CONIFA: a score for the sidelined

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In June this year, the world’s biggest football tournament will take place in Russia. Fans from all over the world will descend on the country to watch some of the stars of the game play against each other. There promises to be some scintillating match-ups, from Spain playing Portugal to Belgium challenging England. Yet this is not what I shall be talking about today.

A month earlier, ending a few days before the FIFA World Cup begins, another international football tournament will be taking place. That, however, is where the comparisons end. The teams involved range from Tibet to Barawa (the ‘hosts’) and will play at a semi-professional level. Fans of these teams will not attend the matches in stadia such as the 68,000-seater Krestovsky Stadium or the Fisht Olympic Stadium  with space for 40,000 attendees, but instead will visit venues with capacities ranging from 1,000 (St Paul’s Sports Ground) to 5,000 (Gander Green Lane) in London.

CONIFA offers an antidote to the corruption of FIFA.

Although, it may seem trivial or pointless to some, this Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) World Cup provides an opportunity for footballers who, through circumstances of birth, find themselves unable to play for their country of origin in a FIFA-based setting. For example, Tibet is not recognised by FIFA as a nation, but footballers from there are embraced by CONIFA. In another example, Tuvalu does not have a regulation pitch and so is unable to play as part of FIFA. Teams composed from diaspora groups are also welcomed by CONIFA, such as the Romani people or the United Koreans of Japan. Often these groups are marginalised in the countries they live in, leading them to emphasise their shared cultural identity with members of their diaspora.

Take, for example, Koreans living in Japan, who find themselves subject to racist abuse. Some, such as freelance writer Lee Sinhae, have even been told to go back to Korea despite having been born in Japan. The problem is arguably even worse for the quarter of Japanese Koreans who pledge allegiance to North Korea. This group has been targeted increasingly by far-right groups as the political situation between the two nations deteriorates, as Kim Jong-il abducted Japanese citizens in 2002 and, more recently, the DPRK has tested missiles over the northern Japanese island Hokkaido. Administrators in the Japanese government have also been slow to act to prevent hate speech, with a bill submitted by the ruling coalition on the matter being accused of lacking enforceable punishments. The opposition has even argued that the bill fails to prohibit hate speech.

The fact that the team, which now includes Koreans from the South as well as the North, has qualified for the CONIFA World Cup means that they act as a positive role model for Koreans in Japan. They stand strong in a country which has pushed them away to the degree that 150,000 of them say they are loyal to a regime that many have not even visited, solely because they have been supported more by North Korea than their country of birth. Indeed the North even helped finance schools for children of North Koreans in Japan in the 1950s. Contrast this to the current treatment of resident Koreans by Japan, whose prime minister has questioned the universally acknowledged fact that the country’s military coerced Korean women into sex in the Second World War. Is it any wonder that there are people who have chosen the North Korean regime over Japan, when one has helped them and the other has systematically neglected and mistreated them?

The CONIFA World Cup, therefore, will give a voice to a people who already, as the Japan Times reports, “are sensitive to their second-class status and use the sport as a means of demonstrating their worth”. Through its World Cup, CONIFA is helping to promote cultural identities which otherwise may not be given an international voice. There are many similar stories of minorities who live under states which do not treat them as first-class citizens, who are represented by this governing body, from the Rohingya people (currently being massacred in a genocide in Myanmar) to the Iraqi Kurds (who also have been victims of genocide in Turkey). For this, it should be lauded.

CONIFA promotes cultural identities which otherwise may not be given an international voice.

Alongside, CONIFA offers an antidote to the corruption of FIFA. This is shown by their Facebook presence, where they respond to commenters, and generally give off a more human feel than the faceless FIFA. They describe themselves as a “small volunteer-run organisation”, which is a world away from the 2.6 billion pounds that Sepp Blatter received as FIFA president in 2015. Unlike FIFA, they seem genuinely interested in allowing “everyone – regardless of race, religion, gender and politics – to have the opportunity to play football”, as they say on their Facebook page. FIFA seem to be doing the opposite, giving Russia and Qatar, who both marginalise LGBTQ+ groups and mistreat workers who are building venues for the tournament, the right to hold the World Cup.

Despite this, CONIFA is of course not perfect. Its main sponsor is Paddy Power, a betting agency famed for its controversial adverts, in which transgender women were compared to “stallions” and cats kicked by blind footballers. Another imperfection in the organisation is how it has allowed Ellan Vallin (which is Manx for the Isle of Man) to compete, despite having another team. The only difference is that Ellan Vallin will allow only people with Manx ties to compete whereas the Isle of Man team allows players from the Isle of Man Football League, regardless of nationality. CONIFA has been used by the team to make a political point, something that it claimed to be against.

However, it is clear that, although they may have some flaws, in comparison with FIFA, their mistakes are but peccadillos. I think the work they do to help the marginalised far surpasses these faults. I praise CONIFA and hope the tournament runs smoothly and I urge anyone in London from the 31st May to 10 June to attend some of their matches, as I most certainly will do.