Friday, 14 July 2017

Football’s new cold war: Soft power in post-Soviet conflict states

In the last decade, the notion of Non-FIFA football, of a game played outside the auspices of the games increasingly corrupt and bedevilled governing body has taken hold.
From the formation of the NF Board in 2003 for representative teams that FIFA cannot cope with, to an increasing plethora of tournaments from the Viva World Cup to the Wild Cup and the ConIFA World Football Cup, gaining recognition through playing ‘international’ football has never been easier.
Initially, this involved teams such as the Sami (or Laplanders, as they prefer not to be known) and Occitania, a side aimed at keeping alive the ancient culture of Occitan and in particular its language. To play for Occitania, all you need is to be able to speak the language.
Other more controversial teams took part, such as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), whose independence in 1983 remains recognised only by its sponsor in Turkey.
The TRNC at least had clubs and leagues unlike the Padania team, which had strong links to the Liga Nord political party in Italy, and was the first to try and colonise this emerging and uncontested sporting vacuum.
More recently this space has been occupied by the increasing number of states to emerge from military intervention in eastern Europe that is, at one level or another, inspired, supported or militated by Russia. From Nagorno-Karabakh to the ‘independent’ states of Abkhazia, the Donetsk People’s Republic, South Ossetia and Transnistria, football is becoming a new front for expansion backed, directly or indirectly, by Russia. 

This front is aimed more at recognition from the game’s governing bodies than the most of the founding teams in the NF Board, which was first the Non-FIFA Board, before becoming – in an attempt not to be defined solely in opposition to the game’s governing body – the New Federation Board.
This early Non-FIFA movement was naïve, but the organisation was typified by a return to some of the ideals that defined the emergence of organised and codified sport in the Victorian era, notably the importance of fair play and a post-match celebration of the cultures involved. Teams like Occitania and the Sami did not want independence, they wanted to keep their culture alive, while some places outside of FIFA with legitimate ambitions for recognition, such as Greenland, were already tired of the corrupt behemoth that ran global football by the turn of the Millennium.
However, FIFA had money and what also typified this nascent Non-FIFA movement was lack of financial resources. As a result, what began as a naïve idea to provide an international waiting room for teams outside of FIFA suffered growing pains as fractious schisms allowed for the politicisation of the early Non-FIFA World.
This began at the outset, when the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was chosen as host for the NF Board’s first competition, the 2006 Viva World Cup. Disputes over money and the inclusion of Kurdistan saw the hosts and NF Board fall out, but the TRNC had money, and an estimated £100,000 was spent flying in and accommodating teams from Greenland to Zanzibar.
The tournament also saw the first emergence of teams from the post-Soviet sphere with Gagaúzia, an autonomous region of Moldova, and a side representing the Crimea taking part. The independent state of Kyrgyzstan, which had unofficial trade links with the TRNC, also entered a team in what became the ELF Cup.

The appearance of Gagaúzia and Crimea signified a first attempt to use football to set down a marker for recognition as separatist ambitions in these post-Soviet territories. While Gaugazia remains an autonomous region of Moldova, in 2014 the Crimea would be annexed by troops supported by the Russian military.
Using football to further political recognition continued as the NF Board pushed on with its own Viva World Cup (VWC), which included Iraqi Kurdistan and Padania. Padania won the second VWC in 2008, hosted and won the next event the following year and completed a hat-trick of titles in Gozo in 2010 before Kurdistan hosted the biggest and most successful event in 2012. Nine teams took part and all the games were broadcast by Iraqi network Al Iraqiya with a crowd of around 20,000 watching the final.
Just as the TRNC’s government helped cover the costs of teams taking part in the 2006 ELF Cup, Kurdistan’s independence seeking administrations saw the political benefits of bankrolling the 2012 VWC. With accommodation covered by the hosts along with all flights from Istanbul to Erbil, this boosted the number of teams and saw more sides representative of political ambitions with Western Sahara and Tamil Eelam taking part and the TNRC returning to the fold.
This was also the last VWC to date as internecine fighting ripped the board apart with founders Christian Michelis and Jean Luc Kit falling out and the argument ultimately ending up in court in Belgium[1].
Out of the ashes of this acrimonious conflict, a new body emerged in 2013 that was keen to eschew the oppositional Non-FIFA stance. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) worked with a speed that the founders of the NF Board never managed.
Within two years of the last Viva World Cup, the first ConIFA World Football Cup was staged in Östersund in the Swedish part of Sápmi and 12 teams – four times as many as took part in the first VWC eight years earlier – participated. Of these dozen entrants, eight had featured at NF Board events but what marked this tournament out was the first appearance of a number of new teams from post-Soviet frozen conflict zones with Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia all entering.
With Russian backing, Abkhazia split from Georgia after an armed conflict in 1992/93 but only Russian, Nauru, Nicaragua and Venezuela only recognized this independence. In 2008, the Georgian parliament passed a resolution declaring Abkhazia a Russian occupied territory[2]. In 2014, there was significant political unrest in Abkhazia and in particular the liberal policy of Abkhazian President Ankvab towards ethnic Georgians still living in the Gali region[3].
In a significant sign of nationalist intent, Abkhazia entered the ConIFA World cup and on June 1 2014 – a day after Ankvab quit – the team played Occitania in Sweden, drawing 1-1. Since then, the relationship between the Abkhazian military and Russia has grown closer with the signing of a treaty later that year, which Georgia declared was a “step towards annexation” and the football authorities want UEFA recognition[4].
Unlike some Russian conflict zones Abkhazia has a long football history and a domestic league quickly emerged after the split from Georgia and has been regularly contested with 10 clubs taking part.
  Abkhazian League 2017
Novy Afon
After Quebec withdrew from the 2014 ConIFA Football World Cup, another Georgian conflict zone took up the opportunity to express their independence on the football field.  South Ossetia split from Georgia in an armed conflict that led to independence recognised only by the same states as Abkhazia.
In common with Abkhazia, South Ossetia is also heavily reliant on Russia economic, political and military aid and this extended to the football field. In Sweden in 2014, South Ossetia’s team included a number of professionals from Russian clubs, particularly Alania Vladikavkaz, which is the capital of North Ossetia and suggests some Russian influence in the formation of the South Ossetian team[5].
Like the national teams that bear the names of these frozen zones, putting across the idea of organised football to the outside world in an attempt to find normality and a common ground with the recognized football world is often more important than actually playing the games. At one point, South Ossetia engaged an American public relations firm, Saylor, to engage with the outside world but matches from the nascent South Ossetian league do not suggest a top tier featuring players at the peak of their careers[6].

Though not directly annexed with the help of Russian military backing, Nagorno-Karabakh also emerged from the break-up of the post-Soviet Union and with the aid of Armenia and more tacit Russian support, split from Azerbaijan. 
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia military support has guaranteed Armenian independence and the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh would not have occurred without some form of tacit Russian approval. And, just as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized as part of Georgia by the United Nations, Artsakh - as the region is known locally – is recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Football in these breakaway zones exists, but on a very low level. Samuel Karapetyan formed the Artsakh Football Federation (AFA) in 2012, three years after the local championship had resumed. The AFF claim that nine teams took part in the first championship in 2009 and that 10 teams are included but sources interviewed locally suggest that little football is played outside of the capital Stepanakert. Some of the names bear this out. Jraberd is in the ceasefire line, where skirmishes with the Azeris are not uncommon, Qirs is a mountain and Khachen is the name of a medieval village in Artsakh[7].
When a journalist from The Independent visited Nagorno-Karabakh in 2017, only one ‘formal’ football club, FC Artsakh, appeared to actually exist yet the AFA claimed to have started negotiations with UEFA about potential membership in November 2016[8].
The Artsakh League?
L Artsakh 1
L Artsakh 2
Sending a team to a one-off tournament, particularly one where the costs on arrival are covered, as is often the case at Non-FIFA events, is a more pragmatic solution to engaging with the process of football recognition. The notion of football activity in these isolated states is given more credence through this participation, which is then often mediatised internationally.
The role of international teams is equally important in these post-Soviet states’ quest not just for normalcy but also the acquisition of soft power. In sporting terms, staging mega events can raise the role of a once little known country such as Qatar, and simply playing matches can help unrecognized states. The decision by FIFA to agree to let Kosovo play international friendly matches was the first step in an inevitable acceptance by the international footballing community that led to inclusion by UEFA and FIFA.
Kosovo has, though, been recognized on a political level by significantly more countries than any of the members of the Community for Democracy and Human Rights (CDHR), which was formed in 2001 and includes Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistria, which is claimed by Moldova. Like the TRNC, these four post-Soviet conflict zones exist in virtual isolation. Political recognition is rare and can prove transitory with Tuvalu recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2013 then retracting this in 2014.
With the exception of FC Sheriff Tiraspol in Transnistria, club football mostly only subsists in these post-conflict states due to the lack of financial assistance, while in the countries they have broken away from the names of more successful sides in the old Soviet structure, such as Spartak Tshkhinvali from South Ossetia and Garabagh Agdam from Nagorno-Karabakh are nurtured and kept alive by the Georgians and Azeri political administrations.

Prior to the 2014 ConIFA event, Abkhazia played three ‘internationals’ with home and away games against Nagorno-Karabakh in 2012 and a game in the Abkhazian capital Sukhum with South Ossetia in 2013.  Those games represented ‘international’ debuts for South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh and activity since the ConIFA event has been muted.
In Abkhazia however, the ambitions grew but remain linked with Russian political manouvering. In 2015, Abkhazia played games against the nascent Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic and in 2016, the Abkhazian ambitions for the use of football as a soft power weapon went one step further with €450,000 spent on staging of the second ConIFA Football World Cup in Sukhumi. Though South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh did not take part in the 2016 ConIFA a team from the western part of the Armenian Highlands, which is located in Turkey, featured alongside traditional members of the Non-FIFA community including Padania and the TRNC.
In many cases, these ‘national’ teams are organised not by locals but by the Diaspora, such as the Chagos, Panjab and Somaliland, which are all based mostly in the UK. As such, they come from richer, more developed countries where raising the funds to attend is less problematic and the political aim is less defined.
This contrasts with the post-Soviet frozen conflict states, which are driven by local administrations and using the emerging ConIFA organisation and other more established cultural organisations to develop sporting soft power.
In 2008, the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) organised the first Europeada tournament for autonomous national minorities in Europe to run in conjunction with UEFA’s Euro 2008 and the tournament was staged at Grisons, in the centre of the Romansh culture in Switzerland.
This event was, like the early ambitions of NF Board, aimed at keeping minority languages and cultures alive and further tournaments followed in 2012 in the home of the Lusatian Sorbs, who are the smallest Slavic minority in Europe with about 60,000 people in the East of Saxony and Lower Lusatia.
These first two Europeada tournaments were, like the early days of Non-FIFA movement, untainted by overt politisation but as the use of football for soft power has grown in the Soviet sphere, Europeada has also been embraced.

The FUEN’s 2016 Europeada event was staged in the Pusertal Valley and Badia Valley in the south Tyrol, where one of the teams includes the Crimean Tatars. A side from the Turkic Karachay Balkars from the Russia Caucasus also entered then withdrew, but minorities from within Russia did take part.
A side representing the German-speaking people of Russia competed, so the Russians would not seem to be suppressing minorities within its own borders, but then German-speaking peoples of Russia appear to have no separatist ambitions – certainly none that Russia’s hard-line leader Vladimir Putin would allow.
The Europeada events have attracted little media coverage unlike the ConIFA tournaments, whose 2016 Football World Cup in Abkhazia attracted global attention with The Guardian newspaper making a documentary about the Kurdish side, Desert Fire. For countries like Armenia this was updating an old football history.

