FOOTBALL FOR THE STATELESS

Men don’t need passports to dream of becoming Messi, as people the world forgot know

While exercising hearts, minds and morals in readiness for next year’s football World Cup in Russia, look back a moment to the last international football tournament to take place on the soil of the former Soviet Union. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) World Cup was played in the summer of 2016 in Abkhazia, northwestern Georgia, a breakaway region proclaiming independence from its parent country.

Pressing its home advantage, Abhkazia triumphed over 11other participant teams of CONIFA. Started in 2013 as a non-profit organisation in — where else? — Sweden, CONIFA is a collection of stateless football federations not recognised by FIFA. It isn’t the only football organisation that tries to bring unrecognised states and communities together for a game, but it is the largest and most organised yet.

The origins of its two dozen member nations range from the utopian (the Panjab Football Federation represents the Punjabi diaspora, whose homeland is divided between India and Pakistan) and the politically oppressed (Palestine is an early member state) to disenfranchised indigenous populations, such as the Saami people of Scandinavia; and hard-right federations such as Padania, northern Italian separatists who fear racial and cultural contamination from Italy’s poorer south and immigrants of colour.

If it were easy to decide whether a nation is more important than a society or a culture, many philosophical treatises and weekly columns would remain unwritten. FIFA, by happy accident, is widely considered (above all by itself) one of the world’s more benign adjudicators of that question.

By and large, football’s goalposts do not shift for reasons of politics or military intervention. Any internationally recognised country may, through its football association, apply for FIFA membership. The association’s statutes include a clause for the admittance of associations in “a region which has not yet gained independence”. Admission is contingent on permission from the country on which that region is dependent. Kashmir won’t be competing in a World Cup any time soon — but Palestine and Chinese Taipei (what FIFA calls Taiwan) are both eligible to do so.

The next CONIFA tournament, which will be held in London in 2018, may offer a chance for yet another set of players whose origins lie in the South Asian neighbourhood — the Rohingya people, represented by Kuala Lumpur’s Rohingya Football Club, a team run with support from the United Nations. Its players include men who escaped Myanmar’s ongoing programme of alleged ethnic cleansing by jumping into water to swim up to their rescue boats.

Malaysia, which cancelled footballing relations with Myanmar late last year in objection to the violence, is reportedly full of smaller teams of Rohingya players. So are countries ranging from Ireland to Australia to Bangladesh. So is India. In 2014, the Genius Rohingya Football Club drew 1-1 in a friendly with an Afghan team called Youngistan (because we share a set of bad habits, I suppose) in Delhi. The Shining Star FC, a team of men whose day jobs include laptop repair and autorickshaw driving, was formed in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar and practice at a ground in bustling Chittaranjan Park.

Source: Pune Times