Two contrasting World Cups show how politics defines sport

The CONIFA World Football Cup, a tournament for states and minority groups denied membership by football’s world governing body FIFA, was created to take the politics out of football, but their efforts demonstrate just how politics defines sport.

The FIFA World Cups of 2010 and 2014 drew global viewing figures averaging 3.2 billion and the tournament in Russia, held across 11 cities and hosting 32 national teams, is expected to attract similar attention when it begins on June 14.

Away from this spotlight, a few weeks earlier, a diaspora community originally from the Barawa region of southern Somalia and now mostly based in London, hosted the CONIFA World Football Cup, across several small sports grounds in the UK capital. Small territories such as Tuvalu, disputed regions including Abkhazia, and diaspora groups like the United Koreans in Japan, were all represented.

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CONIFA bills itself as an “alternative” to FIFA, the global governing body whose history is so heavily tarnished by corruption scandals. Its constitution opens with a commitment to have no “political” purpose, but the nine-day tournament, and the build-up to its mainstream counterpart, demonstrated how hard that mission is.

crowds of people stand on higher ground to see over a row of spectators behind a fence, decorated with various flags of unrecognized states
The tournament was CONIFA’s most popular, with crowds spilling out of the ground for the final. Photo by Jack Barton/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0

Russia’s World Cup and the value of nation branding

Though FIFA’s official rules have prohibitions against political messages and slogans, the World Cup has long been mired in politics, and hosting it is sought after as a unique geopolitical branding opportunity.

In written evidence submitted to a UK parliamentary committee in 2014, investigative journalists from the Sunday Times said Russia’s then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was not initially concerned with hosting the World Cup. Only once Russia’s bid was advanced did Putin become worried that losing it would be embarrassing for his country and instructed key supporters to ensure the bid was won.

French prosecutors are currently investigating the bidding process that ended with Russia and Qatar being awarded the right to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively.

‘We have nothing against FIFA. They’re a good example of how not to do things’ – CONIFA co-founder

The value of the World Cup as a nation-branding exercise is set against the context of Russia’s increasing isolation on the world stage. On June 7, the same UK parliamentary committee warned that Russia presents “particular risks” to fans attending the tournament, due in part to heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia following the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in an English city. (See WikiTribune’s earlier coverage of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.)

The Committee also cited Russia’s “history of violence by football hooligans; intolerance and discriminatory state policy towards LGBT individuals; [and] the history of racist abuse in and around football matches” as other reasons for concern.

Red, white and green smoke billows behind a goal, with a red flare lit to the right
Fans of the Karpatalya team set off some bombs and flares in Hungarian colors during the final. Photo by Jack Barton/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0

CONIFA’s emphasis on ‘identity’ highlights its controversial nature

“We have nothing against FIFA,” said Sascha Düerkop, general secretary and co-founder of CONIFA, at the pre-tournament press conference on May 30. “They’re a good example of how not to do things,” he went on.

CONIFA is the opposite of FIFA in many ways. It is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers and publishes its accounts online.

The teams rely on donations to meet many of their costs, with some money provided by tournament sponsors. The tournament atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive, with players from diverse corners of the world socializing and attending each others’ games.

Karpatalya, a community of Hungarians living in Ukraine, were a late call-up and due to various resourcing issues had no sports official for their media duties, so the head of sports for Székely Land, a region of Hungary, stood in to help them out.

“The unrecognized countries … we understand one another,” said the head coach for Northern Cyprus.

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Despite best intentions, the tournament was in its own way just as politically charged as the one about to take place in Russia.

Tournament director Paul Watson emphasized that the tournament is about “identity” rather than politics, and several players, including the captain for Northern Cyprus, spoke of their pride at the rare opportunity to represent their communities. But that also highlighted the political controversies that are inherent in CONIFA.

The Northern Cypriot players had been driven onward by strong support from the Turkish community in London, said the team captain.

This support was in contrast to the protests from others. A body representing the Cypriot community in London objected to the Northern Cyprus team participating, complaining to authorities that a council-run stadium was “being used to promote an illegal occupation regime and to insult Enfield’s significant Cypriot population.”

“We don’t care about the politics we want to play football,” said Orcun Kamali, general secretary of the Northern Cyprus Football Asssociation, when WikiTribune asked about this.

“You can’t tell the young people they can’t play football because of the politics,” said Kamali.

“We were fighting for FIFA [membership] but because of the political issues this is the only way we can go abroad and [play] matches,” he said. “CONIFA has given us this opportunity.”

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Teams representing historically marginalized areas such as Matebeleland, a region of Zimbabwe that suffered massacres in the early years of Robert Mugabe’s rule, added poignancy.

The Dalai Lama gave his blessing to the Tibet team before the tournament, though Tibet’s sporting director acknowledged any shows of support in Chinese Tibet would probably be met with hostility from authorities. (Read WikiTribune’s report: “Tibet’s disparate underdogs unite on and off the pitch.”)

The best sports tournaments have good stories, and CONIFA was filled with them. The Karpatalyans, called-up at the last minute, held on in the final to beat Northern Cyprus, a team featuring a player from Galatasaray, Turkey’s biggest club, and become champions.

A crowd of people on the roof of a building cheeer and wave green white and red flags
Karpatalya, a community of Hungarians in Ukraine, enjoyed support from Hungarians in London. Photo by Jack Barton/WikiTribune CC-BY-SA 4.0

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