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Welcome to CONIFA, the football world cup for underdogs

The soccer championship for non-recognized states, regions and peoples may not be as famous as its FIFA counterpart, but for fans and players there is no experience quite like it. Ruairi Casey reports from London.

Football may be the world's game but FIFA, which organizes this month's world cup, is not known for its inclusivity. The federation has been plagued by endless corruptions scandals and internal politics, leaving even devoted fans of the game despondent and feeling like they have nowhere else to turn. But there is an alternative.

The CONIFA world football cup — carefully worded so not to invite litigation — which features 16 micro nations, non-recognized states, territories, peoples and linguistic regions, aims to be a showcase for those who are excluded or disillusioned by FIFA.

It is being played in London, where it is hosted by the diaspora of Barawa, a Somali port town. Participants include Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Panjab, Tuvalu and — by special invitation — Tibet.

Matabeleland players celebrate at the opening ceremony of the CONIFA world football cup in London

Matabeleland players celebrate at the opening ceremony

The tournament has been played each year since CONIFA was established in 2013. Since then the federation has swollen to 47 members across five continents, representing 334 million people. It is run entirely by volunteers and its finances and decision-making process are completely transparent, with minutes and other documents available to download from its website. Its member-first approach is a far cry from the shadowy boardroom deals struck by high-level FIFA officials.


'Dream come true'

In a post-game huddle on a glossy AstroTurf pitch in south London, Justin Walley, coach of Zimbabwe's western region of Matabeleland, tries to buoy spirits. The team has lost 6-1 to European champions Padania, who hail from northern Italy. It's a disappointing end to their first competitive game.

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"A lot of [spectators] have come to support you, but a lot of them, you've gained their respect," he says, praising their resurgent second-half performance, which drew passionate roars from onlookers. Beginning in a low hum, the players' voices rise to joyful song as they take defeat in their stride.

"It's a dream come true for many of us to play in this tournament," captain Bruce Sithole tells DW. "We will fight up to the end."

The team has had a tougher journey here than most. Without sponsors it has relied on fundraising and the sales of its jerseys, which sport a snazzy traditional design, chosen by fans in an online poll. The players have almost no professional experience between them and are drawn from the lower tiers of Zimbabwe's football league. Joining the coaching effort is Zimbabwean European Cup winner and Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar, an animated presence on the sidelines.

"Some of these boys have just literally left the village," says the team's cultural ambassador Sisa Mkandla, directing a lively chorus from the stands.

Cultural ambassador of Matabeleland Sisa Mkandla

Matabelelandcultural ambassador Sisa Mkandla is in London to cheer for her team

It's a particularity important year for Matabeleland, its first free of long-time dictator Robert Mugabe, who ordered a crackdown on its Ndebele people in the early 1980s, resulting in the massacre of thousands in what some scholars have called a genocide.

Read more: Zimbabwe: Six months under President Mnangagwa

"Everything is new. We've got a new president, a new way of doing things, a new Matabeleland [squad] coming to a world cup," says Mkandla. "Who would have thought of this 10 or 20 years ago? It wouldn't have been possible. But here we are."

Special without FIFA

CONIFA prides itself on being a welcome home to those oppressed or abused by the world community — or even by their own governments. "We give them a global platform to be a part of ... that they can educate the world, they can show their beauty," CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind tells DW, shortly after an electric ceremony to officially open the tournament.

He is happy this year's competition is free of political disputes, sometimes an effect of promoting non-recognized states. The 2015 European cup was sullied by host Hungary's refusal to grant visas for players from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The stocky, charismatic Swede is himself of Sami heritage – his father still herds reindeer – so he understands the pride in representing one's people beyond the limits of a nation state. Blind first became involved as a referee with CONIFA's predecessor, the NF Board, in 2006. That organization collapsed in 2013, but its members came to him for help, and so with his colleague Sascha Düerkop he drafted the constitution that would establish CONIFA.

CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind gives his address at the opening ceremony of the  CONIFA world football cup in London

Per-Anders Blind can relate to the pride players feel representing their people

Blind knew from the first moment he stepped into a non-FIFA game that there was something special in the air, something more than just soccer. Spend some time on the terraces at this tournament and you'd find it hard not to agree.

On a blistering afternoon in the northern suburb of Enfield, about 1,500 fans gather to watch Tibet face off against Northern Cyprus. Fans jam the pavilion, decked with national flags, and compete for elbow room around the pitch's edge. But even the strong showing from London's substantial Turkish-Cypriot community is drowned out by the Tibetans, who have travelled from France, Switzerland and as far as the US to watch this game. The majority of UK-based Tibetans are here, including a representative of the Dalai Lama.

Read more: 'Tibet will set the litmus test for China's rise'

The team is drawn from Tibetan students living in India, Europe and North America, and the community dug deep to get them to London a week early to train together.

Tibetan children cheer on their team after a game against Northern Cyprus in London

Tibetans children cheer on their team after the game against Northern Cyprus

"Any chance for us to shout out our country is a great opportunity and this is a big stage for us," says Phuntsok Dalu (seen at the drum in first photo above), taking a half-time rest from his tireless beating of an enormous bass drum. "I know it's a much smaller space than FIFA, but this is the biggest stage for us. For the boys to represent their country Tibet is a great opportunity."

Striker Kalsang Topgyal brings them level just before the break, sneaking a low shot into the bottom corner, but a well-disciplined Northern Cyprus team finish with a 3-1 victory. The result means Tibet will not qualify for the latter stages, but as the players congratulate their opponents and embrace their fans, they look anything but beaten. Such is the spirit of CONIFA.

"These players are not used to being heroes," says Blind. "They're not used to having people following them like fans and writing autographs. This is a really underdog world cup."

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