Kurdistan, Zanzibar, Tibets, Quebec and Monaco might sound like destinations on a globe-trotters bucket list, but each one is a member of CONIFA, a world football organization for the territories and nations left out of FIFA. Although its recent corruption scandals might give the impression otherwise, FIFA has pretty stringent standards for membership. Yet, aspiring Tibetan and Zanzibarian football players need not fear.
Enter CONIFA or the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, a federation of national football associations established in 2013. In 2014, the County of Nice defeated the Isle of Man 5-3 on penalty kicks to win the first ever CONIFA World Championship.
While FIFA has its tournaments once every four years, CONIFA has tournaments once every two years. They plan to organize a beach soccer and continental tournament in the future as well. Next year’s cup is scheduled to take place in Abkhazia, which the United States recognizes as part of Georgia.
Meanwhile the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru recognize Abkhazia as an independent country. Today’s Corner Kick spoke with Per-Anders Blind, CONIFA’s President to find out more about CONIFA
Q: How did you get involved in CONIFA?
A: CONIFA was born (launched) 6th July 2013 on Isle of Man. There was an organization before named NF-Board. I was involved in NF Board from 2006 as referee and business advisor to the board. I was interested because I am ethnically a member of the Sámi people, an ethnic minority spread across Norway, Finland, Sweden and the northwest part of Russia. In 2013, NF-Board folded and CONIFA was born. I was elected president for 4 years and the rest of the global board for 3 years.
Q: What are the challenges for setting up an organization like CONIFA?
A: CONIFA is still in a “startup mode” and of course there’s challenges in CONIFA, such as manpower, funding, branding, marketing and communication. We are always looking for more volunteers. Secondly, we don’t have the funding we need to be fully operational and reach our potential fast enough (as we want) Quite frankly right now were funded privately and right now both myself and our vice president are self-funding ourselves. All of our teams pay for their own expenses to play in one of our tournaments. For some members that is a challenge for other it is not. Just like in FIFA we have some wealthy teams and some not so wealthy teams. We try to help those poorer teams be more business-like. CONIFA have an enormous potential, imagine there are more than 5 500 ethnicities all around the world and added to that, indigenous people, minorities and all the sportingly isolated regions. Our latest tournament reached to more than 300 million people worldwide in 67 countries. Funding, awareness and building trust with quality towards the market (partners/sponsors) are the main challenges we have, it´s not easy to be a newcomer in a conservative market where FIFA has a monopoly. But we are here to stay and our growth as massive due to members and population.
Q: What are the goals for your CONIFA presidency?
A: To communicate our vision and objectives and manage the board works in the best way possible. My goal is to see CONIFA grow into a wealthy global organization with operations in all 6 continents. For me that means not only regional tournaments but, permanent offices in continent. In that way we can be close to our members and increase interest in CONIFA. I’ve launched some phrases we work with: “Value Creation”, “Sustainability” and “Action Creates Attraction”. Next year our goal is increase our financial abilities, to have a successful World Cup in Abkhazia [A breakaway region of the Republic of Georgia] and the first evert CONIFA Beach Football Cup in Italy close to Pisa with 8 team’s a real tournament.
Q: Next year is the CONIFA 2016 World Football Cup. Who will be some of the new teams?
A: Next year we will have a team representing the Aymara, an ethnic group of roughly 2 million people mostly in Bolivia, Peru, Chile. This will be our first South American team. We also have a good chance of seeing, Western Armenia they are a good contender. Hopefully Quebec as well, if they can solve some issues with the Quebec Football Association. We want the tournament to expand by four teams to 16 teams from 12 teams in the last tournament. Since we´ve started communicate our tournament, new FA members applies to CONIFA every month.
Q: Why was Abkhazia’s status disputed? Depending who you ask it’s either a self-declared country or a breakaway region of the Republic of Georgia. How did you choose this controversial location?
