FIFA, football’s world governing body, established in 1904 to oversee the international game. Today, it’s comprised of 211 member associations. That’s more than the United Nations. But of course, there are many nations outside of FIFA. That’s where CONIFA comes in. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
James: FIFA - Football’s world governing body, established in 1904 to oversee the international game. Today, it’s comprised of 211 member associations - that’s more than the United Nations.
But of course, there are many nations outside of FIFA. That’s where CONIFA comes in. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations.
James: Founded on the 7th of June 2013, CONIFA represents nation's, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and isolated territories that are ineligible or don’t yet meet the requirements to be accepted into FIFA. Currently, there are 47 CONIFA members from all over the world.
Sascha: In the beginning we had no clear rules but now we do have ten different criteria, how you can qualify to CONIFA, actually. One part is that you are not a member of FIFA and you just have to fulfil one of those ten criteria, which are basically different categories. So we try to structure them that way.
James: This is Sascha.
Sascha: My name is Sasha Düerkop and I’m the General Secretary of CONIFA.
One of the categories is that you are a nation and we are looking at de-facto nations in that part. No matter if you are a Euro nation or not. So Monaco for example is a fully UN member but we also have members like Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Northern Cyprus, Western Armenia. They’re only de-facto nations but nobody - or only a few countries recognise them as a country. So this is one category of our members and I think all of the de-facto nations that are not a member of FIFA - like Taiwan is a member of FIFA - they are all a member of CONIFA now.
James: CONIFA was actually preceded by the N.F. - Board - or New Football Federation's Board. It was founded in 2003 but collapsed in 2013, before CONIFA took it’s place.
Unlike FIFA, all CONIFA board members and staff are volunteers. The organisation operates as a non-profit with a flat hierarchy. And all associations have the right to vote at annual general meetings. At the core of CONIFA is its constitution, driven by transparency and democracy.
Per-Anders: With a purpose to serve our members, not to govern our members.
My name is Per-Anders Blind. I’m the global President of CONIFA. I have a Sápmi background from the indigenous people up North in Sweden, Norway and Finland. And that’s how I came in touch with the world of football outside FIFA, back in 2006.
James: One of CONIFA’s main roles as a governing body is organising international tournaments, both Continental and World Championships. Following on from where the N.F-Board left off, who organised five World Cups between 2006 and 2012, CONIFA staged its first World Football Cup in Sápmi in 2014.
Their inaugural European Football Cup followed in 2015 before Abkhazia played host for the 2016 World Football Cup. And in June 2017, Northern Cyprus welcomes the second edition of CONIFA’s European Championships.
Per-Anders: We try to represent all parts of Europe. We don’t have North, but we have East West and South. It’s an eight-team tournament held in the Northern part of Cyprus. The tournament will be played in four cities, all the teams will stay together in the same hotel so they can bond and create - yeah, expand their friends and network between the games and during the days.
James: CONIFA tournaments are relatively small but considering the limited funding and resources, the output is impressive. Host cities cover the majority of expenses while sponsors contribute to the rest. But participating teams must cover the bulk of their own costs.
Per Anders: All the teams are paying for their own flight expenses. They don’t get paid for anything. All the referees are volunteers, so everything is built on volunteer conditions. But of course there is costs involved but it’s not so expensive, if you look at the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup or something like that. You’re talking about hundreds of hundreds or billions.
James: Since the first tournament in Sweden, the impact CONIFA has had on its member nations has been remarkable.
Per-Anders: If you look at our last World Football Cup in Abkhazia we really - not only the team - but we changed the mentality of a whole country. I had to squeeze my arm, it was magical.
Sascha: And after the Final, one guy came to me and said, you know this is the biggest moment of the Abkhazian people I ever experienced. Because usually we only have parades and common events. All those remind us of war and our struggle, but this is different. Just celebrating who we are and that we are Abkhazians. So that’s the reaction we get quite often from many of our teams, which is amazing.
