Thursday, 4 December 2008


A shorter version of the following article appears in the latest issue (No.55, Winter 2008) of Groundtastic magazine.

FIFA is supposed to control football, to set the rules and criteria for stadia used for international football but what about games in places that aren’t in the world game’s governing body?

FIFA doesn’t accept just any old place that applies: Greenland, Gibraltar, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), North Mariana in the Pacific, Zanzibar, Tibet.

All these places have been shunned by FIFA but football is still played in all of them in stadia of all sorts of shapes and sizes.

In November 2006, the TRNC hosted a tournament for eight sides with the final played in the 28,000 capacity Atatürk Stadium (see photos) in the Turkish side of Nicosia, the island’s capital that was divided by Turkey’s invasion in 1974.

Since that invasion and a declaration of independence nine years later, the TRNC has been a pariah nation recognised only by its Turkish conquerors.

The Northern Cypriots had a national team but could find no-one to play either abroad or at home in their Atatürk national stadium.

The Atatürk was built by Ozer Esenyl, the father of Ahmet Esenyel, who captained this national team that could not exist until the early part of this decade.

The Atatürk was opened by a match between Turkish sides Fenerbahçe and Sariyer and hosted other overseas teams, such as Neuchatel Xamax from Switzerland, but the KTFF was rejected by FIFA in 1995 and became more isolated after then.

The national team has been more proactive in recent years and played a handful of games against fellow pariah nations, such as Kosovo. In the summer of 2007, Luton Town came to the TRNC for a training camp and a friendly game was arranged for July 11 at the Atatürk, which is also home to Çetinkaya, the last Turkish club to win the all-island league in 1952/53 before the Turks split off to form their own federation.

The game was cancelled after complaints by the Greek Cypriots so Luton played a training match at the Atatürk between themselves that was beamed all over the world. That coverage finally secured the KTFF a meeting with FIFA and the Greek Cypriots.

Whether the Atatürk meets FIFA’s grounds criteria if a breakthrough is secured remains to be seen.

The ground is easily the biggest in the TRNC but photos can be deceiving. There are floodlights and the ground probably does hold the 28,000 people that the KTFF claim but they will not all be sitting down on seats.

The seating is only in two areas either side of the half-way line even that is probably rarely stretched as Çetinkaya only attract 2,000 fans at best for a big game and the national team even less.

Will the Atatürk ever host a match between Cyprus and the TRNC? FIFA insists not but FIFA’s grasp on the fringes of international football is not what it seems.

Gibraltar applied to join FIFA in the late 1990s only for Spain to threaten to pull its national and club teams out of every international competition.

UEFA could not let that happen so they changed their entry criteria so that all new members had to be in the United Nations.

FIFA found a different reason and cited the 3,000 capacity Victoria Stadium, which is situated on an isthmus of land between the British colony and the Spanish border town of La Linea.

That isthmus also accommodates the territory’s airport, which opened to international flights from Spain for the first time in 2007. FIFA though, claim the stadium cannot host international football because the ownership has never been decided.

The pitch at the stadium is the only one in Gibraltar and used all-day long by schoolchildren then the local leagues so the Gibraltar Football Association laid an artificial surface years ago. Bizarrely, that third generation pitch is a FIFA approved playing surface.

This was done years ago through the English FA as the GFA was an affiliate until falling out with the motherland as the row with FIFA and UEFA over membership progressed.

At least Gibraltar has a stadium as many of the lands that FIFA has forgotten cannot even play at home.

In Monaco, the amateur national side is not allowed to play in the 20,000 capacity Stade Louis II stadium, which is home to the only club in Monaco, ASM.

ASM compete in the French league and the government is concerned that if the Fédération Monégasque de Football joined UEFA then ASM may have to leave the French league so the FMF are tacitly accepted but officially unrecognized.

And if Monaco’s national team did play a match at the Stade Louis II stadium against the likes of Northern Cyprus, then ASM could face sanctions from FIFA.

In 2006, the TRNC journeyed to southern France to take on a side representing speakers of the ancient language of Occitània in a run-down council stadium in Vendargues as this was the only ground that could host the tie without FIFA sanctions.

That is also why the 5,000 capacity Vanlose Stadium in Denmark hosted Tibet’s first match in 2001.

A team of exiled players from the Himalayan kingdom, which was invaded by China in 1950, journeyed to Copenhagen to take on Greenland but no clubs would host the game for fear of FIFA sanctions.

The Greenlanders have even more problems playing as the season in their Arctic island is just three months long and all the pitches are sand. As a result, all Greenland’s international matches are away games but the Greenlandic FA are aiming to change that situation.

Rejected by FIFA in the late 1990s, Greenland hope to lay an artificial surface and host a four-team tournament as part of a campaign to encourage tourists to the island.

Greenland is semi-autonomous from Denmark but the cost of laying the pitch would be four times more than in Western Europe with only one air route between Copenhagen and Nuuk.

Despite this, the Greenlanders are confident of laying the surface to host a four-team event in three to four years time then adding stands later on. Greenland want to show that being forgotten by FIFA is no obstacle to playing international football.