As World Cup opening ceremonies go, it was low-key, but what was not missing was the passionate chants of fans from both sides of the turf.
Welcome to the alternative World Cup, “Barawa 2018” — the tournament for people whose nations didn’t get a chance to compete or qualify for the official World Cup.
The tournament is made of up players from minority groups and unrecognized nations and those who are not members of FIFA.
It is organized by CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, but the London-based diaspora team of Barawa (a region in Somalia) are the official hosts.
It runs from May 31 to June 9 and also features players from Matabeleland, a southwestern region in Zimbabwe, with a rich but fraught history — including a series of state-led massacres in 1983.
CONIFA represents 334 million people worldwide and, for some of the teams, it’s the first time they have competed at this global level.
Its members include football teams from nations such as Tibet, Rohingya, Darfur, Northern Cyprus among many other “minority peoples and sports isolated territories,” according to CONIFA.
The competition features 16 teams and is taking place in the stadia of English lower league teams across London.
“CONIFA is different to FIFA, in essence, because CONIFA recognizes unrecognized states,” said Omar Sufi, team captain of hosts Barawa FA.
“This tournament is important globally because we’re playing against different teams from different backgrounds and we’re all coming here together with the same value,” said Sufi.
A global stage
To become a member of FIFA, a nation needs to be recognized by the international community, and only one football association from each country is allowed, unless permitted otherwise.
CONIFA was set up for those nations and people who are restricted by these rules.
It is a global non-profit and was founded in Sweden in 2013. Since then, the tournament has gone from strength to strength, and interest in becoming a member of CONIFA has grown rapidly since its inception. The previous tournament in 2016 was held in Abkhazia in Georgia, where the host nation won.
The organization is certainly a far cry from the global spectacle of the FIFA World Cup, but the standard, given the limited resources, is surprisingly good.
With FIFA mired in scandal after scandal, this growing football tournament, which is both global and grassroots, is a platform for teams, like Matabeleland, to play with pride.
World Cup first-timers
Matabeleland is the only team from southern Africa, and, unlike other diaspora teams at the World Football Club, their players have all traveled to London from Zimbabwe for the tournament.
The region is named after the Ndebele people who live there, but the area itself also includes Tonga, Kalanga, Venda and other ethnic groups.
Justin Walley, who was previously running a football club in the Latvian national league for the past decade, is the coach of Matabeleland and CONIFA’s Africa Director.
He packed his bags and moved from the Baltic region to the hot terrain of southwestern Zimbabwe. “I’ve spent four and a half months in total out in Zimbabwe coaching,” Walley told CNN.
The team, known as the “Warrior Birds,” have been training in advance of their first game against Padania, from northern Italy, one of the favorites and the current European CONIFA champions.
Unfortunately for them, the European champs took a decisive 6-1 victory on Thursday.
However, the games are clearly about more than just winning.
It’s a chance to unify people around the beautiful game, and promote football in the region.
Busani Sibindi is the president and founder of Matabeleland Football Confederacy, which formed in 2016.
“One of the objectives was to provide equity within the country in terms of sports promotion, because sports are also a unifier is some way. There’s skewed irregularities in terms of sports investment in the country,” said Sibindi.
The team have also had the coaching and playing help of a footballing legend, former Liverpool and Zimbabwe goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar.
However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. The biggest mission hasn’t been getting match-ready, but actually getting to the tournament itself.
Unsurprisingly, CONIFA doesn’t have the sort of resources that FIFA has, which means Matabeleland have had to crowd fund their trip to London.
They launched an online fundraising campaign and have sold football jerseys to raise money.
The squad managed to make it to London, along with the 15 other teams. It remains to be seen if they have a shot at winning the World Cup.