A Wider View of Identity… in London to Fix Football

Published June 01, 2018 by Jessica Tearney-Pearce

In this blog – the first in a series to coincide with the 2018 FIFA World CupTM – Jessica Tearney-Pearce considers the Conifa World Football Cup (London, 2018) and constructions of identity.

Every four years, the ordinarily dull off-season wastelands, aka June and July, are inundated with football matches. Those who, like me, have their Panini sticker books filling up and all the fixtures in their diary – along with much more normal (!) football fans, and even people who don't follow leagues but tune in for tournaments – will be aware that the 2018 FIFA World CupTM kicks off in 2 weeks. On Thursday 14 June, the opening game will see hosts Russia against their Group A opponents Saudi Arabia [much opining on which to follow in subsequent blog posts].

However, not so many will know that another international football tournament began yesterday, at Gander Green Lane in London, the home of non-league team Sutton United FC, with Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man) playing a team representing Cascadia (north-western North America). 16 teams are participating, including one from Oceania, one from North America, three from Africa, five from Asia, and six from Europe, in the Conifa World Football Cup.

CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the "non-Fifa Fifa" according to its Commercial Director Paul Watson,[i] enables groups who can't fit into Fifa's framework to become members and qualify to play in this international tournament. For example, under Fifa rules, a Tibetan who wants to compete in international football must play for China, and someone who identifies as Provençal must play for France. Watson explains, as the Fifa criteria "effectively leaves some people isolated from being able to represent who they feel is their identity through football," Conifa has established "a wider view of identity, a slightly more flexible model than Fifa's".

The Conifa Constitution specifies that any 'Football Association, Confederation, League and/or Club which represents a Nation, People, Ethnicity, Minority or a geographically or sportingly isolated territory population, defined by the Internal Regulations for membership, may become an Active and/or Associated member of CONIFA'.

This allows for teams which exist because a group they identify with is considered in some way persecuted, politically dissenting, or the basis for separatist movements including: the Rohingya Football Club, Uyghurs, and current Conifa World Football Cup champions Abkhazia. Yet Yorkshire – whose bases for asserting a distinct identity are also historical and cultural, but is not imminently threatened or the subject of separatist agitation – is Conifa's newest member.

The members themselves have their own diverging agendas, sporting and political; some, like the Pacific Island nation Tuvalu, hope to gain official Fifa recognition, whilst others, like Yorkshire, explicitly don't. Additionally, some Conifa members are diaspora teams whose Football Associations (FAs) are based outside their homeland. This includes Barawa, a semi-autonomous state in Somalia, who are the official hosts of this year's tournament. From London, the Barawa FA runs football both in the diaspora and in Somalia.

This 3rd Conifa World Football Cup couldn't get more hipster if it tried (particularly appropriate given that much of the tournament will be played in non-league football grounds dotted across the cooler boroughs of Greater London). A serious benefit to the location of the grounds – and to hosting the tournament in London –, is that many of the teams will have significant 'local' support. The Northern Cyprus team will play games at Queen Elizabeth II stadium in Enfield, cheered on by the resident communities of Turkish and North Cypriot origin and descent. The same will be true for the Panjab team playing games in Slough.

Despite this amateur, grassroots status, and, one feels, deliberate aspiration, the tournament will not be without known participants. The former Sampdoria and Lazio defender, Marius Stankevičius will turn out for the Italian-based Padania; ex Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy defender James Riley will captain the Cascadia team; and, at the other end of his career, Galatasaray youngster Ahmet Sivri will represent Northern Cyprus. Perhaps the best-known individual involved from a UK perspective is the recently-retired Premier League (and sometime UEFA) referee, Mark Clattenburg, now the Head of Refereeing for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, who will officiate the final on June 9th.

Conifa's World Football Cup is innovating the game itself. Clattenburg has noted his approval of the introduction of so-called 'green cards', which operate similarly to the GAA's 'black cards' in Irish Gaelic football. Less innovatively, the tournament has its own official anthem; '90s pop duo Right Said Fred (of 'I'm Too Sexy' fame) released 'Bring the House Down' on Tuesday this week. Also the major sponsor is Paddy Power; the Irish bookmakers regularly linked to football at much higher levels doing their bit for the sport lower down the ladder. Inherent problems with the gambling industry aside, the betting agency's experience cooperating with international law enforcement is being presented by the Conifa Board as a positive for the tournament. The bookies have provided confidence about avoiding match-fixing, a problem rife in such global events, especially those lacking the resources to combat it.

