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Bigger Than Dominoes: Abkhazia Pins Hopes On Soccer Cup For Outsiders

  • Tom Balmforth

Abkhaz soldiers practicing flag-raising as part of preparations for the Conifa soccer tournament, which kicks off in the Georgian breakaway region on May 28.

Abkhaz soldiers practicing flag-raising as part of preparations for the Conifa soccer tournament, which kicks off in the Georgian breakaway region on May 28.

SUKHUMI -- It was a major public holiday, but the de facto prime minister of breakaway Abkhazia was huddled in meetings out at this run-down city's new stadium, making last-minute preparations for a soccer tournament that kicks off on May 28.

On the day that the UEFA Champions League final draws hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, thousands of Abkhaz will flock here for the opening ceremony of a more obscure soccer event: a tournament bringing together teams including Somaliland, Sapmi, Raetia, and the Chagos Islands.

If you don't recognize them, you're not alone: None of the teams represents an actual country with broad international recognition.

The tournament in the Russia-backed separatist region of Georgia is being held under the auspices of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa), whose members include unrecognized states, disputed territories, stateless peoples, and cultural regions.

But it's been the talk of the town for months in Sukhumi -- even if it's not the first global competition to be held in Abkhazia, as Prime Minister Artur Mikvabia pointed out with sheepish pride.

"This is the second," he chuckled. "We hosted the championship for dominoes."

The World Domino Championship came and went in October 2011, with great fanfare in Abkhazia but little resonance beyond the small separatist region on the Black Sea.

From leaders to ordinary people, Abkhaz are hoping the Conifa 2016 World Football Cup will do more to put their region on the map. It might be a map with unfamiliar names like Western Armenia, Northern Cyprus, Szekely Land, and Panjab, but many see the tournament as a way to gain respect from the outside world.

The 12 teams competing for the cup also include Kurdistan, the United Koreans in Japan, and host Abkhazia.

INFOGRAPHIC: The World Cup For Outsiders (click to enlarge)

A team representing the Romani People was forced to drop out because of what the organizers described as "unexpected issues with travel documents."

It will be replaced by Padania, which represents a sometimes-secessionist grouping in Northern Italy and won the 2015 European Conifa cup.

The tournament is the second World Football Cup held by Conifa, which strives to unite people under the banner of soccer and give its members a sense of identity and belonging.

"It's more like a peace project than a football tournament," said Conifa President Per-Anders Blind, a Swede who identifies with the Sami people of what is known in English as Lapland.

But while the entities represented share similar goals, that does not mean they always get along: Conifa was established after a predecessor, the N.F.-Board, was paralyzed by infighting.

Blind said it is important for the competition "to show the uniqueness of the people coming to Abkhazia."

It might be hard to find a more fitting backdrop for this surreal contest.

Sukhumi's skyline tells the story of Abkhazia's tumultuous evolution over the past quarter-century, from Soviet seaside paradise to war zone to what it is now -- an isolated region whose claim to independence is recognized only by a handful of countries, including Russia and the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru.

Russia has thousands of troops stationed in Abkhazia and wields powerful influence in the region, which it recognized as independent after a five-day war with Georgia in 2008.

Soviet Looking Glass

A riot of ferns, palms, and conifers thrives amidst the crumbling Soviet buildings of Sukhumi.

The iconic waterfront features Lenin murals, Western-style cafes, a bombed-out Khrushchev-era hotel tower, and an understated memorial "to the victims of political repressions." The smell of popcorn blends with the sea air as Russian vacationers stroll past rickety piers holding ice creams. Children tug at their parents' sleeves and point to dolphins swimming off the coast.

Inland, the charred and derelict Soviet government building looks out toward the Black Sea, an unsettling reminder of the deadly 1992-93 separatist war in which Abkhazia broke from Georgian government control.

A worker cleans seats in the newly refurbished Sukhumi stadium, which has been revamped ahead of the soccer tournament.

A worker cleans seats in the newly refurbished Sukhumi stadium, which has been revamped ahead of the soccer tournament.

The soccer cup's opening ceremony will be held at Sukhumi's refurbished 3,000-seat stadium, built on the site of the old stands of Dinamo Sukhumi, a club that played mainly in the third tier of Soviet league football.

