch of land for your people to call its own is nothing but an unfortunate accident of history and diplomacy. And the people at ConIFA, the Confederation of International Football Associations, don’t believe that these circumstances should prevent people from partaking in international soccer competitions, which is why they are organizing the second ConIFA World Cup, scheduled to kick off this coming May.

ConIFA lists 33 member associations from unrecognized states, regions, minorities, micronations, stateless peoples, and generally any place or group that is not allowed to have a FIFA membership. And its World Cup – held every two years – is indeed, as the organizers call it, “the biggest stage of international football outside of FIFA.”

This year’s World Cup will be played in Abkhazia, an “autonomous republic” in northwestern Georgia by the Black Sea in the Caucasus. “Autonomous republic” means that Abkhazia considers itself independent and is controlled by a separatist government, but Georgia, the United Nations, and most countries in the world recognize it as being part of Georgia.

Raul Khadzimba, new president of Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, swears in with a hand on the Constitution in the provincial capital of Sukhumi during his inauguration on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Lesya Polyakova)Lesya Polyakova/AP

Raul Khadzimba, president of Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, swears in with a hand on the Constitution in the provincial capital of Sukhumi during his inauguration on Sept. 25, 2014.

All of the ConIFA World Cup games will be played at the Dinamo Stadium in Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital, and the tournament will run from May 28th to June 5th.

Of course, a tournament comprised of unrecognized states will inevitably have logistical issues. For instance, there are only two ways to reach Sukhumi. One of them is through neighboring Russia, which might be the easiest option since Russia is one of the countries that recognizes Abkhazia and maintains somewhat of an open-border policy with them. You can take a train from Moscow, or a bus from Sochi, which is only a few miles from the border (though you might still need a visa if you are not Russian). The other way is to cross the border is from Zugdidi in Georgia. This can prove unwieldy, however, as visiting Abkhazia is illegal under Georgian law.

If you manage to reach Abkhazia, you’ll get to witness some very interesting national teams competing in the tournament, including Chagos Islands, Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus, Padania, Panjab, Raetia, Romani People, Sápmi, Somaliland, United Koreans in Japan, and Western Armenia. A few rounds of qualifiers were played, but on January 9th ConIFA members elected these 11 teams to join hosts Abkhazia at the World Cup.

The teams represent “nations” with some fascinating backstories. Sápmi (also known as “Lappland”), for example, is a region encompassing parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia where the Sami people live. The Sami are indigenous people from the Arctic Circle, and they hosted the inaugural ConIFA World Cup in 2014 (in spring, thankfully) in Östersund, Sweden.

There is also the team from the Romani People, or Roma People, who are a “stateless nation,” an itinerant group spread over Europe and the Americas with no particular common homeland. Their team for the World Cup will be managed by Brera FC, a team from the Italian seventh division known as “Milan’s third team.”

Protesters take part to a rally in Campo dei Fiori, next to the French embassy in Rome, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010, demonstrating against expulsions of Gypsies as well as other new security measures adopted by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government. (AP Photo/Alberto Pellaschiar)Alberto Pellaschiar/AP

Protesters take to the streets in Rome to protest against expulsion of Roma populations.

In Italy, discrimination against Romani people is a grave problem, and soccer, sadly, is no refuge. Just last month, AS Roma’s Daniele De Rossi called Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic (who is from Croatia) a “zingaro,” an unfortunately common Italian slur equivalent to “gypsy” that is often used to refer to anyone from the Balkans.

Brera’s president Alessandro Aleotti said that, in an effort to change the perception of Romani people, Brera’s scouts will recruit a national team by looking for players in 18 European countries. Andrea Mazza, Brera’s manager, will be the coach of the Romani People team.

Another interesting team is the one of The United Koreans of Japan. This team represents those in Japan who can trace their ancestry to Koreans (from both the south and north) who migrated to Japan during the latter’s annexation of the former in the early 20th century, or during the Korean War in the 1950s. These people are usually referred to as “Zainchi” (or “foreign”) Koreans, and are often considered an ethnic minority in Japan and denied citizenship under the country’s strict naturalization laws.

The team they will send to the World Cup will be an offshoot of FC Korea, a team that plays in the Japanese fifth division and that, since its birth as Zainichi Chosen Football Club in 1961 through 2002, was linked to pro-North Korean organizations in Japan. According to the ConIFA organizers, they are trying to look for new challenges, as J-League citizenship rules have made it hard for them to advance in Japan’s soccer pyramid.

There is also a team representing Padania, a word used to describe northern Italy. The name, originally just a vague describer for the Po Valley region, was appropriated in the 1990s by the Italian right-wing party Lega Nord. Lega Nord has sought independence (or autonomy) for Padania, as many of its members believe that the more agrarian south of Italy is holding back the more industrialized north. For this, Lega Nord has been often accused of racism and xenophobia, an accusation that has not been aided by the behavior of some of its members.

