The alternative World Cup

A photo essay from a remarkable football tournament for unrecognised territories and ethnicities, held on the eve of Fifa’s showpiece event

On a small triangle of public parkland in the suburbs of north-west London, boxed in by a children’s playground, railway tracks and high-rise apartments, a group of amateur footballers are preparing for a training session.

Jet-lagged and a little bewildered by their urban surroundings, they lace their boots and run through a brief warm-up while a portable speaker plays a selection of songs from their homeland, Tuvalu, in the South Pacific. They have come to England to win the world cup – the Conifa World Football Cup, that is.

Established in 2013 for states, de facto states, self-declared regions, ethnic minorities and “sportingly isolated territories”, Conifa brings together teams such as Tuvalu, Tibet, Padania, Matabeleland, Abkhazia and even the Isle of Man. They each have different backstories but what unites them is that none are yet recognised by Fifa, football’s global governing body.

“Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country in the world, [a group of islands] between Australia and Hawaii in the middle of the ocean,” explains Soseala Tinilau, president of the Tuvalu Islands FA. “Even though it’s an independent country, we can’t be involved in Fifa tournaments simply because of the criteria they set. The first thing is the capacity of our stadium and also our [lack of] hotels. I don’t think what happens on the field is what’s holding us back.”

Tuvalu players during a training session in a public park

Back home, Tuvalu train on a low-lying grass field which is often flooded by king tides and rising sea levels. “We keep on playing if the pitch gets flooded, or we use the airport runway,” says captain Taufaiva Ionatana. At the World Football Cup they must also adapt to artificial pitches, the like of which many have never seen before.

Their opening match ends in a 4-0 defeat to Székely Land and they have only one day off before facing Padania, semi-finalists in 2016, to whom they lose 8-0. Eventually they find time to visit the sights of London but only with an escort – our photographer – to help them navigate the underground.

Identity matters

Conifa has 47 member teams worldwide, 16 of which qualified for this year’s tournament, its third edition. By contrast, Fifa has 211 member nations with 32 competing at the upcoming World Cup in Russia. The two organisations have no formal affiliation though Fifa has offered its best wishes to Conifa.

Thirty two nations will compete at the upcoming Fifa World Cup in Russia.
Sixteen teams have competed at the Conifa World Football Cup.

An Yong-hak is player-manager of the United Koreans in Japan. Having starred for North Korea at the 2010 World Cup, he says he is proud that he can now represent his ethnic roots as a descendant of those who fled the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. Eight years ago he lined up against five-times World Cup winners Brazil in South Africa, now he’s playing against amateurs at tiny non-league venues on the fringes of London such as Colston Avenue in Carshalton and Arbour Park in Slough.

“In Fifa’s world cup I was representing the North Korean nation; here it is my identity as a Zainichi Korean,” he says. “Of course, Fifa is a different scale and the football standard is very different but here the players are just as passionate.”

Player manager of United Koreans of Japan, An Yong-hak

Politically neutral

Despite the obvious political implications of staging such a tournament – the participation of Northern Cyprus drew letters of protest to Enfield council from Greek Cypriots in the community and some Kabylia players declined to participate because of fear of oppression from the Algerian government – Conifa maintains it is “politically neutral”.

Per-Anders Blind, co-founder and president, says it seeks instead to promote inclusivity. “This is so natural for us,” he says. “We never talk politics at all, we don’t care about it, genuinely. Today politicians only try to build up borders and separate people from one another. I see Conifa as a counter movement.”

As an Indigenous person himself, part of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia, Blind grew up in an environment “where everybody had to fight for the right to exist”. But through football he says: “We can show that we are one human race and we can collaborate and coexist and show respect and be friends no matter where we come from.”

Panjab v United Koreans in Japan, in Slough

English/Tibetan support at Larges Lane in Bracknell

In love with Matabeleland

For the players of Matabeleland, a vast region covering south-west Zimbabwe, participating at the World Football Cup would not have been possible without crowd-funding. Almost £4,000 was raised through GoFundMe alone.

“This journey started as a dream,” says captain Praise Ndlovu. “No one ever believed we would make it to London but we made it. I’d like to say thank you to everyone. We have discovered there are a lot of people who love us out there.”

