CONIFA: how the ‘other World Cup’ is helping unrecognised nations through football

Tibet take on Northern Cyrus in Enfield, London. Joel Rookwood, Author provided

CONIFA: how the ‘other World Cup’ is helping unrecognised nations through football

The FIFA World Cup commences in Russia this week, with events on and off the pitch at the 32-team tournament set to dominate global media coverage for the next month.

But the World Cup is not this summer’s only festival of international football. For regions and communities that FIFA has not or will not offer membership to, CONIFA is an alternative confederation, which also organises “international” competitions. This weekend the final of the third CONIFA World Football Cup took place in England, the culmination of a ten-day tournament.

Karpatalja – a Hungarian-speaking minority from western Ukraine – was crowned champions on Saturday after defeating Northern Cyprus in the final on penalties at Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, one of ten venues across London to host matches. The breakaway Turkish Republic also lost the final of the European equivalent in similar circumstances on home soil last year.

CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) was established in 2013 and fills a significant void for some of those entities FIFA neglects. The competition has been described as defiantly subversive of the geopolitical norm. Critics may question its relevance, yet the confederation is developing rapidly.

Building bridges

CONIFA professes to gather 166m people from 47 member entities, a mix of “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories”. It’s a non-profit organisation that aims to “build bridges between people, nations, minorities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football”.

International sporting organisations typically frame their agendas and impact in these positive terms, of course. But, for a football researcher like me, such mission statements are useful as they can then be subject to scholarly scrutiny, particularly in the case of larger confederations such as FIFA.

Preparing to represent Matabeleland, the western part of Zimbabwe. Joel Rookwood, Author provided

Academics can also look at the tournaments themselves. Recent research on sporting “mega events” has looked at whether hosting a tournament does actually promote physical activity, whether it helps the host acquire soft power (or even leads to “soft disempowerment”), and the behaviour and treatment of supporters during tournaments.

CONIFA is relatively new, and currently operates in the margins – scaled somewhere between “mega” and “minor”. Consequently, though the journalist Steve Menary has outlined the history of organised football for unrecognised countries, recent events have not yet been subject to significant scholarly scrutiny.

Though academic research specifically on CONIFA is limited, two geographers at Portland State University in Oregon have looked at the Cascadia region (the US states of Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian province of British Columbia). Their work examines how football has mobilised a shared regional narrative either side of the Canada–US border.

My own academic writing on the CONIFA tournament is in press, but a documentary I made The other World Cup: Football Across Borders was released last year and shown at the inaugural Football Collective conference. The film culminates in the 2016 World Football Cup, hosted and won by Abkhazia, a self-declared independent territory, considered by the UN to be a part of Georgia. It examines football, statehood, identity and conflict within the fractured Georgian-Abkhazian context. Despite CONIFA’s claim and objective to “leave all politics behind” therefore, its events and those involved can prove relatively political.

Appeals to football romantics

The 2018 CONIFA tournament was much bigger than previous editions. For the first time, it was hosted in a global metropolitan city and was supported by lucrative sponsorship from bookmakers Paddy Power. Matches were shown live on Facebook, record attendances were set, and the mainstream global media paid attention.

There were some governance issues, most notably the mid-competition withdrawal of Ellan Vannin (the Manx name for the Isle of Man) in a dispute over an unregistered player. Further political and governance challenges are likely in the future as CONIFA continues to develop and grow. But its expansion reflects and shapes the interests of the football community in this unique format of “international” football.

It also appeals to football romantics: for instance Matabeleland featured 60-year-old former Liverpool goalkeeper and Zimbabwe international Bruce Grobbelaar. As the behaviour of many players and supporters demonstrates however, CONIFA events also provide substantial opportunities to shape and express collective identities through football. The “other World Cup” is here to stay.


Check out the author’s short videos of Tibet and Matabeleland fans:

Matabeleland fans enjoy their game vs Tuvalu (video: CONIFA / Joel Rookwood)

More evidence-based articles about football and the World Cup: