Do you know what Yorkshire, Jersey, Greenland, Padania, Tibet, Barawa and Quebec all have in common? Neither did we until twelve months ago when we were introduced to CONIFA just as Yorkshire were going through the final processes of the application.
CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, is the football federation for all associations outside FIFA.
It’s a global, non-profit organization that supports representatives of international football teams from nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories.
CONIFA was founded on the 7th of June 2013, and organized its first World Football Cup in June 2014 in Ostersund, Sweden.
On Tuesday we were lucky enough to speak to one of the founders of CONIFA and General Secretary Sascha Düerkop. We asked the German-born, football crazy board member how he became involved. “It’s a very long story! I became involved because I collect national team football shirts and I was trying to access a shirt from every single nation in the world. At one point I couldn’t find any new ones available, but thought there are more teams outside FIFA who represent nations, so I got in touch with a couple of them. I quickly found out that they are only loosely connected and organised.”
“There was a conference between them, with an organisation that existed before CONIFA, and I was asked to attend because it was in Munich and I am German. It was on a weekend and at that very meeting the organisation that existed before, completely collapsed into a fight!”
“It seemed that I was the only person who kept records of the names and contact details of everyone so a referee of that former organisation, who wanted to build a new organisation asked me if I could speak to all the teams, which I did. That referee is now President of CONIFA [Per-Anders Blind, Swedish] and I’m the General Secretary from Day One. Together we founded CONIFA because I had the contacts and I was that neutral person in the old organisation, and he [Per-Anders] was the referee.”
“With high ethical standards and dedicated members CONIFA is the world leading organization for people, nations and sportingly isolated regions whom share the joy of playing international football. CONIFA contributes to the enhancement of global relations and international understanding.”
- Promote affiliated members and its people and contribute to their growth
- CONIFA World Championship
- CONIFA Continental Championships in six continents
- CONIFA International tournaments and Cups
- CONIFA Friendly games
- CONIFA Cultural events
- CONIFA Youth exchanges
Since 2013, CONIFA has expanded significantly and currently boasts 49 Members. “In the very beginning we first contacted all the teams that already existed, that played football outside FIFA, which were about twenty. We convinced most of them to come and play in CONIFA.”
“The next step was that we created very systematic lists of all non-recognised countries, all countries that were non-FIFA, all the biggest minorities in the world and stuff like that. We started to contact human rights organisations or representative groups of those peoples’ territories and countries. We very often got replies that were very positive and encouraging so that’s how we started to grow.”
“For the past two years we haven’t actively looked for new members anymore because we’ve reached a size where we actually have enough teams to play in a World Cup and we have enough active members so we don’t need to grow any more. We now have very clear rules of who can actually join CONIFA and most of the teams approach us and hand in applications.”
During June 2018, London hosted the third CONIFA World Cup (Sweden 2014, Abkhazia 2016), and this was sponsored by betting powerhouse Paddy Power. “It was massive. I mean it was a very new experience for us because our last World Cup before that was in Abkhazia and the government completely backed it. The people in the country – everyone knew about the tournament and were supportive of it. When I walked in their streets people were cheering, however, in London obviously it’s a big city with a lot of noise, a lot of things happening, and nobody knew about it in the first place.”
“We had to do the whole organisation completely by ourselves, opposite to the earlier tournaments. So, all a very new experience and we were very excited about how it would actually pan out and if we would be playing in empty stadiums, but the whole experience was amazing. The final was so loud and was a new record for the ground at Enfield, with many of the smaller games very well attended. We were very happy and I think all the non-league grounds, who we wanted to involve to bring international football to grassroots football, they were all very happy with the outcome as well.”
How influential were Paddy Power? CONIFA’s a not for profit organisation but there must be costs behind the scenes?
“Yes, there were a lot of costs and we covered all the accommodation for the teams, so we accommodated sixteen teams in London for ten days. That alone was a very big cost. Paddy Power gave us a very small financial sponsorship which didn’t completely cover the cost, but most of it. The biggest benefit from having Paddy Power as a sponsor was that they had a huge budget to actually market the event.”
“They visited four or five of our members, did documentary movies about them and introduced them to the UK and to the audience, so they really did a great job which helped bring passionate people to the grounds.”
Generally, CONIFA and their visions have been welcomed, but just before Karpatalya’s game, three protesters were seen and recorded by our on-site reporter. “I haven’t personally witnessed any protests and the only one I’m aware of was, I think, three elderly Georgian ladies who came to the Karpatalya match with a placard – and they were actually quite nice! When they came to the stadium on the first day, they had a placard, a poster outside saying ‘Abkhazia is Georgia’ and they engaged in debates with the players and the fans. However, when they entered the ground, they paid their entrance fee and they supported Abkhazia because they said they are Caucasians like us! It was not a mean protest in any way so luckily, we didn’t have a lot of issues with that at the time.”