The Conifa Board have lofty ambitions for their organisation – with Watson claiming that the tournament "is here in London to fix football" –, and very obviously see themselves as acting in direct contrast to Fifa's widely-publicised historical (and current) failings, misdemeanours, and crimes (which I've written about previously). This is a "tournament that is run by normal fans for normal fans". It is also the world cup in London "where Fifa’s should have been," an allusion to the now-acknowledged corruption involved in the 2010 bidding round during which England was expected to be announced as host for the upcoming Fifa tournament, only to be defeated by Russia.

Conifa will undoubtedly develop and gain further support and sponsorship thanks to the publicity the London tournament is generating. This is already evident in their website having undergone a complete overhaul during the last week (suggesting perhaps an initial, and understandable, lack of preparedness for the breadth of the coverage they would receive). Such attention will likely spur both development within the organisation (perhaps the introduction of gender diversity!), as well as a rise in applications for affiliation from as diverse a variety of groups as those currently included among the membership.

This latter situation puts the Conifa Board in the unenviable position of determining the bases on which group identity can be established. They've set themselves up for this, and presumably would argue that Fifa does it too. Yet, if the nation state is indeed dead (which the current international political climate suggests may no longer be such a truism as it was 20 years ago… but if it is), then who decides what replaces it as the core of identity affiliation?

This tournament obviously won't tell us; but it will, via football matches of questionable quality, serve as a very effective reminder of the power of minority communities both in their homelands and through diasporas integrated into multicultural metropolises like London. In many examples, the teams participating represent hope (the United Koreans in Japan being a case in point), and bravery, with the squad from Kabylia (a region of Algeria) not able to be announced because police there have previously detained players to prevent them from participating.

Conifa may on the surface be concerned only with football, but I doubt they'd deny that everything about their organisation is entwined with politics – in fact their project is inherently, and even dangerously, political. This is serious business. Conifa obviously won't become the guardians of identity politics. Nevertheless, their willingness to see multiple levels of identity and mutliple bases on which identities can be established – concepts which discursively rarely escape ivory towers –, suggests the growth and dissemination of a broader collective awareness of such nuances which, for those of us who force and leave the tower windows open, is positive indeed.

Rather than the clear agenda of the Conifa Board to act in direct contrast to Fifa, the real legacy of this tournament and the publicity it's generating will be their establishment of a new playing field, so to speak. Conifa demonstrates that people can, with free will and choice, select their group affiliations on various bases. But, crucially, they can do this for the purpose of making friends and not enemies, for creating communites rather than divisions, and for acknowledging the historical complexity of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious identities, which at popular levels have not ever been neatly compartmentalised in the boundaries formally defined during the last four centuries.

The tournament will also alert a wider public to these groups – marginalised, persecuted, or developing. This is not about agreeing or disagreeing with alleged persecutors, or with separatist movements, but instead is about acknowledging individuals' right to identify as they wish and to represent that identity on an international stage, providing neither impinges on the individual rights of others of course. As with the FIFA World CupTM, the Conifa event highlights the power of football to temporarily suspend antagonisms, or, perhaps better, to demonstrate that the level antagonisms exist at is not inherently that of the populace. Rather, such events enable collective engagement regardless and because of perceived differences in any or all aspects of identities.

If you're intrigued, are in or proximate to London, and like live football matches of questionable quality (and supporting causes), Conifa World Football Cup tickets are available here. For those further afield, some of the games will be screened on the Conifa streaming site here.

[i] The quotes from Mr Watson are taken from the episode of The Totally Football Show with James Richardson podcast entitled 'Conifa 2018 – fixing football (just not like that)', hosted by Iain MacIntosh and featuring Paddy Power's Lee Price, released on Wednesday 30 May 2018. This is available freely to download on iTunes and the show's website.

Jessica Tearney-Pearce is a Woolf Institute Cambridge PhD candidate at St John's College and in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on inter- and intra-cultural and confessional communication and the sharing of practices, spaces, and ideas in the pre-modern Mediterranean, and her current project examines religions at sea and in maritime contexts.

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