In a media landscape dominated by the major European leagues, these sorts of stories are attracting increasing interest and this has clearly not gone unnoticed by other breakaway states seeking further recognition, such as Crimea.
In 2015, a UEFA delegation visited Crimea to assess the situation after the Russian annexation, which was followed by an attempt to place two clubs who had previously played in the Ukrainian league, FC Sevastopol and SC Tavriya Simferopol, into the Russian system.
In January 2015, UEFA ruled against this and the clubs withdrew to a nascent Crimean league formed with help from UEFA executive committee member Frantisek Laurinc[9]. The Crimea have received some recognition of their situation with UEFA promising at a meeting on 10 March 2017 to provide funding of €1 million to the Crimean Football Association (CFA), which claims to have 109 youth clubs but no pitches[10]. This money has been slow in arriving and may only do so once the European Union lifts economic sanctions after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
For all the promise of money, the CFA have been offered no recognition from UEFA but other alternatives exist that are helping promote the concept of nationhood. In 2016, ConIFA recognised the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic and has both visited and recognised Transnistria after the establishment of the Football Federation of Pridnestrovie in 2015 to represent an independent Transnistria[11].
While ConIFA has taken steps to stop political activity and even refused to admit Padania until the football operation had broken ties with the Liga Nord political party, simply by allowing teams to play gives a veneer of recognition.

The footballers from these states may not be seeking any form of political recognition, but their appearance on the football field is manna from heaven for politicians who seek wider political recognition and who, in the case of the CHDR bloc are economically, militarily or politically backed to some extent or another by Russia.
While China is increasingly looking to use its economic wealth to buy up football through sponsorship, club acquisition and paying inflated wages for overseas players in its domestic league and the USA is looking to establish a role as the game’s guardian angle through the prosecution of FIFA corruption, Russia’s covert role in football’s new Cold War has received less attention.
At a grass roots level, this embracing of the Non-FIFA movement helps keep the game alive in unrecognised regions where the game’s football bodies are unable or unwilling to assist and provides a focal point for a national identity that goes ignored elsewhere.
This can be a powerful motivator for people in these isolated states. When Abkhazia faced Szekely Land – a team drawn from the Hungarian-speaking minority of Romania – in a third place play-off for ConIFA’s 2017 European Football Championship in Northern Cyprus, the crowd was only small in Kyrenia but thousands had assembled in the main square in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhum to watch the game – only for the live-stream to fail.

Another corollary of this ‘international’ activity is that, in the absence of help from UEFA and FIFA actually arriving, the presence of these games helps to build an international football empire for Russia ahead of staging the 2018 World Cup finals.
China indirectly control two FIFA members in the former British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, while the USA exert ultimate political control over four FIFA members - American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands - and also the Asian Football Confederation associate member, Northern Mariana.
These Sino and American holdings are a result of historical anomalies and cannot be matched by Russia, whose indirect football ambitions are new ones and suggest that Putin’s administration is alive to the potential of sporting recognition as part of a wider global positioning.
Once the 2018 FIFA World Cup has gone, will these unrecognised states pursue further international recognition via UEFA and FIFA, or will Russia step in with political and financial help to make these unrecognised conflict states part of a new post-Soviet sporting empire?

This is an updated version of a paper given at the annual conference of the Sport & Politics group of the Political Studies Association in Bournemouth in 2016.
My BBC World Service report on the 2016 ConIFA European Football Championships in Northern Cyprus can be heard 7 minutes into this link.

[1] ‘Non-FIFA football in quarrel’ by Menary, Steve. 13 March 2015, downloaded 27 June 2017.
[2] ‘Abkhazia, S.Ossetia Formally Declared Occupied Territory’. 28 August 2015, downloaded 27 June 2017.
[3] Freedom in the World – Abkhazia 2015,, downloaded 27 June 2017.
[4] ‘Abkhazia asks for recognition from FIFA’ 29 May 2012, downloaded 27 June 2017.
[5] South Ossetia football squad list for 2014 ConIFA Football World Cup supplied by ConIFA
[6] Email exchange with Steven Ellis, public relations counsel at Saylor 24 August 2011.
[7] Communication from Artsakh Football Association dated 13 October 2015.
[8] ‘Football and hope in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic - a forgotten region fighting Fifa's sanctions’, O’Connor, Robert. The Independent, 20 April 2017, downloaded 27 June 2017.
[9] ‘Crimean clubs banned from playing in Russian league by UEFA’ 4 December 2014, downloaded 27 June 2017
[10] ‘Waiting for recognition’ by Stafford, Paul. World Soccer May 2017.
[11] Interview with Sascha Duerkop, ConIFA general secretary, 9 June 2017.


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