The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) recently organized its first-ever European soccer championship. Could it be a credible alternative to the scandal-plagued FIFA?
DEBRECEN — The soccer gods weren't smiling on the county of Nice's "national" team June 21. A penalty shot after a red card just before halftime deprived the "Selecioun," as it's known in Nice, of a historic "double" at the Olah Gabor Ut Stadium in Debrecen, Hungary's second-largest city. The defending world champions from the would-be nation in southern France succumbed 4-1 to the team representing Padania, a historically defined slice of territory in northern Italy.
Nice's road to the final included victories over Székely Land, Upper Hungary and the Isle of Man.
Are you completely lost? Don't worry, that's to be expected. We're not in a parallel universe of bizarre geopolitics, just at the conclusion of the first-ever European championship organized by CONIFA, a confederation of soccer associations not recognized by FIFA, the sport's much-maligned world governing body. Founded just two years ago, CONIFA gathers all the national teams of regions that can't participate in the official World Cup because they lack international recognition. From the African island of Zanzibar to the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka and even the North Sea island of Heligoland, the organization makes for an eclectic mix of parochialism and unadulterated nationalism.
The first CONIFA World Cup, held last summer in Lapland, northern Sweden, was a success, with 12 participants hailing from four continents. Even a team of refugees from Darfur braved the difficulties of travel to compete and represent their region, only to suffer heavy 20-0 and 19-0 defeats at the hands of Padania and South Ossetia, respectively. The County of Nice won the inaugural tournament in a dramatic penalty victory over the Isle of Man in the final, and the "world champions" were welcomed home by cheering at Nice airport. The city broadcast the team's games on huge screens, and Mayor Christian Estrosi even invited the players for dinner at the town hall to celebrate.
This year things went a little differently. Unlike in 2014, when even a Japanese television network broadcast the games, this summer tournament lacked televised international coverage. Fans interested in the tournament had to make do with shaky streaming services filmed on iPhones.
Even organizers faced setback after setback, with the cup originally planned to be held on the Isle of Man, before islanders realized it would clash with the prestigious Tourist Trophy motorcycle race. Finally in March, a backup host country came through: Székely Land, a Hungarian-majority region in Romania straddling the border between the two countries.
A series of last-minute cancellations from a number of other teams also wreaked havoc. From the original list of 12 participants, only six ultimately competed in Debrecen. After the successive withdrawals of Occitania, Franconia and Lapland, three other teams — Northern Cyprus and Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — had their visas denied by Hungarian authorities, who feared a diplomatic backlash. The South Ossetian foreign minister called the decision "political blackmail."
Faced with catastrophe, the inclusion of a team from Felvidék, or Upper Hungary (a Hungarian-majority region in Slovakia), allowed the championship to go ahead. Not even the defending world champion of Nice was spared surprise, such as when they arrived in Debrecen to discover the airline had misplaced their luggage. They were forced to play their first game wearing uniforms from Debrecen's local team, the current Hungarian league champions.
Compared to crisis-hit FIFA, could the grass be greener on CONIFA's side? The executive board, including the president, are all volunteers, and the organization is entirely funded by donations and sponsors. But CONIFA is careful not to criticize its powerful "cousin," at least in public.
"We won't comment on the ongoing corruption investigation in FIFA," a spokesperson says. "We simply want to highlight the fact that CONIFA is governed according to a set of high moral values to ensure that such allegations can't be leveled against us or our member associations."
But the tone of its Twitter posts occasionally border on sarcastic ridicule, raising doubt about their declared neutrality. When FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigned last month, CONIFA responded by tweeting, "BREAKING: CONIFA President still in charge #FIFA."
"We have infrequent but positive relations with FIFA," says Sascha Düerkop, CONIFA's German secretary-general. "The last time they contacted us, they applauded our work and said it was having a positive impact."
But its management is still walking on eggshells after the demise of its predecessor in the non-FIFA world. The NF-Board was founded in a Brussels bar in 2003 by four Europeans, including Belgian lawyer Luc Misson, best known for his work 20 years ago on the Bosman ruling, which liberalized the soccer transfer market. The NF-Board organized five "VIVA World Cups," the 2012 games being the most successful. Held in Iraqi Kurdistan, the tournament attracted millions of TV viewers and was a media success despite the withdrawal of several teams because of its location.
The NF-Board ultimately collapsed in disgrace. After suspicions of embezzlement arose during the Kurdistan competition, then-President Christian Michelis dissolved the organization in February 2013. "A huge sum of money just disappeared," says Christophe Croze, who was head of the NF-Board's European branch. "We notified the Belgian authorities, and they opened an investigation on the matter. Many details of Michelis' presidency are still unclear, especially regarding the financial situation."
A full-blown war soon erupted between the two non-FIFA federations. Jean-Luc Kit, another NF-Board co-founder, sued several CONIFA members for allegedly copying his organization's idea. Per-Anders Blind, the Swedish CONIFA president, appeared before the Liege Commercial Court to defend his case in May 2015.
"I was asked to continue my work as president, so I designed a new constitution and started building an organization that is 100% democratic and 100% transparent, because those are the values that the NF-Board lacked," Blind says.
A red carpet for nationalism?
The NF-Board's financial troubles are still in the hands of the Belgian judicial system. But in an organization that celebrates local folklore and fraternity for all so-called "unrecognized" peoples, skeptics are critical of the criteria for new members.
"CONIFA exists to build bridges between the peoples of the world," Düerkop says. "But we can only do that by not touching on the political issues behind it all. We don't judge whether our members deserve political independence or not. Politically, we are 100% neutral."
The fact that the nationalist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made a last-minute rush to organize such a politically explosive tournament proves that the championship is anything but "neutral." A website called Hungary Today reported on the patriotic fervor surrounding the first-ever match between Upper Hungary and Székely Land, two Hungarian-majority regions outside the country itself, held in Slovakia last May.
It recalls Hungary's long history of dismemberment, as the two territories, currently in Slovakia and Romania, were taken from Budapest in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon at the close of World War I.
But alas, it wasn't a Hungarian team that won the inaugural European championship held in Hungary itself. The victor was Padania, from the rich northern plain of Italy. The region's identity was popularized by the Northern League political party in the 1990s, which then fought for Padanian separatism but now campaigns nationally for its right-wing ideology.
One match at the tournament made headlines across Italy: Padania vs. the Romani people. The irony of a team associated with a party led by Matteo Salvini — known for his regular diatribes against the Romani — playing against the very people it so disdains caught the attention of Rome newspapers.
The Padania players showed up for the game with a bouquet of flowers and their team pennant, as they always do before a match. They ended up winning 3-2, and for at least 90 minutes, all the hateful politics was forgotten: The focus was on just the beautiful game.