Mikvabia said that spending on the tournament would total $3.5 million. Of that, he said about 20 million rubles ($300,000) had come from the de facto government to spruce up the stadium and roads.

Every night in the run-up to the tournament, scores of young Abkhaz men have gathered at the stadium to rehearse the Saber Dance they will perform at the ceremony, enacting a war with sword-fighting and swaggering Caucasian dance that gives way suddenly to peace when three graceful women glide into the center of the pitch.

"This is of course a huge honor," said Razhden Gergedava, 24, a professional dancer in Moscow who returned to his native Abkhazia to perform in the ceremony. "I'm very proud to be performing at the opening and to be doing something for my country."

FIFA Aspirations

Altgur Gunba, a young Abkhaz sports journalist who has become the top Abkhaz-language soccer commentator, was about four years old when Abkhaz separatists declared independence from Georgia.

"The most important thing for us is to conduct this championship with dignity and in a really beautiful way," said Gunba. "We want to make a celebration of football for people and the fans so that the generation growing up see that we have proper football events and take an interest.”

Gunba's dream is for Abkhazia to be recognized as a nation by FIFA, world soccer's governing body.

"We have partial recognition as a country and have been recognized by a great power, the Russian Federation. Abkhazia has all the characteristics of a state – a flag, emblem, anthem, economy, language, culture, history." He pointed to Kosovo, which has been recognized by 111 countries – but not Russia -- since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and became a bona fide member of FIFA in May.

"We won't live to see it, but our children might," said Dzhuma Kvaratskhelia, the coach of Abkhazia's soccer team.

He said the Abkhaz Football Association has written application letters for membership to FIFA, and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), but they were stymied because Abkhazia is seen as belonging to the Georgian Football Association.

Asked about the issue, a FIFA spokesman referred RFE/RL to sections of the FIFA Charter, which stipulate that "only one association shall be recognized as a member association in each country."

'Banana Tournament'

Teams have for decades played in tournaments outside the auspices of FIFA, but in 2003 a global authority for FIFA outsiders was formed under the N.F.-Board.

Its members ranged from groups with dreams of statehood all the way to smaller-scale enterprises such as the Principality of Sealand, a former sea fort off the British coast where a family declared sovereignty in 1967.

It held five world championships, climaxing in the VIVA World Cup in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012. Conifa's Blind, who was a referee at the VIVA cups, said that the final of that tournament drew 35,000 spectators and was shown on local Kurdish television.

The VIVA World Cups, however, were dogged by problems. Cash-strapped teams would drop out on the eve of tournaments and the organization was also derailed by political disagreements -- most memorably in 2006, when the world championship year broke up into three separate tournaments after North Cyprus, recognized as independent only by Turkey, refused to host Kurdistan.

"In the beginning it was a banana tournament," said Blind. "But everything has to start somewhere."

It's likely that many neutral soccer fans won't recognize any of the flags on display at the Conifa tournament.

It's likely that many neutral soccer fans won't recognize any of the flags on display at the Conifa tournament.

In 2014, the first Conifa World Football Cup was hosted by Sapmi in the Swedish town of Ostersund.

Acceptance criteria has gotten tougher for members of Conifa. The Principality of Sealand, for instance, is unable to get it, Blind said. He also made clear that the extremist group Islamic State, which has not sought membership, would not qualify if it did.

On its website, Conifa says it that it does not judge whether its members deserve independence, adding: "politically, we are 100 percent neutral."

No Politics, Please

The home team in the May 28-June 5 tournament comprises players from Abkhazia's own league, and a handful who play in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Last week, Abkhazia played a friendly against a squad representing separatists in eastern Ukraine who call the territory they hold the Donetsk People's Republic. They drew 0-0.

The captain of the Abkhaz side, Dzheniya Almashkhan, who plays center midfield for local football champions Ritsa Gudauta, said Abkhazia has bigger aspirations for his team in the tournament.

"I don't like many predictions, but we have the highest objectives before us," he said.

Almashkhan said he would "leave politics to the politicians."

Abkhaz officials were also eager to distance themselves from politics ahead of the tournament. Mikvabia said the region's aim "is not political, but rather humanitarian."

"We want to show that people live here, work, can work hard and host guests," he said.

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