A man with a shirt saying "Padania is not Italy" looks on prior to the start of the exhibition soccer match between formations called  Padania and Tibet in Milan, Italy, Wednesday, May 7, 2008. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)Antonio Calanni/AP

A man with a shirt saying "Padania is not Italy" looks on prior to the start of the exhibition soccer match between Padania and Tibet in Milan, Italy.

In 2013, for example, Kevin Prince Boateng was playing a friendly for AC Milan against Pro Patria in Busto Arsizio, but famously decided to abandon the game because of the racist chants coming relentlessly from the home stands. At least six people were investigated for instigating the chants, including Riccardo Grittini, a member of Lega Nord and of the government of the nearby town of Corbetta in Lombardy. Grittini was Padania’s goalkeeper in the 2014 World Cup.

Back then, Grittini had an unexpected teammate: Mario Balotelli’s biological younger brother, Enoch Barwuah. Unlike Mario, who was born in Palermo, Enoch was born in northern Italy, in Brescia, near Milan, so he fit the requirements to play for Padania.

Nonetheless, some eyebrows were raised in Italy when Enoch, a black man, decided to play for such a controversial team, and next to someone accused of racism. Regardless, he said that “as someone from Brescia, I am a citizen of Padania and I accepted this invitation willingly.”

But Lega Nord might be out of the equation going forward, however. Back in 2014, the party’s General Secretary Matteo Salvini said that he had no idea about the team, and that it didn’t represent a continuation of the Padania team that had dominated non-FIFA soccer in previous years.

MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Mario Balotelli (2nd R) of AC Milan takes a photograph with his phone before the Serie A match between AC Milan and UC Sampdoria at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on September 28, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Mario Balotelli (2nd right) and his brother Enoch (left) snapping photos before a Serie A match in Milan, Italy.

Indeed, non-FIFA international football goes back to at least 2003, when the N.F.-Board (Nouvelle Fédération-Board) was founded with a similar purpose to that now fulfilled by ConIFA. The N.F.-Board organized five Viva World Cups (Padania won three of them), starting with the one held in Occitania (southern France) in 2006. (Also, the summer of that year, a different group organized a one-time world cup for non-FIFA members called FIFI World Cup with the help of German club St. Pauli, who lent their Hamburg Millerntor Stadium).

However, the N.F.-Board faced many problems since its inception. Its inaugural cup was scheduled to take place in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but the Board moved the tournament after a political dispute with the local government. Eventually, the N.F.-Board disbanded in 2013, despite a very successful Viva World Cup held in Kurdistan in 2012. According to ConIFA heads, many of the teams that had participated in Viva World Cups still wanted to have an international tournament to play in, so they turned to Swede Per-Anders Blind for leadership. Blind, now the current president of ConIFA, had been a referee in four Viva World Cups, and had helped organize the tournaments. He teamed with a German partner, Sascha Düerkop, and by May of 2013 created ConIFA and established it as a non-profit in Sweden.

The organizers say that teams have to pay their expenses to arrive at the site and that there is no monetary prize to be gained. Instead, they say “teams simply play for the joy of football and the pride to represent their nation internationally.” But with such delicate international diplomacy issues represented by their teams, it’s no wonder that the organizers declare themselves “100% politically neutral.”

Instead, they see themselves as a place where football can develop outside of FIFA and its pressures. Though ConIFA members say they have a friendly relationship with FIFA, they also have a few issues with them. Here’s how they explain FIFA’s selection process: “The current 209 FIFA members are selected on the basis of UN-membership and have been selected by other, non-transparent, criteria before. In addition FIFA does not include transnational movements or diaspora communities, that often spread half the world. However, all the mentioned ‘entities’ do have a lot of pride, history and their members often feel not represented by any of the current FIFA members.”

Gaining recognition for a national football team might seem like a mere whim, but it can be fundamental for the recognition of the nation as a whole. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Algerian independentist movement Front de Libération Nationale organized a team made up of professional French-born Algerian players. The team defied FIFA and toured the world while validating Algerian claims of independence from France, eventually leaving its place for a FIFA-affiliated Algerian team. Certainly other countries would like to follow suit, but it is not an easy feat in the modern world.

To be allowed into FIFA, you generally have to be a member of the United Nations first. However, there have been exceptions. Each of the United Kingdom’s four home countries are FIFA members, even though only the United Kingdom is a UN member. Tahiti and New Caledonia are not UN members since they are both part of France, but both of them are FIFA members. Palestine and the Republic of China (Taiwan) are also FIFA members, despite their limited recognition at the UN.

This might be why ConIFA is growing, because so many nationalities are looking for a place where they can be represented. Besides the World Cup, ConIFA has organized a European Cup (in 2015, in Székely Land in Romania, which was won by the County of Nice in France). They are also planning another one for 2017, and hope to create beach soccer, youth, and women’s tournaments soon. If ConIFA manages to add streams and TV broadcasts for this year’s World Cup, as they are planning, it might even be possible to watch the tournament and cheer on these teams without dealing with Georgian borders.