What all our teams have in common usually, is that they are minoritized in a globalised world, in some way or another. The best thing that they can do is to exchange with each other in the first place and then go out and try to get more integrated into the bigger world. And they completely lack that, like Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus never spoke to each other before, which is ridiculous because they are two of only seven de-facto nations in the world.
Per-Anders: We are really, really touching the world, this is so important for so much people. Now it’s just full speed ahead. This is so good, we can’t stop this.
James: While CONIFA provides the ideal platform for its members, not all of them want to stay there. Nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati are pushing for acceptance into FIFA. A move that CONIFA fully supports.
Sascha: Kiribati and Tuvalu, they applied 20 years ago initially, to join the OFC and FIFA. And we are actually trying to help those teams to get into FIFA. So we are working on their paperwork for the applications, we are contacting FIFA, we are working with lawyers to finally get them in because they deserve to be there.
Jake: So currently we’re - we have to go through the OFC - we’re an Associate member, or Kiriati is an associate member of the OFC. We can’t become a full member of the OFC until we’re a member of FIFA. And we can’t become a full member of FIFA until we’re a full member of the OFC - and that’s the issue we’re currently playing on. Yeah, so FIFA have made it very clear that they won’t accept us until we’re a full member of the OFC and the OFC are essentially dragging their heels and not really giving us the time of day to actually become a full member, as it stands.
James: This is Jake Kewley, Ambassador to the Kiribati national team.
A nation comprised of many islands and reefs in the central Pacific Ocean, Kiribati is home to around a hundred thousand people.
The challenge Kiribati's Football Association faces is simply a lack of facilities and resources. Their national stadium, which has never hosted an international fixture, has a pitch made of sand, not grass. Hence the pushback from the OFC and FIFA.
But of course, FIFA has the power - and the money - to change the situation. And it wouldn’t take a lot of funding to do so. As for Oceania, with just 14 member associations, there needs to be more flexibility when it comes to nations like Kiribati.
Jake: Yeah, I’m somewhat bemused by the fact they seem so persistent in not, you know, progressing our cause. But I don’t know what their agenda is, you know. I don’t know the ins and outs particularly, it is just very frustrating from our point of view because we feel like we’re doing exactly what they’ve been asking us to do, and they’re still not, sort of, giving us anything else to work with. It’s very much keeping us at arm's length.
James: It’s easy to sympathise with Kiribati's position, particularly given FIFA’s self declared mission statement and marketing slogan.
Jake: It is frustrating and somewhat confusing that they seem so reluctant to help, you know, a country that would thrive, given the opportunity.
CONIFA’s just given us a unified voice. I feel like they’re trying to push us onto the next stage, which is the complete opposite to OFC who feel like they’re pushing us away from our goal.
But yeah, the passion for the game is certainly there. Just to not see it but still see the passion the players have and even the coaches have for it. More than anything it’s just disappointing that they’re not really given that opportunity to really explore what they could do with it.
The country is worth my time and my effort to help bring them to the fore and you know, give them that opportunity that other countries have and take for granted.
James: Football belongs to everyone and that’s the core of the international game. CONIFA is doing the work to ensure that no matter where you come from, you have a platform to express your national or cultural identity through the sport.
Per-Anders: For me CONIFA is so much more than football because for me CONIFA is a big, big peace project. We show the world that we are one people on this planet Earth. Even if we have different kinds of history, background, traditions and cultural heritage, we can show the world that we can come together and create life long friendships between people.
The other thing is to celebrate the people because many of our members have a background where they have been bullied and they feel smaller and they feel outside the normal society. And this gives an opportunity to - we can provide them recognition, which strengthens their identities and things like that. So it’s an extremely powerful tool to give them pride.
That makes me proud, to see how we build bridges between people.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to the entire team at CONIFA, Jake Keweley and special thanks to Kieran Pender.
Music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear under creative commons.
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