Every four years, 32 of the best men’s national soccer teams play in the FIFA World Cup. But what about the hundreds of internationally unrecognized nations that want to play on the world stage too?
Photography and reporting by Pete Kiehart for ESPN
The CONIFA World Football Cup had all the trappings of a bona fide international soccer tournament: a brand-new stadium, exciting matchups, a worldwide live stream and even souvenirs. But the 12 teams that faced off from May 28 to June 5 amid the bullet-riddled buildings of Abkhazia, a disputed region between Russia and Georgia, were missing one key thing: international recognition.
Not that it mattered much. While soccer teams from diplomatically challenged regions like Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan and Padania have long been shut out of FIFA, they’ve settled into a home of their own: the Confederation of Independent Football Associations.
Founded in 2013 and composed of some three dozen members from across the globe, CONIFA holds international competitions for de facto states, micro-nations and other ethnic groups that have few chances to play together. Born partly out of frustration with FIFA’s membership requirements, the organization also serves a more humanitarian purpose: celebrating its underrepresented members and their fans. It held the first World Football Cup in June 2014 in Sweden, and the Abkhazia edition was the second global tournament.
For Amarvir Sandhu, a 20-year-old player from Panjab, a geographic region shared by northern India and eastern Pakistan, the tournament was a rare platform to showcase his team’s talent. “I’m sure that a lot of people probably haven’t heard of Panjab or don’t know where it is and who probably — definitely — think we can’t play football,” Sandhu said.
Sandhu and his teammates proved the skeptics wrong: Panjab made it to the finals and was defeated only after Abkhazia equalized in the 88th minute and won 6-5 on penalties. Here’s a look at how the rest of the tournament played out. — Dan Peleschuk
Additional reporting by Ilioné Schultz