BY OLLIE McMANUS
For many footballers the ultimate goal is to capture the irreplaceable glory of winning, or even just playing in the FIFA World Cup. But what if this was an impossibility from birth? What if you were born in a â€œdisputed territoryâ€?
Well fear not because thatâ€™s where ConIFA come in and, unlike previous attempts such as VIVA or FIFI, this is no gimmick but a network of support, innovation and over 500million people around the world supporting the goal of developing the football within nearly 50 of these â€œdisputed territoriesâ€ (and small communities such as the United Koreans of Japan).
The pinnacle of the organisation is the biennial World Football Cup which seeks to crown the best of their member associations. With the first incarnation happening in 2014, this yearâ€™s competition is organised by the Barawa FA but takes place in London and is the biggest and brightest tournament yet.
With bookmaker Paddy Power on board as a sponsor and things looking ever-positive, I sat down and had a chat with the General Secretary of ConIFA, Sascha Duekorp, to find out what he had to say;
OM: 2018â€™s ConIFA World Football Cup is just around the corner, how have preparations gone?
SD: We cannot complain, really. Over the last months weâ€™ve experienced a massive support in London and the whole of the UK from local clubs, fan associations, NGOs, universities and several other partners. We are putting together the pieces of this massive puzzle these days, but we are all convinced that the 2018 World Football Cup will be the most successful one in the history of football outside FIFA!
That does not mean that all things are sorted and there is a massive amount of work left for everyone at CONIFA, though. We would still embrace any support coming our way in whatever form and, closer to kick-off, we will definitely watch out for a few hundred volunteers that make the event special and a history-writing one.
OM: Do you have an idea of whereabouts in London the tournament will take place?
SD: We do, but we cannot publish them, yet. Most of the venues are booked and a ticket system is in place already, but we still need to confirm a few of the stadia we will use. Most matches will be in the south-west and in the north of London. All further details will be published in early February, when the ticketing will also go live finally.
(Shortly after this interview took place the venues were announced as being Gander Green Lane, Hayes Lane, Queen Elizabeth II Stadium and Coles Park with an average capacity of just over 3,500.)
OM: Shall we talk about Group Two in the World Cup â€“ a real group of death, Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Felvidek and Tibet â€“ what do you make of it?
SD: Indeed, a very tricky group, albeit I am not sure it is the group of death. Group D seems equally challenging and maybe even more balanced!
Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus do have some history and met each other in both countries over the last year. While Abkhazia beat Northern Cyprus 2-0 on home soil in 2016, they drew last year in Northern Cyprus. I have attended both matches and they were both very close calls. Both countries do have some cultural ties and Abkhazia could mobilise approximately 300 local Abkhazians for their match in Northern Cyprus. Those ties can be seen on the pitch as well, as both teams met in remarkably fair encounters so far, despite the high pressure to succeed.
Felvidek might be the dark horse in the group, but by beating Szekely Land three times in a row now, which again beat Abkhazia last year, they surely proved that they are no pushovers. We would expect them to be very competitive again and give the two favourites of the group a very hard time.
The on-pitch quality of Tibet is very hard to estimate, though. Historically, the team was one of the weaker sides outside FIFA, but they will now field a total of six US and Europe based players, which might help them to improve. We are all excited to see Tibet playing their first international matches after a 5-year break. Interestingly, Tibet has also played Northern Cyprus before (2006 in Northern Cyprus) and lost heavily (0-10).
OM: This is your first World Cup with 16 teams competing, has the expansion come at the right time? Are you confident the overall quality will remain the same?
SD: Absolutely. We are having more active members than ever before and more and more of them are becoming very competitive. In 2014, for our first World Football Cup, we had 14 teams that were keen to play at all and 12 of them made it. In 2016, a total of 25 teams were keen to play and ready to go and selecting 12 out of them was very tough.
This time, we had over 30 teams that were seriously hoping and willing to play the World Football Cup and thus, extending the tournament was in the interest of all our members.
The quality will also improve again and many of the full-amateur sides will start to get more and more professional players who would like to make it to the final squad. We are very convinced that we will have at least three strong contenders in every group of the tournament, making it hard to predict the quarter-finals at this point, which is fantastic for the teams, the spectators and ourselves.
OM: ConIFAâ€™s undergone a rebrand as well, a nice new logo â€“ whatâ€™s the message behind it?
SD: The new â€œhandshake footballâ€ logo design is the first one we created completely internally and thus completely own â€“ an important step we decided to take before the upcoming World Football Cup, where the logo will be visible globally. The logo is currently being protected globally and will now stay as it is for the next few hundred years.
It symbolizes our values and internationalisation very much. The six colour rays symbolize the six continents, while the handshake symbolizes that all our actions are about meeting and making new friends on all those six continents through football. Finally, the bold letters should symbolize that we are a â€œno-frillsâ€ organisation, which tries to be clear in its communications and actions.
OM: Since we last spoke youâ€™ve, again, expanded significantly â€“ just how expansive can ConIFA get?
SD: The sky is the limit, really. Following our Internal Guidelines on membership admission there at least a few hundred more potential members out there to discover! We hope to expand even more in the future in all parts of the world as only a strong and dense global network ensures regular playing opportunities for all our members. Currently, a team like Matabeleland has to fly three hours to Zanzibar to meet their nearest CONIFA member. Cascadia would even have to fly five hours to meet their neighbours in Quebec. That makes it very time consuming and costly for such teams to compete regularly. Having more members in all parts of the world would partially solve this issue perfectly well.
OM: Talk to us a little about the Yorkshire situation; whatâ€™s the Federationâ€™s view on having them on board?
SD: Yorkshire has been a full member of CONIFA since January 2018 and we are very happy and proud to have them on board and see them playing their first full-CONIFA friendly match against Ellan Vannin this Saturday.
It is great to have this historic region in CONIFA, as they perfectly fit into our scope and are very passionate and determined to inform the world about the unique Yorkshire heritage and culture.
OM: Still no members from South America, is this something youâ€™re looking to address in the near future?
SD: South America leaves us puzzled at times. The continent surely is absolutely football crazy and media across the continent do report regularly and extensively about CONIFA. Most of our â€œneutralâ€ followers and fans are from South America and we are surprisingly well-known on the continent. Furthermore, there are a few well-established representative teams outside FIFA in South America, like the Galapagos Islands, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Aymara, Mapuche, Willache or even the Falkland Islands. We have been in touch with most of them and one of our Board members travelled from Europe to Chile to meet a few of the mentioned teams in 2016. The interest of all concerned teams to join CONIFA was enormous, but for some reason it never materialised.
A local organisation of football outside FIFA, the CSANF, tried to help us to get in touch with teams on the ground and establish a membership base on the continent, but at some point, it went completely quiet and seemingly even advised some of the teams to not join us (yet).
It is leaving us puzzled and it is indeed a topic we really want and need to work at. We are internally discussing a strategy to attract the South American teams more and establish opportunities for them currently and will put that top of our agenda for the time after the World Football Cup.
OM: thanks for talking to us again, hopefully see you in London!
So, there we are then; thatâ€™s what Sascha had to say to me at the beginning of February â€“ hopefully he managed to shed light on the world of football outside of FIFA and if heâ€™s got you hooked then why donâ€™t you buy some tickets for the WFC, taking place between the 31st May and 9th June. And guess what? Itâ€™s only a quarter the price of an English Premier League game!
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