“Everyone’s in love with Matabeleland. It’s mad, it’s amazing,” says Matabeleland’s British coach, Justin Walley. “None of these boys have ever been outside of Africa. I said just come over and enjoy it, you’re in the shop window. Life is short, come here and say: ‘I played in a world cup in England’.”

Matabeleland players (left) in joyous mood

Non-league football fans Alan Ostler and Mark Chitty both contributed to the fundraising effort and have come to Coles Park in Haringey to see the team play. “We were just curious from hearing about their story and their struggles and the fact that Bruce Grobbelaar, a Liverpool legend (and former Zimbabwe international goalkeeper), is involved with them,” says Chitty. “You’d like to think that maybe being here might change their lives.”

Striker Shylock Ndlovu is optimistic. “I think there will be some scouts who are watching us,” he says. “You never know, you could see us playing for some big teams in future. Division three, four, or even the Premier League.”

Worthless Zimbabwean dollars

Xolani Koba Wakamasenga, a supporter, is more worried about how the players will afford to feed themselves after the match. Wearing a vivid patchwork garment and traditional indhlukula headdress, he’s raising extra funds to buy them dinner at KFC.

Clutching millions of old Zimbabwean dollars in his hand – the currency was rendered worthless by hyperinflation in recent years – Wakamasenga explains: “I’m selling them as souvenirs. If you’ve always dreamed of being a millionaire, today’s your chance for only five pounds!”

Music and mayhem

The contrasting support received by Matabeleland and Székely Land was remarkable. While Matabeleland’s fans exhibited their rich African culture with men dressed in animal hide dancing to the tune of traditional harmonies, Székely Land’s launched into raucous renditions of familiar football chants, spurred on by megaphones, drums and flares.

The songs of the Matabeleland supporters are so intoxicating even neutrals sing along. “’Yamma yamma’ is like ‘hooray hooray’,” says Nokuthula Mpofu. “I’m not surprised other people joined in – that’s what we do!”

Afterwards the opposing clans joined together and danced in unison in the carpark. The day’s festivities were, however, marred by a couple of supporters who made Nazi salutes on the touchline.

Matabeleland fans singing and dancing

Székely Land fans with flares and drums

Red, yellow and green

One of the benefits of having no affiliation to Fifa is that Conifa can make up its own rules. It has developed a green card system to punish players for persistent dissent and diving.

German referee René Jacobi explains: “I like it that we have the opportunities to change some things because there are a lot of rules that make no sense at all. The problem with the yellow card is that nothing directly happens so there’s no problem for the player for dissent or when he’s diving in the box to get a penalty. There’s no risk.”

“Fifa is too big and too slow,” he adds. “But we can change rules and look if it’s working and if it’s better for the game.”

Referee Rene Jacobi takes a selfie

Ex-pro referee Mark Clattenburg

Number one in the world

The scale of ambition shown by Conifa’s members varies: some are happy to have international opponents at last, some hope Fifa will one day recognise them, others plan to take on the world.

Panjab’s president, Harpreet Singh, is as spirited as anyone. “I want to wake up a sleeping nation which has been abandoned and marginalised,” he says. “I want to revolutionise sport in Panjab and for all Punjabis across the world, for Panjab to become a super power in south Asia and then become number one in the world.

“You know the way we perceive Brazilians to be: we think wow, dynamite, right? They’re silky, they’re great. I want Panjab to be spoken of in that context. We will do it. We will do it. Because I’m willing to die for it.”

Harpreet Singh gets emotional after seeing Panjab score

In their final group match, Tuvalu face Matabeleland, the latter earning a 3-1 win. Both sides fail to qualify for the top-eight knockout phase. Meanwhile, Panjab lose 2-0 to Padania in a quarter-final match. The final in Enfield on 9 June will see either Northern Cyprus or Karpatalya crowned Conifa world champions.

For Tuvalu, the sentiments of Tinilau seem pertinent even in defeat: “It’s an honour to represent Tuvalu,” he had said a week earlier. “We want to give it our all for Tuvalu and for the game of football – the beautiful game.” They may be heading home dejected and recognition from Fifa may feel more distant than ever, but their sense of pride and purpose endures.

Tuvalu striker Okilani Tinilau walks off after defeat

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