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Due recognition UNOFFICIAL WORLD CUP

Sapmi v Somaliland at the Akhvlediani Stadium in Gagra

It was an unlikely end to an unusual tournament. On two occasions the home team, postSoviet breakaway Abkhazia, looked defeated by a British-based side representing the Panjabis of India and Pakistan. Twice they pulled off the remarkable, finding an equaliser in the 87th minute and then recovering from a 3-1 penalty shootout deficit to lift the trophy.

Even more extraordinary, though, was the very tournament itself: the 2016 World Football Cup. Held by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa), a non-profit organisation representing football associations excluded from FIFA, the event brought together an eclectic collection of competitors. From controversial territories lacking international recognition to minority ethnic groups, the tournament was one for the political scientist as much as the football fan.

Participants in the 12-team contest ranged from Somaliland, in the horn of Africa, to a side representing the substantial Korean minority in Japan. Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq with separatist ambitions, also made the journey to this beautiful part of the Caucasus, alongside the Northern Cypriots and the Hungarian Szekelys of Romania.

The quality of football was high. Almost a dozen players at the tournament have international caps from FIFA-sanctioned games, and a smattering of top-league professionals combined with amateurs and semi-pros to produce some compelling games. Abkhazia’s comeback in the final is unlikely to be forgotten by the 10,000 or so locals who witnessed the feat from the stadium or at a nearby fanzone, while several other matches would be worthy additions to a highlight reel. “This is a great opportunity for our team,” says Somaliland forward Moebarik Mohamed, who scored a brace in his side’s final game. “It is a top-quality competition and I am very happy to be here.” While the attention of players was on the pitch, politics also pervaded the tournament. Hosting it in Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in a bloody secessionist conflict in the early 1990s, was a decision that brought great controversy. Georgia still claims the territory, and entering Abkhazia from Russia – which all 11 visiting teams did – is illegal under Georgian law. General Secretary Sascha Düerkop insists on Conifa’s neutrality, although admits that he is not oblivious to the political potential of the tournament. “For a range of reasons, our members are prevented from playing football on the international stage,” explains the German mathematician (all Conifa staff are volunteers). “We just want to remedy that. Yes, many of our teams have political motivations, but our core focus is about facilitating a football and cultural exchange among our members.

Why should Georgia be able to play football but not Abkhazia?”

The locals are more cognisant of the nonsporting positives stemming from the tournament. “This championship is a window for the outside word to hear about Abkhazia,” says president Raul Khajimba. With 100 members of the foreign press travelling to the normally isolated region, hosting the World Football Cup looks smart PR. The tournament was timely, coming just weeks after FIFA announced the admission of Kosovo and Gibraltar (the latter having already been recognised by UEFA). Both new members are controversial, and supporters of Abkhazia often draw comparisons to Kosovo: why is the latter treated favourably while the former is ignored? Although none of the Abkhazia 2016 participants is likely to receive FIFA membership in the near future, a common gripe heard during the “unrecognised states world cup” – as some media outlets dubbed it – was the governing body’s lack of unambiguous membership criteria. While Somaliland’s Mohamed and several other players were adamant that football was their sole concern, Kurdistan manager Khasraw

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Gurun was more pragmatic. Speaking before his side’s opening game, Gurun suggested that dual elements were at play: “Politically, we want to show to the world that Kurdistan is a nation. But obviously we have come here for the football.”

The tournament also had a distinctly human side. Daria Zavodskaia, a 23-year-old university graduate, was one of over 100 local volunteers providing logistical and language assistance throughout the event. “This is a fantastic chance for young Abkhazians to meet people from other countries,” explains Zavodskaia in perfect English. “Given our political and economic situation, we do not have many opportunities to travel abroad.”

At the Dinamo Stadium in Sukhum there was pandemonium in the stands following the final penalty. Fans spilled onto the pitch, and President Khajimba soon declared the following day to be a public holiday. For Abkhazians, this was more than just a footballing victory. Isolated from the global community for over two decades, the locals finally had something to cheer about.

Kieran Pender

Scenes from Football History

No 299

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