Far from the showpiece razzmatazz of this year’s official World Cup in Russia, 16 teams are set to do battle at an alternative World Cup for those outside the system.
The CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, being contested at non-league grounds around London, will see the likes of Tibet and Northern Cyprus mix it with Matabeleland, the Punjabi diaspora and the Russian-backed Abkhazia breakaway region of Georgia.
CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, is the 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.
The 16 world cup teams represent an estimated 334mn people worldwide.
“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 had played in one of Europe’s top divisions, according to the Times newspaper. Some have played in the Champions League.
“We are excited to be able to host our largest ever tournament in Greater London, the historic home of the beautiful game,” added Blind.
“With some teams based in the United Kingdom, some having large diaspora communities here and plenty of neutral favourites, we are confident of support.”
The 10-day tournament was scheduled to kick off yesterday with an opening ceremony at Hayes Lane, the 5,000-capacity home of English fifth-tier side Bromley.
The subsequent match is nominal tournament hosts Barawa versus Tamil Eelam, two diaspora sides representing southern Somalia and Sri Lankan Tamils.
Barawa manager Abdikarim Farah told a press conference: “It’s Ramadan for us so most of the players will be fasting, so that’s an additional challenge for us.”
Padania, representing northern Italy, are the pre-tournament favourites, followed by Abkhazia, then Panjab and Barawa.
Possibly the tournament’s top player is Padania’s Marius Stankevicius, 36, who starred for Lithuania, Lazio, Seville and Valencia.
An Yong Hak, 39, is coaching and playing for United Koreans in Japan.
Eight years ago, the former J-League midfielder was playing for North Korea against Brazil in the 2010 World Cup in front of 54,000 people in Johannesburg.
His side will be taking on Western Armenia at Carshalton’s War Memorial Sports Ground.
Big names miss out
But besides the better-known faces and big backing, participation alone took a huge effort for some teams.
The Zimbabwean region of Matabeleland relies entirely on online crowd-funding, largely through replica shirt sales. Beforehand, resources stretched to two footballs.
Their manager even asked on Twitter if anyone could help get the players from London Heathrow Airport to their hotel. One fan organised a fried chicken takeaway delivery to their lodgings.
Former Liverpool and Zimbabwe goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar is coaching their ‘keepers.
This is CONIFA’s third biennial world cup. The County of Nice, from France, won the 2014 cup in Oestersund, Sweden, while Abkhazia hosted and won the 2016 competition.
Qualification for the 2018 tournament relied more on competitive matches than in previous years, meaning some better-known CONIFA members missed out, including Greenland, Monaco and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Former English Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg will take charge of the final.
Besides red and yellow cards, officials will issue a green card for dissent and cheating, whereby they are replaced by a substitute.
All match tickets cost £11 ($14.60, 12.60 euros) and some teams’ games are being deliberately hosted close to their ethnic heartlands around London.
Carshalton, Bromley and Gander Green Lane, home of serial south London FA Cup giant-killers Sutton United, are the ‘glamour’ venues, with a 5,000 capacity.
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