The World Cup doesn’t start until 14 June in Russia, but there is already an international football tournament happening – and it’s in London.
The third edition of the Conifa World Football Cup – very deliberately named to avoid repercussions from Fifa – welcomes sides who are not recognised by world football’s governing body.
States, partially-recognised states, regions, minority groups and isolated territories unite under the banner of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. The organisation has 47 members and represents 334m people worldwide, ranging from tiny Pacific islands to Africa, Asia, North America and even Yorkshire.
Conifa encourage sides to celebrate who they are. Football is used as a way to attract attention to a cause, and in some instances increase lobbying power, but more simply as a way to represent an identity. The organisation is politically neutral; it aims to give a platform to football’s outsiders and raise awareness without passing judgement on each side’s cause. As general secretary Sascha Duerkop says: “We give them the chance to play for the entity they feel part of in the bottom of their hearts.”
At one of the tournament’s opening games at Enfield Town FC on Thursday there was certainly plenty of pride on show. With Abkhazia and Tibet meeting on the pitch, the match served as a perfect example of Conifa's aims.
Defending 2016 champions Abkhazia come from the east coast of the Black Sea, between Russia and Georgia. Following a war in the early 1990s, Abkhazia resisted a Georgian invasion and set up a de facto independent and self-governed state. The problem is that only Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela recognise them.
Tibet, meanwhile, is better known. The region in the north-east of the Himalayan mountain range is an autonomous area within China, which has occupied it since 1950.
While the level of the two sides’ players may be contrasting – Abkhazia have six professional players based in Russia, while Tibet’s side mainly consists of youngsters – both share a common goal.
For Conifa director Paul Watson, just getting to the stage where two sides are lining up opposite each other on a football field is a victory. “It’s taken 15 months and there’s not been an easy day in that time,” he says. “There have been battles and struggles – everything from visas to financial problems to protests. It’s been one problem after another, but the amazing thing is we kept moving forward to get to this point.”
Conifa is a small non-profit organisation run by six regular volunteers and a handful of other helpers. To get 16 teams to London and stage 48 matches in 10 separate stadiums over 10 days is no mean feat.
“In a way this event is too big for us,” Watson admits. “We’re a ramshackle organisation, but that’s who we are and we don’t try to hide it. We’re grassroots international football. We’re shabby, but our heart is in the right place.”
As if to highlight his point Watson, who has previously coached tiny Micronesian side Pohnpei and Mongolia’s Bayangol FC, breaks off mid-chat to grab a team sheet and announce a substitution on the tannoy, while the ailing live stream also requires attention.
Looking out from the back of the pavilion at Enfield’s Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, Conifa's hard work is there for all to see. Tibetan fans, from the United Kingdom as well as the large diaspora in northern India, dominate a crowd of around 300 and are banging drums, chanting into megaphones and waving flags. Abkhazia are well-represented too, flying their flag, playing traditional folk music and sporting matching t-shirts.
“It’s not a huge crowd, but they’re so passionate and colourful,” Watson says. “It makes me so glad we got here. We overcame political pressures. It’s a cliche, but for the fans just to be able to raise their flag means so much. It makes all the stress so worth it.”
Conifa defied Chinese political pressure and the wishes of potential sponsors, giving Tibet a wildcard to compete at the tournament after the side struggled to accrue qualifying points, due to opponents being hard to come by. Given the political backdrop, even playing at their first tournament is a watershed moment for Tibet.
“It’s the first chance I’ve had to watch Tibet play,” explains Nyima, an England-based fan. “I’m here to support their bid for independence and right to play football as a nation.”
It’s a similar story for Abkhazia supporter Serdar Abirbay, who also lives in the UK. “This is great for us because we can support the team from home,” he says. “They’re playing well, but more important is that now more people know where Abkhazia is, who the people are and what we’re campaigning for.”
The quest for recognition and acceptance starts at the ground. While the majority in attendance are Tibet or Abkhazia fans, there are some whose curiosity brought them to Enfield. Local non-league stalwarts Dennis and Phillip are immersing themselves in the match programme having been drawn by the “unique” entertainment on offer.
On the pitch the organisation, experience and professionalism of Abkhazia settled the tie against the skilful, but more diminutive Tibetans. Russian third division striker Ruslan Akhvlediani headed in an opening goal to give the defending champions a 1-0 lead at half-time, and despite Tibet’s best efforts, quality moves and finishes from Russian league players Dmitrii Maskaev and Ruslan Shoniya saw Abkhazia run out 3-0 winners.
Although winning is of course the aim of the game, for Tibet, playing at their first Conifa tournament bestows a special kind of pride.
“We lost and we wanted to win, but it’s still a good feeling with all these supporters here for us,” says forward Tashi Samphel, who at 30 is Tibet’s oldest and most experienced player by a distance. “It’s not a question of ‘we’ll support them because they have to win’. They support us because we’re representing Tibet for the first time. We’ve got past Chinese pressure to be here.”
With Somali side Barawa nominally hosting the tournament in London away from the continual unrest at home, Matabeleland, from the west coast of Zimbabwe, having crowdfunded $25,000 just to make it, Tuvalu travelling nearly 10,000 miles and many others coming from disputed, tumultuous and remote places, Tibet are far from the only side to have overcome pressures to play here.
Regardless of the results on the pitch over the next week, the mere existence Conifa’s World Football Cup means it’s been a success off it.