[Special note to readers: This article elicited a strong reaction from ConIFA, which contributed a statement to the effect that it considers itself a “non-political” organization. For that statement, please see the comments section at the end of this article. This blog welcomes and encourages a full discussion of the political and ethical implications, if one feels there are any, to ConIFA’s relationship with Abkhazia, Transnistria, Magyar irredentists, and other entities which many see as playing a negative role, to say the least, in European politics.]
We are used to international geopolitics inserting itself into the world of association football (that’s “soccer” to Americans). World powers sometimes use the game as a proxy war for their own tussles over what is and is not a state and where national borders lie. Examples include the ban on holding FIFA games in Russian-occupied Crimea, Spain trying to block Gibraltar, which it still claims, from member-state status, and ongoing politically motivated fan violence in Balkan hotspots like Bosnia and Kosovo. But now a smaller football league that was supposed to be aloof from the rougher political edges of FIFA (the French acronym for the International Federation of Association Football) is courting similar controversy.
This league, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA), a new organization devoted to aspirant or unrecognized states ineligible for FIFA membership, decided this summer that its 2016 football (soccer) world cup would be held in the Republic of Abkhazia, a de facto–independent Russian puppet state in what most of the world outside Russia regards as part of the Republic of Georgia. Despite damage and economic instability resulting from a recent history of separatist war and ongoing diplomatic limbo, Abkhazia and its capital city, Sukhumi, can, ConIFA promises, offer “top-class infrastructure” for a sporting event. But Abkhazia is bound to be a divisive choice, considering that Russian support for violent separatism in Ukraine since early last year—a political situation which closely parallels Abkhazia, which split away as the Cold War ended—has led to calls to boycott the Russian-hosted FIFA World Cup planned for 2018.
ConIFA is not the first league of its type. A predecessor was Viva, which doesn’t stand for anything but is a play on the name FIFA, also set up for national teams of unrecognized states. Viva’s first world cup, in 2006, was originally to be held in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a puppet state that every country in the world other than Turkey recognizes as part of the Republic of Cyprus. Northern Cyprus ended up ceding hosting duties to Occitania (southern France) after a brouhaha over Northern Cypriot demands to vet participating teams—probably the result of Turkish skittishness at that time about any kind of recognition of any kind of Kurdish entity, since northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region was also a participant. Viva has successfully kept politics out of the team-selection process in the four subsequent Viva cup finals hosted by, in turn, Sápmi (the northern Scandinavian homeland of the Sami, or Lappish, people), Padania (separatist northern Italy), Gozo (the Republic of Malta’s smaller island), and Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital.
|Sami (Lapp) footballers competing in Östersund|
(Yet another organization, FIFI (Federation of International Football Independents), in 2006 held a one-off exhibition “Wild Cup” tournament in Hamburg, Germany, where Northern Cyprus triumphed over Zanzibar, Gibraltar, Greenland, Tibet, and the Republic of St. Pauli—this last being a fictive micronation (fictive even by micronational standards) consisting of Hamburg’s red-light district.)
The ConIFA European cup this June, for its part, was hosted in Hungary by Székely Land, a proposed state in western Romania’s ethnic-Magyar (Hungarian) region. Padania (northern Italy) won that 11-match series, with the County of Nice (in southeastern France), the Isle of Man, and Felvidék (Slovakia’s “Upper Hungary” region) ranking second through fourth, in that order. The first ConIFA world cup, in 2014 in Östersund, Sweden, hosted by Sápmi (Lappland), was won by the highly impressive Niçois team.
|Magyar nationalists displaying the Székely Land flag in Transylvania|
|Jobbik armbands on parade|
|Light green is modern Hungary;|
darker green are those areas stripped from
the Kingdom of Hungary after the First World War
|Football fans waving the Niçois separatist flag|
Transnistria, it will be no surprise, is also a target of ConIFA diplomacy, in the form of an official ConIFA visit just before June’s European cup to Tiraspol, capital of this tiny, Russian-backed sliver of a pseudostate consisting of Moldova’s eastern edge abutting Ukraine. ConIFA would like Transnistria to host a future tournament. It also features prominently in contingent Russian plans for a takeover of more of the southern, ethnic-Russian-dominated areas of Ukraine, which mostly extend in a belt across the northern shores of the Black Sea, extending to Odessa oblast, which borders Transnistria.
|Transnistrians in Bessarabian folk costume in a flag ceremony in Tiraspol|
|Putin is a darling of xenophobic Padanist separatists like these Lega Nord activists in Milan|
|Aymará Indian demonstrators with their national flag|
[You can read more about Abkhazia, Transnistria, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]