Think of a football international tournament and your mind probably turns to some of the great showdowns from across the years. England vs Germany in the 1966 World Cup or France overcoming Italy in Euro 2000 might spring immediately to mind. But at the same time, we all know that a truly compelling match does not necessarily need to have millions of viewers worldwide or to be played out in front of 80,000 spectators.
Often, the greatest drama is when the smaller nations battle it out. No big names with seven figure salaries, just talented sportsmen who want to represent their nation and play the game they love. It is sport at its purest, and it is what CONIFA has come to represent.
Representing the minorities
There are 50 countries in Europe, and their football associations are all represented by UEFA. However, there are dozens more football associations that represent de facto nations, disputed territories, indigenous groups and so on that are not part of UEFA. CONIFA is an organization that is run on a purely voluntary basis and that provides an opportunity for these football-loving teams to duke it out in their own tournaments.
While the majority of CONIFA’s 59 members are from Europe, there are also 11 from Asia, three from Oceana, nine from Africa and three from North America. Some members are islands that are part of another nation but have their own distinct identity, for example Zanzibar or Sardinia. Others might be territories that has been subject to military occupation and dispute, like Luhansk or South Ossetia. The point is that CONIFA is not interested in politics, and merely seeks to provide everyone with the opportunity to play football.
A CONIFA tournament every year
If you think UEFA and FIFA have hard work arranging a World or European Cup every four years, then spare a thought for CONIFA. Since its launch in 2013, the organization has run its own showpiece event every single year. Last year, the CONIFA World Cup took place in London as a precursor to Russia 2018, and the timing helped raise the event’s profile considerably. Around 250,000 people watched the final via live streams, while 2,500 braved wet and miserable weather to watch the drama unfold in person at the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
CONIFA alternates between a World Cup and European Championship each year. So while many are referring to this year’s event as the CONIFA Soccer World Cup 2019, its official name is the CONIFA European Cup. What you call it is less important than what will be happening, however, so let’s take a closer look at what is in store this year.
New sponsors, new hosts
Since CONIFA came into being, it has organized three World Cups and two European Cups. Each one has attracted more media attention than the last, but for 2019, CONIFA’s president, has high hopes of really building on last year’s success in a big way. This year’s event has a new lead sponsor in Sportsbet.io, and this will bring opportunities for better promotion to football fans across Europe, and indeed the globe. Unlike FIFA or UEFA, CONIFA does not have a major budget behind it, and everyone who gets involved in its running does so on a voluntary basis, so a significant sponsorship deal like this is hugely important.
CONIFA prides itself on taking a non-political stance. This is essential given the precarious backgrounds of some participants. However, that does not mean the organization is frightened of standing up for its members. In 2015, for example, Abkhazia found itself having to withdraw from the event hosted in Hungary due to team members being denied visas. CONIFA’s Executive Committee was determined to make sure this would not happen the following year, and their solution was both elegant and courageous – they decided that Abkhazia should be hosts for the subsequent year’s World Cup. The fact that the hosts went on to win the event was the stuff of fairytales.
This year, CONIFA has again chosen a host nation that has had a difficult past but is striving to look forward and rebuild. Some people might struggle to find the de facto nation of Artsakh on a map, but its football team has been part of the CONIFA set up from the very beginning.
Artsakh actually lies in the beautiful countryside of the South Caucasus and has been the subject of dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. While the formal political status of Artsakh is still unclear, the important thing is that the horrors of the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh War have been consigned to history. Artsakh, and in particular its capital city, Stepanakert, greets visitors with a warm welcome and is becoming a popular destination for tourists who like to venture a little off the beaten track.
The tournament will take place in the first week of June and will be contested by 12 teams, including defending champions Padania. This team, representing a region of northern Italy, also won in 2015, so will arrive in Artsakh as the bookmakers’ favorites. Other teams that are fancied to do well include Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia and County of Nice, all of whom have performed strongly in previous tournaments.
If you love to watch football played at its purest, then the CONIFA Cup is something you can’t afford to miss. It gets underway on 01 June.