The breakaway post-Soviet republic of Abkhazia is recognised by just a handful of countries. Its aspirations for national recognition have now moved onto the football pitch.
Hugging the Black Sea coastline, Abkhazia was once known for its palm trees, tangerine harvests and Soviet functionaries on holiday. However, a brutal 15 months of war with Georgia beginning in 1992 saw the breakaway state eventually declare independence in 1999. What was once a diverse melting pot of Abkhaz, Pontic Greeks, Georgians, Armenians and Russians was transformed into a de-facto Abkhaz nation state, as thousands of refugees fled the violent clashes between unofficial Georgian militias and mercenaries from Russia’s North Caucasus ethnic republics. The pre-war diversity was destroyed. Abkhazia’s independent status is now only recognised by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria, along with nearby South Ossetia, another breakaway republic usually dismissed by the West as “Russian-occupied”.
Suffice to say, Abkhazia is a long way from UN recognition. So too with FIFA, world football’s governing body. Yet a chance to advance its status as a nation (and a football team) came when it was chosen to host the 2016 ConIFA tournament. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations has existed since 2013 with the aim of overseeing competition between national football associations unrecognised by FIFA. According to its constitution, ConIFA “bridges people, nations, minorities and isolated territories all over the world though friendship, culture and the joy of playing football”.
Yet those countries whose football associations bear official FIFA recognition might consider ConIFA a dangerous platform on which separatist political aspirations are given vent. Such a sentiment was evident when prior to the 2015 European tournament the Georgian government pressured Hungary into rejecting the visa applications of the teams representing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Nonetheless, a year later Abkhazia stood firm in its decision to host the global tournament. In response to criticism, Kan Taniya, Abkhazia’s deputy foreign minister, retorted that, “We have the right to rule our territory, we paid for it with our blood. This event is a step to be more connected to the world, and with it we want to show that Georgia cannot isolate us.”
When I spoke to Astamur Adleiba, the President of Abkhaz team Dinamo Sukhum, and the man responsible for Abkhazia’s involvement in ConIFA, he recalled the “vicious circle” in which Abkhaz football found itself prior to acceptance into ConIFA. The Abkhaz league sees just seven teams competing for a title, with no prospects for future development or international involvement. Yet Adleiba described how Abkhazia’s games in 2016 were sold out months in advance and passionately recalled the “wild pandemonium” following Abkhazia’s penalty-shootout victory in the final. He hopes that one day Abkhazia will gain FIFA membership, but for the moment, sees the opportunity to participate in any form of international competition as an important step forward.
The idea that ConIFA fuels separatist politics is one its founders and representatives are keen to resist. Per-Anders Blind, the president and co-founder of ConIFA, hails from Sweden’s Sámi minority and cuts a somewhat different figure to the likes of Sepp Blatter or Gianni Infantino. He denies that ConIFA plays a role in supporting separatism around the world, arguing rather that “our aim is to show that football can be a tool to bring our members to the global stage. We all have the same right to exist”… “FIFA and we serve different purposes: it’s just not the same representing your ethnicity and representing your country.”Citing his ethnic identity, he regards the founding of ConIFA as a personal victory: “I was raised in a minority community where people are always looking down on you, you are an underdog, you have to fight for your right to exist. And I always felt I had a mission in this world, but I didn’t know what.” Abkhazia’s 2016 victory on home soil offered the nation’s people a rare chance to express themselves in a manner untainted by the bloody pyrrhic victory of their war with Georgia.
Abkhazia’s 2016 victory on home soil offered the nation’s people a rare chance to express themselves in a manner untainted by the bloody pyrrhic victory of their war with Georgia.
For many other communities, ConIFA provides a rare platform for expression. The chairman of ConIFA’s newest member, the Yorkshire International Football Association, Philip Hegarty, put it this way: “Every single one of these regions, to some greater or lesser extent, feel like their culture isn’t being given a voice or representation in some way, whether that’s to the extremes of Tibet, [or] to Yorkshire, which is having a fight against the government’s version of devolution”.For the Sápmi team (representing the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia and Russia), the tournament is an opportunity to reinvigorate acultureand heritage potentially at risk of extinction. Another team is the United Koreans of Japan, which represents the minority hailing from both Koreas, but discriminated in Japan. They have no aspirations of statehood, but the tournament provides an opportunity for the community to unite and revel in the temporary relief of a sporting occasion where they can stand equal to their competitors, at least at kick off.
Regardless of how ConIFA is viewed by the political authorities linked to each team, the founders of ConIFA see their organisation as one promoting a sport which everyone has the right to play. They recognise football’s power to unite cultures rather than divide them, and its ability to champion the self-belief of those otherwise silenced. Abkhazia’s 2016 victory on home soil offered the nation’s people a rare chance to express themselves in a manner untainted by the bloody pyrrhic victory of their war with Georgia. One only need watch footage of their penalty shootout victory against Panjab to appreciate the significance of this self-expression for the Abkhaz people.
Yet Abkhazian football does not exist in a sporting vacuum. The spectre of world politics looms large. The Abkhaz are wont to draw comparisons between their own position in world football and that of Kosovo, another partially recognised state which gained full admittance to UEFA and FIFA in 2016. Whilst the Kosovo peacekeeping operation was overseen by the UN under the powerful influence of the United States, it was the pariah nation of Russia that assumed responsibility for Abkhazia’s separation from Georgia. Abkhazia retains substantial financial support from Russia, including the reconstruction of Sukhum’s stadium in advance of the 2016 ConIFA tournament. The comparison with Kosovo does little to dispel the creation of modern nations as an arbitrary process determined by the balance of world power, but it also speaks to the inevitably political reality of Abkhazia’s participation in international sport.
This year, Abkhazia, along with 15 other teams, will converge on several of London’s non-League footballing theatres for ConIFA’s 2018 iteration, hosted by the Barawa Football Association, a team representing a minority community in southwestern Somalia and largely formed of members of the UK’s Somali diaspora. Adleiba’s enthusiasm is palpable as he assesses his side’s chances in a group containing Tibet, Northern Cyprus and Felvidék, who represent the Hungarian-speaking minority of southern Slovakia. With our conversation drawing to a close, Adleiba left me with the story of football’s beginnings in his small, isolated homeland. As the legend goes, in 1896 British sailors dropped anchor on the tropical coastline of Abkhazia and invited the locals to join them in a comradely game of football. Whatever the perceived political connotations of their participation, as the Abkhaz side finally travel to London for the return leg after more than 120 years, one cannot help but wish them luck.