A: Last year we had interests/bids from three cities: Geneva, a city in Germany and finally Abkhazia. We were happy to finally host the CONIFA World Football Cup in Abkhazia, one of our appreciated and valuable members. Yes, some people might have opinions about Abkhazia, but we don’t. Abkhazia is one of our members. I have never been there but, our general secretary visited the region last year and was amazed by the region and the football facilities. Culture is a big part of our international tournaments and we plan on having an opening ceremony, a cultural village, dancing and artistic events as well and a closing ceremony as well. For CONIFA it’s important to show the uniqueness of regions, people or ethnicities. Our goal is to build bridges of friendship and respect towards each other, and then knowledge and understanding of history and traditions is key factors.
Q: How do you respond to people who have a problem with hosting games in Abkhazia or having teams like Tamil Elaam?
A: Imagine if it would if we asked Iraqi President Saddam Hussien in the early 1980s permission first before forming a Kurdish team? This is not about politics it is about the love of the game. A love that is reflected in our members and their fans. It’s not about politics it is about a chance for them to promote their region or people. For 90 minutes we create a place where respect not politics. It’s about a life time friendship from people from around the globe. Look 95% of people react positive to CONIFA and what we are doing and if not, that is there (sic) problem not ours.
Q: The flag of the Tamil Elaam team is rather close to the flag used by the Tamil Tigers.
A: We’ve had some questions about that before with regards to our Sri Lanka team. If we receive serious inquiries we will look into it. Look, we don’t allow any political views or any political movement inside CONIFA. We do not allow teams with racist imagery or extremist views. I’ll give you one example is our relationship with the Padania National Team which approached us for membership when they were still supported by the League Nord an extreme right wing group. They took a financial hit but, did agree to leave the collaboration with League Nord and today they basically represent the region of Po Valley (Lombardia) and we never had any problems. Teams will be punished for using matches as pretexts to undertake political statements or campaigns.
Q: CONIFA is currently considering membership from Somaliland, a region that wants to break away from Somalia. Yet within the so-called area of Somaliland there are regions like Khatumo that still consider themselves part of Somalia.
A: CONIFA membership if generally we don’t approve members from the regions that overlaps or is disputed. We work through these issues on a case by case basis. When Nice joined there were two members within the region it claimed: Monaco and Occitania. We had to handle the situation carefully Nice approved of Monaco joining but did not approved by Occitania. In subsequent discussions they accepted Nice but, refused to play them insisting Nice is a part of Occitania. If we look back and see the result today, everybody is happy and respect each other – the CONIFA way. If a state tries to join from within the region of another we try and discuss the issue.
Q: In FIFA there are complicated rules about teams. A player cannot change his national team more than once. Do you have a similar rule?
A: We leave this to individual teams to decide though we try and help with visa approvals. With Darfur United we had players from Chad and I managed to get visas 3 minutes before the visa office closed. For Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Turkish Cypriot Republic it can be tough for them to enter the E.U, we can support them, but those rules are out of our control. Roughly 50% of our players are amateur players and half are professionals. For example on the Sami team several of the players on the Norwegian national team. There are players in the last world cup that played in the Norwegian, English, Italian, French, Russian, Swedish and Dutch leagues. The Kurdish team is also well stocked with professionals. What’s important about CONIFA is it gives them a chance to represent their people which is bigger and in many ways important than how they earn their money
Q: In Turkey right now there is a Syrian Refugee football team, could it apply for CONIFA membership?
A: Well that is a tricky question. Normally our members are recognized by the UNPO, FUEN or similar organizations. If there aim is to simply not associate and would be decided in accordance with our by-laws and in a democratic way. The purpose any specific team cannot be political.
Q: Where do you see growth potential for new members?
A: We have a big growth potential mainly in North/South America, Asia and Africa. In North America we only have 2 members so far. We see a lot of potential for growth in North America where there are (a) lot of indigenous groups and people we could reach out to. Currently we have a team for Cascadia representing the Pacific Northwest and Quebec(Les Quebecois). Hopefully we can have a North America tournament in the close future.