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CONIFA World Cup: Football and Hopes for Independence

Tibet. Northern Cyprus. Abkhazia. These might be the answers of a difficult geography exam, but they are just some of the 16 teams which took part in the CONIFA World Cup for countries who can’t gain FIFA recognition.

While football fans around the world wait for the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, another world cup involving a different set of national teams played out earlier this month in London.

Tibet. Northern Cyprus. Abkhazia. These might be the answers of a difficult geography exam, but they are just some of the 16 teams which took part in the CONIFA World Cup, the tournament organized by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations for countries who can’t gain FIFA recognition.

Some of its members, like Monaco, are internationally recognized states, others, however, likely never will be.  For teams, participation offers the opportunity to highlight a unique culture. For others, it is also an opportunity to advance a political agenda such as advocate for independence. Those often competing notions don’t play out on the pitch where the play is fair and with little hard tackling, but the politics of the event often play out directly in the stands.

The passion of the fans is real. A match between the two fan favorites in the tournament – North Cyprus and Tibet – drew 1,500 people, according to organizers.

Different players joined the tournament for different reasons. One of the biggest names from the sport to play in the tournament is James Riley who played for several teams during his professional career, including the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer.

“The three best years of my career probably were in Seattle…it’s a great area and a liberal and diverse area,” said Riley, noting, however, that the chance to play a competitive match in London, “an important city for football, was fantastic.”

Seattle is the largest city in Cascadia, a region which includes parts of the Pacific Northwest in both Canada and the United States. The proposed country largely would consist of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

Riley spoke to The Globe Post following Cascadia’s final group stage match against Tamil Elaam. The largely one-sided 6-0 drubbing was the largest margin of victory in the history of Cascadia’s football team.

“It is fair to say that Cascadia is the heartland for the sport in Canada and the United States,” he said.

Each year three of the Major League Soccer (MLS) teams from Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland compete for the Cascadia Cup.

The Cascadian team at the tournament represented a movement based around bio-regionalism, an idea which dates to the 1970s and believes that human civilization should be based around shared environmental areas and shared water resources rather than artificial borders.

“I first became interested in Cascadia and the ideas in the seventh grade,” Trevor Owen, a Cascadian activist, told The Globe Post, also citing the example of David McClosky, an advocate of bio-regionalism.

“Cascadia is based around the idea of bio-regionalism, it is a region based around shared water resources, this is something we can learn from the traditional people of the region,” he said.

Advocates say an independent Cascadia would have a population of 16 million, who it claims would be the 13th largest economy in the world.

Pacific Northwest has long attracted independentists. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the formation of a “Pacific Republic” in the region, and early Mormon leaders dreamed of establishing a colony on Vancouver Island called Nootka.

Today, a competing vision of Cascadia has been embraced by white supremacists bent on creating an independent state in the Pacific Northwest. Such groups take heart in the fact that King County, with Seattle as its seat, is over 60 percent white, according to a recent U.S. Census, more than any other large county in the United States.

Other far-right groups embrace the colors of the Cascadia movement but have criticized the bio-regionalists. Last year, a Reddit group criticized a racists poster campaign around Portland,  saying that “If this spins out of control, Cascadia could become a nightmare instead of a utopia.”

The Cascadian team includes several African-American players, including Riley.

“Their ideologies is a pack of [expletive] built of lies, Cascadia is about inclusion, and when seeing the white supremacist we tear those down and call the speech,” says Owen.

The Cascadian football team hopes to host the 2020 CONIFA World Cup in Seattle and hopes to develop teams, in particular those with Native Americans.

Amongst supporters of the Tamil Elaam, there was a similar divide among those who saw their participation as political or cultural. The High Commission of Sri Lanka protested the presence of the Tamil Elaam team which represents the ethnic Tamil community of the country. The High Commission of Cyprus also protested the participation of the Republic of North Cyprus. As Commonwealth countries, both states maintain commissions rather than embassies in fellow Commonwealth countries.

“I came here to support my country, I’m from Tamil Elaam,” says Sunthu who declined to give his full name out of fear that his family in Sri Lanka could be targeted by Buddhist extremists or the government.

“The government of Sri Lanka doesn’t allow Tamil players on the national cricket team or national football.” Though, in fact, the Sri Lankan national teams for both sports have included a few Tamil players.

“What we the Tamil people have suffered at the hands of our government is nothing short of genocide,” he claimed.

Offering a different view was Piraburaj Jayabalakrishnan, a practicing Muslim who broke his fast to participate in the tournament following on the example of Egypt’s Mohammed Salah.  Salah is a star player for Liverpool and did not fast for three days ahead of the Champions League final.

“For me, this is about cultural expression, my parents were from Jaffna,” said Jayabalakrishnan who played professionally in France. “I am just proud to be playing here.”

Though Tamil Elaam’s chances were dampened when one of their star players was injured early in the tournament, hundreds of Tamil Elaam fans in attendance cheered their team on throughout the match.

Many waved a flag that featured a Tiger’s head surrounded by bullets. A logo that is suspiciously close to the flag of the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, a terrorist group which waged a guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan state from 1983 to 2009 and is best known for inventing the suicide vest and suicide bomb. But, also present were fans wearing the emblem of the Tamil Elaam football team, which is a leopard.

Most notable group of Tamil drummers who dressed in all black wore shirts with the image of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader who was killed in a gunfight with the Sri Lankan government. The drummers, all in their early twenties, were likely quite young when Prabhakaran died in 2009. Many Tamil youths have a romantic view of Prabhakaran, just as fans of Che Guevara look past that guerrilla leader’s execution of opponents and racist views.

In a 2015 interview, the President of CONIFA Per-Anders Blind addressed the issue directly.

“We’ve had some questions about that before with regards to our Sri Lanka team. If we receive serious inquiries, we will look into it. Look, we don’t allow any political views or any political movement inside CONIFA.”

The organizers of the CONIFA World Cup are against racism and support the right of all people to represent themselves through sport. They hope that in the future human conflict will be played out on the football pitch and not the battlefield.

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