Sascha is very open and honest on his social media channels and recently explained that he had encountered difficulties obtaining a job because of his role within CONIFA. “Coming back to the protest about the World Football Cup, we had diplomatic protests. The Ambassador of Cyprus and the Ambassador of Sri Lanka both protested against the teams from Northern Cyprus and from the Tamils. Apparently, some companies didn’t actually want to sponsor us because we had Tibet in the tournament and China might not have liked that. Of course, we have those diplomatic issues but you cannot really feel them as their arguments are not really tangible.”
“In my personal life, obviously, it has caused some issues. The biggest one was a job interview with the National Postal Service of Germany: quite a good position for me, quite an important thing. There were fifteen rounds of applications before I got to the final interview and to see that the company greeted me with a printout of an article from the Guardian, headlined “The Rebels’ World Cup” and described me as the head of a network of separatists and rebels across the world! He said I would damage the profile of the company and I could go immediately! So those kinds of issues, I have luckily encountered very rarely.”
“Apart from that, of course I get emails and phone calls threatening me physically. I get death threats and all kinds of that stuff but, unfortunately, that’s becoming kind of normal for everyone who’s semi in the public domain and especially if you’re in some kind of political context.”
Time invested in CONIFA for Sascha has been phenomenal – and he admits that it has basically taken over his life, “well definitely more than it should! I mean, it’s completely voluntary but I do have a full role and also work full time. At times, especially before World Cups, that just doesn’t go together very well! I’ve spent all of my holidays travelling for CONIFA for the last five years. At times, especially before a World Cup, I spend full days on CONIFA and they’re full days that I miss from my normal job, if you want to put it like that, which is one of the reasons I never finished my PhD. I was employed to write my PhD but, after two years spending too much time on CONIFA, I was so far away from the goal that I proactively withdrew from the job because I said it would never come to a good outcome.”
“I don’t regret it at all and I still have a very positive relationship with my boss. I never angered anyone. I did what was asked of me so it’s a very personal thing to miss my PhD. While I really wanted to have a PhD in the first place, over time I found it more and more important to me to work for CONIFA. When you travel to any of those places we work with, you realise that it is much more important than anything else I could do in my life, and much more important than writing a PhD. It’s given me more than I could ever lose.”
Off the field, political issues have been at the forefront of many of their members, and Sascha has experienced a few issues. “A lot of our members live where they are very repressed, which I personally experienced when I was in Zimbabwe last year with the team from Matabeleland. The Secret Service of [Robert] Mugabe at the time were present at every training session. They wanted to interview me two or three times a day, but the team always protected me and got me out of the scene.”
“That, unfortunately, is the reality of many of our teams and there are players who have been put in jail. Just now, the world champions of our last World Football Cup in London [Karpatalya] are not allowed to visit Ukraine any more, which is their home country. The coach called me and was very upset that he now, would never again be able to visit the grave of his parents.”
“We never had any political intentions and, of course, they are all aware of what they are doing and they know what could ultimately happen but, I feel responsible because we created that platform, we made the Ukrainian government aware of that team and of the whole situation. So of course, we feel responsible a little bit and we would love to help them and support them more to overcome their oppression.”
A couple of the newer sides, Yorkshire and [the Parishes of] Jersey, played each other a short while ago; what sort of exposure has both of those brought to CONIFA because the footballing community in England is quite large?
“I think it helped us a lot in regard to the World Football Cup in London. I personally met a lot of Yorkshire people in London and people from London who supported the Yorkshire team, so it very much helped to raise our profile in the UK in particular.
“It’s just great to work with such amazing grassroots initiatives. Jersey, as our newest member, was founded by a guy who just thought that there could be more for Jersey international football. He ran around and spoke to all the clubs on the island, to all of the players, to the FA and to everyone involved – and to us – and wanted to just get the opportunity for playing football on the island. It’s amazing that such a private initiative on a grassroots level can actually enter international football. I’m really looking forward to their first match overseas, which will hopefully happen very soon. It’s very important to have them on board, definitely.”
What does the future hold for CONIFA?
“We are still in a phase where we are not a sustainable organisation so we still lose money on every tournament. For example, we have nobody employed, which is not sustainable in the long run. We want to change that, then stabilise what we are doing already. Having a World Cup every two years with sixteen teams in a very sustainable setting as our first aim.”
“Apart from that, we want to extend initiatives in various ways and one of the most important ones is including women and disabled players, which we are in the process of starting now. We will have a disabled tournament in Monaco in December, where Yorkshire will actually participate. Our first Women’s International football match between Northern Cyprus and Sapmi takes place this month.”
“We are trying to extend into more fields especially we would love to have more youth football, and send out more coaches to our teams in order to help them develop.”