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ConIFA On The Talking Game – An Organisation Aimed To Improve The Standards Of Non-FIFA Football

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In this edition of The Talking Game, our very own Callum Farrell interviews ConIFA, an organisation which is looking to increase the professionalism and standard of non-FIFA football.

The world of football outside the FIFA family in the past has been chaotic, unstable, sparse and susceptible to attack from those who would like to see it fail. With no multi-billion pound international organisation like Sepp Blatter’s to fund development programmes and facilities, fixtures have been limited to one off occurrences, usually hampered by late logistical issues and financial problems. When tournaments can be arranged, FAs who believe a competitor’s participation will cause diplomatic tension have managed to persuade FIFA and governments to make life as uncomfortable as possible. It is fair to say, the situation can become very exasperating for those involved.

However, a new organisation is looking to change all that. The Confederation of International Football Associations (ConIFA), led by their President Per-Anders Blind, have strived to create a professional organisation which will aim for regular, competitive football for all of its eclectic members, and bring the overall standard of non-FIFA football up. Continental competitions, regular AGMs and constant contact with all nations involved are no doubt going to improve the international landscape and improve everyone involved (which include Zanzibar, Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus, Monaco, Quebec and Palau, along with many more). Their General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, gave an interview to explain more about the work ConIFA do and outline their path in future.

How did the idea for ConIFA come about and what made you believe such an organisation is needed?

Many on our Executive Committee have been involved in football outside the auspices of FIFA for a couple of years. Our President refereed many such matches, our Vice-President organised the Tynwald Hill International Football Tournament on the Isle of Man and I gathered contact information and put FAs in contact with each other and supported two FAs actively in their incorporation phase. So most of us were aware of football outside FIFA, which is at least as old as FIFA and obviously not a ConIFA invention. The most important criteria to form a new organization came from the FAs directly.

Speaking to FA members of at least 50 Associations gave us a positive outlook on the potential there is in football outside FIFA which required a properly organized and structured governing body to bring them all together. We established that there were a tremendous amount of Associations who wanted to compete with their teams on a more regular basis in both one off matches and tournaments. We are confident that ConIFA can provide this and although we are in our infancy the feedback we are receiving from our Members is extremely positive.

You’re different from other non-FIFA organizations in that you offer members advice and support in becoming recognised FIFA nations. Is that your ultimate desire for all your members?

We don’t actively encourage our Members to join FIFA but as we do with many other issues we will support and assist any FA who requests it, for example Kurdistan or Zanzibar want to obtain membership of FIFA and we will support them in any way we can firstly by providing a professional platform to demonstrate their organizational abilities and of course their playing level. Others, like Occitania or Romani People, have no intention of joining FIFA at any time.

Their major aim is to promote their own culture, unite their people through a team they can be proud of and of course play football on a high level. They want to grow with and through us and want to give players a possibility to represent what they are passionate about: Their nation! Players do not get paid but just play for enjoyment, pride and a passion for their heritage!

You’re also different in that you are committed to keeping all members active by creating tournaments in every continent on a cyclical basis. Can you tell me a little more about what you are planning and hoping to achieve?

Football outside FIFA always saw a lot of ups and downs, especially in the frequency of matches being played. Being a fan and follower I believed that this was created mainly by the FAs themselves, but once we spoke to them we found out all of them would love to play much more regularly. Especially to lower travel costs and to give also the lower football quality teams a chance to compete in tournaments, and thus improve dramatically over time. We plan to have the World Football Cup in each even year and continental tournaments in each odd year. We hope that each team plays at least in one major tournament during every 2-year cycle. As things stand today all our members will play in a tournament in 2014 already. Besides the World Football Cup we are planning a Caribbean Cup and a “Challenge Cup” for teams not playing in the World Football Cup in 2014.

This would obviously be an amazing achievement which never happened before in the history of football outside FIFA! In 2015 we will have a European Cup and probably continental championships in South America, Northern America and Africa. Besides we hope to be able to co-brand an Oceania tournament of teams outside FIFA. We hope that the regular matches encourage teams all over the world, no matter of their football quality or size, to apply to join ConIFA and the beautiful world of football outside FIFA!

How excited are you for the forthcoming World Football Cup? What can spectators hope to see and experience?

We are absolutely excited about the World Football Cup. This tournament will be the largest tournament outside FIFA ever and the quality will be higher than ever before, too. Iraqi, Swedish, Armenian, Belgium, Norwegian, Canadian and Tanzanian first division players with international experience in the Europa League or Champions League will compete in the tournament and will fight with a lot of passion for the success of the nation they identify with.

As mentioned before the players do not get any fees or payments and thus each single match will be driven by the pride of the teams instead of financial reasons, which is brilliant and rare today! Spectators in Östersund itself can expect to experience an international flair in the city with probably around one hundred cultural acts in the city of Östersund during the World Football Cup week. Musicians and dancers from the participating nations, movies about them, an exhibition showing the culture of each nation and much more will make Östersund a global village and an once-in-a-lifetime experience for everybody.

Are you actively looking for members or just looking to accommodate those who want to join CONIFA?

