Founded in 2013, CONIFA allows people to play football for the identity they feel represents them. As Paul Watson says, “It's a more flexible model of football for the modern realities of the world we live in.” Teams that play for CONIFA have been overlooked for FIFA status for several reasons: in the case of Kiribati and Tuvalu, the cost of development is tough. Their remoteness makes it hard for players to commit, and pitch conditions and facilities can be poor. Often it is the case that the remoteness of these places means that nobody takes notice of their absence. As CONIFA represents states that aren’t recognised, along with semi-recognised states and sovereign nations, it assists people across the world to get access to football.
“We can provide kit, coaches and competition and are always actively seeking more ways we can assist our members,” Paul explains.
CONIFA offers an alternative to the capitalist body that FIFA has become, and allows players to have a sense of pride in their country, no matter how small. Paul says: “semi-recognised states generally wouldn’t be recognised by FIFA as this would cause problems politically within the organisation. If FIFA were to recognise Tibet, China would threaten to pull out and take billions in business interests with them.”
Seamus Sharkey, defender of Ellan Vannin, feels proud to be called Manx (the native language of the island). “Before it was, just, ‘born in the Isle Of Man’, but when you see us singing the national anthem before any game, you can feel the pride bursting out of each player.”
The Manx International Football Alliance was set up in 2013, so it was only natural that they would enter CONIFA. “Someone was brave enough to step up to the plate and get the ball rolling to provide better quality football to test ourselves.” Before 2013, nobody on the island pushed for recognition as an international football team. Seamus said that the Isle Of Man were, “happy competing as a county within the English FA.” As with other players, Seamus is quick to question FIFA, “I get jealous when I see Gibraltar playing international games within FIFA. I think to myself ‘why isn’t that us there, small countries just like us in FIFA?’”
Often overlooked, these small countries and the publicity they will get from taking part in CONIFA, especially since it is taking place in London this year, are sure to raise awareness for the problems that they face in their homeland.
“Sport gets people talking about issues they wouldn’t normally be aware of. If you try lecture someone about climate change in the Pacific Islands, they will switch off. But if you tell the story through people with a passion for sport, like them, it reaches more people,” says Paul.
During Paul’s time in Pohnpei, he saw widespread drug abuse amongst players. Sakau and Betel Nut are very popular in Pohnpei, a common part of daily life. “They take great pride in sakau (a traditional drink) - it’s part of their culture. You have it at weddings, funerals and everything in between. We tried to get players to buy into the athletic lifestyle, but we also had to respect the local culture.” As players were using these drugs, and not buying what Paul was selling with the healthy lifestyle, it was only natural that Pohnpei’s mission was to raise awareness of obesity and lack of sporting opportunities for young people in Micronesia. “We are keen to bring to a wider audience the injustice that a part of the world where football could make such a positive difference was being denied FIFA assistance.”
FIFA’s assistance would prove invaluable to countries such as Pohnpei, Tuvalu and Kiribati.
Jake Kewley, the international ambassador of Kiribati, has been working hard for Kiribati to get FIFA status, but this has not been without its problems. As the first Oceanic team to play in CONIFA, there is a new sense of pride distilled in players, and a yearning to play for FIFA. However, to become a member of FIFA, you need to be a full time member of the Oceanic Football Confederation (OFC), but to be a full time member of the OFC, you need to be a member of FIFA. Frustrating? Absolutely.
CONIFA has been nothing but helpful to Jake and Kiribati, “They have assisted us in looking into legal advice and how they can utilize the court of arbitrations if the situation continues a few years down the line.” Kiribati also recognise that they themselves have to upgrade the usability of their pitches if they want to be considered for FIFA status.
Pitches in Kiribati are public property and as such have little to no grass, and are hard to use for football practise. There is one private pitch, owned by a school, that has grass, so this has given Jake a drive to see that they can update their pitches for FIFA and OFC. Pitch problems are also an issue in Pohnpei. Paul quickly learned that the 40 degree was hard work, along with “the fact that Micronesia is one of the wettest places on earth, you need to learn a new way to train when you’re under a foot of water.”
It is clear to see that FIFA’s help is much needed in smaller countries. Currently in the Isle Of Man, there are two football teams, Ellan Vannin and the Isle Of Man Football Association. There is naturally a conflict between the two. “I think it is stupid that there are two teams. Ellan Vannin should have its own Football Association and not be a part of the English FA. We should be trying our hardest to be part of FIFA so that we can be put on the map as a footballing country,” explains Seamus. “FIFA will provide us with a set up to host international games as well as give advice on how to structure a top class youth program to let them have the best possible chance of fulfilling a dream.”
But where FIFA falls, CONIFA rises. Jake notes that for Kiribati, CONFIA are “really on our side. They put our interests ahead of everything else and are here to help us. It is a dramatic change from FIFA, who are not all that interested in what we are trying to do.”
CONIFA is new enough, and coverage in the media has proven to be sparse. “I think it’s probably because CONIFA doesn’t have the celebrities like, say, the Premier League does, but it’s building a following,” says Paul.
“Maybe because FIFA is so well known that other tournaments aren't really cared about,” notes Seamus. Football without its celebrities just doesn’t seem worth following, apparently.
That is set to change in 2018. With the World Cup taking place in London, CONIFA and the message it carries is set to get a lot more media coverage. “It should be the event that puts them on the map”, says Jake. Paul is in agreement, “A successful World Football Cup will allow us to expand our development work and to hopefully attract sponsors and followers from across the world.”
The future of CONIFA is no doubt going to go from strength to strength and will see more countries applying. Paul hopes that West Papua will complete their application, “The horrific treatment of the West Papuan people by Indonesia deserves to be known by so many more people.” He is also hoping the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori teams join CONIFA.
CONIFA is football with a cause, football for those who have had their voice silenced, football for those who love the beautiful game and football for those who dare dream. Is it any wonder its nickname is the Rebel World Cup?