A World Cup for places that don’t exist

Media captionThe Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa) represents national sides unable to join Fifa

The score hits 1:0 and a stadium explodes with cheers and applause. Fans burst out of their seats waving the green and white striped flags of their homeland – Abkhazia.

This Black Sea coastal region, which the international community considers part of Georgia, is hosting the biggest football tournament in its history.

This is a World Cup of unrecognised states.

The Abkhaz team goes on to win 9:0 against the Chagos Islands.

For many at this stadium, this is more than just football. It is about national pride and identity.

The countries that don’t exist

Per-Anders Blind, the president and co-founder of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa) says he is trying to give a voice to voiceless communities around the world.

Image caption Footballers from self-declared Northern Cyprus pose with young locals at the tournament in Abkhasia

Image caption Young Abkhaz footballers led the Somaliland team on to the pitch

‘Peace project’

He has organised stateless nations, unrecognised countries, self-declared republics, ethnic groups and indigenous communities that cannot be members of football’s world governing body Fifa into Conifa.

“For me it’s a peace project. We have a mission to create a global arena for the forgotten people, we have so many members that are not recognised around the world. We want to educate the world about all the different ethnicities and indigenous people that we have on this planet.”

Per-Anders himself is from a minority, the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia.

His team is among 12 other competitors at the tournament including Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Punjab, United Koreans of Japan, Western Armenia and Szekelyland.

For them, this competition is the biggest sporting event in the history of their communities, and the word “identity” can be heard here as often as the word “football”.

Harpit Sinkh, the chairman of the Punjab Football Association says he has given up his livelihood to fund the team, most of them British citizens.

“My vision is to [enrich the] Punjabi people. They have kind of forgotten their identity of who they are – today they are either British, Indian, Pakistani or American. I want to bring about cultural awareness and reawaken lost identity.”

Hurdles along the way

Most participants say this football tournament has nothing to do with politics.

But the decision to host it in Abkhazia has proven controversial for Georgia.

Image caption The image of an Abkhaz warrior is seen on the sides of walls in town

Abkhazia was formerly an autonomous region within Soviet Georgia. It fought a war of independence in 1992 and 1993, which it won. The war resulted in displacement of over 200,000 ethnic Georgians, who still demand the right to return.

Internationally Abkhazia is still considered part of Georgian territory. But Russia has recognised Abkhazia’s independence, and now provides it with financial and military assistance.

The Georgian authorities have acknowledged that this tournament does not seek to legitimise the de-facto Abkhaz authorities. But it has threatened to launch criminal cases against those who violate Georgia’s law on territorial integrity. It has threatened to prosecute travellers who enter Abkhazia via Russia.

Image caption The journey from Georgia is beautiful but slow

But the route to Abkhazia through Georgia is difficult and slow. Travellers have a choice; they can walk for 1km (0.6 mile), or they can sit in a horse-drawn wagon ride over a potholed bridge.

The Abkhaz authorities advised participants to take the Russian route to the tournament.

Segregated from the world

Unlike Georgia’s other breakaway region South Ossetia, which is planning to hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, the Abkhaz want full independence.

Years of international isolation, and continued attempts by Georgia to block Abkhazians from taking part in international events has segregated them from the outside world.

Many here have never seen Africans, Sikhs, or Koreans from Japan.

The Conifa tournament is a form of cultural exchange, in which people from different backgrounds but with similar struggles are finding comfort in each others’ company.

As far the Abkhazians are concerned as they cheer their team at the Sukhumi stadium, this tournament is as good as the real World Cup.

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