London, England – A corner of north London was drenched in music and colour as Karpatalja beat Northern Cyprus to claim the ConIFA World Football Cup in front of a crowd of thousands.
As a carnival atmosphere ignited Enfield’s Queen Elizabeth II Stadium on Saturday, penalties were needed to find a winner. Midfielder Halil Turan missed the final kick, as a team representing Cyprus’ breakaway Turkish republic fell to Karpatalja – a Hungarian-speaking minority from western Ukraine.
This was international football gone rogue, an unyielding defiance of the status quo.
The tournament, organised by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, was played out at 10 stadiums across London over the last 10 days, providing a thrilling, subversive alternative to the geopolitical norm.
“We want to say that people’s identities matter, and that you don’t have to fit into the pigeonholes that have been created politically,” said Paul Watson, the head of the tournament’s organising committee. “Our flexible view of identity is more suited to the modern world than the existing one is.”
ConIFA is a broad church. Members represent a patchwork of ethnic minorities and partially recognised republics.
— CONIFA (@CONIFAOfficial) June 9, 2018
For some, participation comes as a longed-for opportunity to manifest their statehood in the eyes of an international community that rejects them.
Situated in a subtropical paradise on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, the Republic of Abkhazia has lived in political isolation ever since the end of a 1992-93 war with Georgia, which claims sovereignty.
Team manager Beslan Ajinjal said on the eve of kick-off: “A national holiday was declared when we won this tournament two years ago.
“We are a country that is developing fast. This tournament gives us a chance to show the world who we are.”
Some almost never made it.
Days before the tournament began, the Matabeleland side, from western Zimbabwe, were still a four-figure sum short of reaching their crowd-funded $25,000 budget needed to fly to the UK.
Growing up, I always wanted to be an international footballer. I always thought that would mean representing Turkey. But to play in the final with Northern Cyprus? Wow. This only comes around once in a lifetime.
Others were caught in diplomatic red tape.
When Kabylia, representing the Berber people of North Africa, kicked off their opening game against Panjab, they did so without six of their named squad, all of whom had been denied UK entry visas.
But ConIFA has proven a strong fraternity in London.
On arrival, Matabeleland were gifted the technical equipment needed to hold their training sessions by the Northern Cyprus delegation. Further donations were made on the eve of the final.
Not that everyone has embraced that brotherhood. During the group stages, the nominal hosts, Barawa, were accused by the Manx International Football Association (MIFA) of fielding an ineligible player in their 2-0 win over the Isle of Man side, Ellan Vannin.
When the appeal was turned down, Ellan Vannin withdrew from the tournament and were consequently expelled from ConIFA.
At the other end of the scale, freedom itself is the real prize. The Kabylian team manager, Aksel Bellabbaci, said he was arrested multiple times by state police in Algeria as he finalised his team’s preparations for the tournament. Players have been warned by authorities their lives will be made difficult on returning home.
“The police fear that we will do something good here,” said Bellabbaci. “They don’t want Kabylians to be shown in a good light.”
“Growing up, I always wanted to be an international footballer,” said Northern Cyprus defender Necati Gench. “I always thought that would mean representing Turkey. But to play in the final with Northern Cyprus? Wow. This only comes around once in a lifetime.”
‘We don’t care about politics. We want to play football’
Some came to confront the difficult past. Hiratch Yagan captained the Western Armenia team to the quarter-finals, a side representing the lands in modern Turkey.
“We represent their legacy”, said Yagan, who founded the Western Armenian Football Association in 2014. “History shows these parts of Turkey were Armenian lands.”
But above all else, the event was a clear celebration of football. When Northern Cyprus struck their winner against Padania, six minutes from the end of a frenetic semi-final, no one was more overwhelmed than the Northern Cyprus Football Federation’s Vice President, Orcun Kamali.
“In Northern Cyprus, they love football,” he said. “And you cannot say to children of 12 years old that they cannot play football because of politics.
“This is the great shame of football around the world. ConIFA is giving them a chance. It’s showing them there’s a gate they can go out of, out of the country.”
Not all would agree. The week before the tournament began, ConIFA received a written protest from the Greek Cypriot community in London, opposing the involvement of Northern Cyprus.
But Kamali thinks it is precisely these kinds of concerns that ConIFA’s work helps football to transcend.
“We don’t care about the politics,” he said. “We want to play football. That’s why we are here.”