In the beginning we looked actively for new members to grow. Now, with more than 20 members, we are big enough to organise regular tournaments and have an active community. So right now we’re fully focused on what we have and to work hard for our members. Nevertheless we are still open for new members of course and luckily we regularly get new applications. Besides our members are promoting us and ask other FAs to join us, which is an amazing compliment for our work and create great new contacts. We hope that a successful World Football Cup 2014 will raise awareness of our existence worldwide and encourages more and more FAs to participate. Nevertheless we actively address potential members whenever we read something about a team or a nation that would perfectly fit in our profile.

Do you think FIFA is narrow minded with their membership policy, and overlooks isolated members because it has to tread on political eggshells?

No, not all. FIFA today has strict, easy understandable and very logical regulations on membership. FAs of dependencies like Faroe Islands or Montserrat joined FIFA before the regulations were established and would probably find it much harder to join today. FIFA obviously need regulations based on the common agreement of the political society to satisfy all members. If you imagine that Northern Cyprus would join FIFA some other teams like Greece or Cyprus would be likely to deny playing against them, which could even lead to diplomatic problems that FIFA for good reasons wants to avoid.

Our view is that the people, and in particular the players, are not politicians and it is not their fault at all living in a place ignored by the political society or identifying with an entity that is not a country like Occitania. Of course this philosophy causes multiple issues, but we are ready to tackle them for the good of our members!

Ten years from now, what do you hope ConIFA has grown into?

The common dream of everybody involved in ConIFA is that the world recognizes us as “normal”. We are not at all a fun organisation or an oddity and we hope that in 10 years we will be taken as serious as we are. We hope to be seen as just another dimension of international football and an interesting addition to FIFA. If we do not have to explain who we are and what we do anymore in 10 years, and if people would be looking forward to the next World Football Cup months before, we would have achieved all goals.

To be present where we are needed and meet the FAs more regularly and thus be able to help them even more in the daily operational issues they face, we hope to have headquarters with fully employed people in each continent. A last huge goal would be to help a couple of teams to join FIFA during those 10 years of course!

What has been your best memory or moment from your experience in the organization?

Obviously the two Annual General Meetings we had until now were special moments. Especially as in both AGMs some participants were quite wary at the beginning of the meeting and were fully convinced afterwards. That gives all of us again and again the feeling that we do a great job and that we really change something for the better.

Nevertheless the best moment for me personally was a guest lecture I did at the UCN in Aalborg. The UCN is an international top university in sports management and they invited me to do a guest lecture of one and a half hours about football outside FIFA and ConIFA for their students in higher semesters. The amazing feedback and interest received there by people not at all connected to any of our members was just awesome. It was one of those moments which prove that what we are doing appeals to everybody.

You’ve been firm with your message towards the Azerbaijani Football Association by rejecting their demands to ban Nagorno-Karabakh from the World Football Cup. Aren’t their demands exactly what ConIFA hopes to eradicate?

Indeed. The basic idea is that nobody should be forbidden to play football and nobody should be forbidden to play with passion for what the entity he identifies with. As we said in our open statement before it is just a matter of fact that the people today living in Nagorno-Karabakh are isolated in football. They technically do not have the chance to play in a FIFA national team. Nevertheless people in Nagorno-Karabakh love football and of course want to compete with the rest of the world. We see no good reason to prevent them to do so. In particular it should not at all be seen as a political statement in any way.

ConIFA is also trying to provide opportunities for disabled athletes. What are you trying to set up for these footballers?

Our work for disabled football is an initiative from Claudio Girardi who played in Paralympics himself. He realised that in the Paralympics (physically disabled) and Special Olympics (mentally disabled) there are strict regulations that always exclude players. He wants to bring both together with teams having both, mentally and physically disabled players. He personally has good experiences with that approach at his club in Torino and now wants to establish international matches in that discipline. This inclusive approach is a fascinating idea and thus we were keen to include it into ConIFA and in future we want to encourage as many of our members as possible to set up such teams. They will then meet each other in friendly matches and play in the side programme of our major tournaments right next to the main event.

What prejudices and obstacles are out there that stands in the way of what CONIFA is trying to do?

The history of organised football outside FIFA led to a couple of prejudices we have to deal with. Former organisations unfortunately never really reached a professional level and thus tournaments announced to have 16 teams were played with four teams in the end. Hosts of tournaments just changed four weeks before the kick-off and more and more artificial micro nations and obscure teams entered the community.

The involvement of comedians in a tournament in Germany led to huge publicity, but on the other side stole the event’s seriousness. That all together means that we have to convince fans, sponsors and media that we are different and we deliver what we promise. We also have to prove that what we do is serious football of serious teams and not at all a joke. In addition there are obviously a lot of political obstacles we have to tackle. It is not at all unlikely that similar protests like the one of AFFA had will come from time to time.

If people reading this interview want to get involved in your organization and help out, what can they do and how can they get involved in?

We are always looking for enthusiastic people who want to get involved. Unfortunately we are not in a position to pay anybody regularly with all work being on a voluntary basis. We are especially looking for people translating our homepage, documents and letters to members these days. But just in general every helping hand is worth a lot to us. If anybody interested in getting involved reads this please just send me an email (generalsecretary@conifa.org) and let us know what are your attributes and your particular area of interest.

There are plenty of chances to help us planning matches and tournaments, maintaining our web presence, writing official articles on our members, communicating with our members or helping us with the cultural events. We already have one Irish helper involved who does an amazing job helping us with the details of the cultural village in Östersund!