A World Cup For The Rest Of The World

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


Lyuba Agrba, 79, sells popcorn across from Dinamo Stadium before  the beginning of the CONIFA World Football Cup on May 29, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia.
Lyuba Agrba, 79, sells popcorn across from Dinamo Stadium before the beginning of the CONIFA World Football Cup on May 29, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Dancers perform elaborate traditional Abkhaz dances during the opening ceremonies, which lasted several hours, of the CONIFA World Football Cup on May 29, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Dancers perform elaborate traditional Abkhaz dances during the opening ceremonies, which lasted several hours, of the CONIFA World Football Cup on May 29, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

A dilapidated pier serves as a "fanzone" for fans unable to secure tickets to the matches on June 3, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The fanzone featured a cafe and projection TV where fans gathered nightly to watch the matches. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
A dilapidated pier serves as a “fanzone” for fans unable to secure tickets to the matches on June 3, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The fanzone featured a cafe and projection TV where fans gathered nightly to watch the matches. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

An Abkhazia supporter waves his country's flag during his team's opening match against Chagos Islands on May 29, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The Abkhazians won the match 9-0. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
An Abkhazia supporter waves his country’s flag during his team’s opening match against Chagos Islands on May 29, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The Abkhazians won the match 9-0. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Lee Seon Cheoi, (left to right) Kaito Akimoto, and Chison Ko carry laundry for their team, United Koreans in Japan, to a laundry facility at their hotel on June 2, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Koreans living in Japan constitute one of the largest groups of ethnic minorities in the country. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Lee Seon Cheoi, (left to right) Kaito Akimoto, and Chison Ko carry laundry for their team, United Koreans in Japan, to a laundry facility at their hotel on June 2, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Koreans living in Japan constitute one of the largest groups of ethnic minorities in the country. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Abdillahi Nur, of the Somaliland Team, straightens his room at the Hotel San Marina on June 31, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. A teammate moved a mattress into Nur's room on account of another teammate's snoring. Somaliland is a region of Somalia that declared its independence in 1991 but is nevertheless not recognized by any other country. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Abdillahi Nur, of the Somaliland Team, straightens his room at the Hotel San Marina on June 31, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. A teammate moved a mattress into Nur’s room on account of another teammate’s snoring. Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 but is nevertheless not recognized by any other country. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Abkhazia's George Djanaa performs a celebratory dance in the locker room after his team's 1-0 defeat of Western Armenia on May 31, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Abkhazia’s George Djanaa performs a celebratory dance in the locker room after his team’s 1-0 defeat of Western Armenia on May 31, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Abdillahi Nur, of the Somaliland team, distributes pieces of his equipment including, shinguards, his jersey, and shoes to Abkhaz children after a 5-0 loss to Panjab on May 31, 2016 in Gagra, Abkhazia. "I wish I had more stuff but I don't," he remarked after distributing the last of his gear from the game. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Abdillahi Nur, of the Somaliland team, distributes pieces of his equipment including, shinguards, his jersey, and shoes to Abkhaz children after a 5-0 loss to Panjab on May 31, 2016 in Gagra, Abkhazia. “I wish I had more stuff but I don’t,” he remarked after distributing the last of his gear from the game. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Fans sit on a fence outside the stadium to watch Abkhazia play Western Armenia on May 31, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. While some games were sparsely attended, opportunities to see the Abkhaz team play were eagerly sought after and officials estimated that there were 7,000 people in the 4,300-capacity Dinamo Stadium for this match. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Fans sit on a fence outside the stadium to watch Abkhazia play Western Armenia on May 31, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. While some games were sparsely attended, opportunities to see the Abkhaz team play were eagerly sought after and officials estimated that there were 7,000 people in the 4,300-capacity Dinamo Stadium for this match. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

United Koreans in Japan goalkeeper Jae Gun Ri dons an Abkhaz flag headband after a shopping trip to a souvenir shop as his teammate Jang Hwi Jeong rides a bigwheel toy car on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
United Koreans in Japan goalkeeper Jae Gun Ri dons an Abkhaz flag headband after a shopping trip to a souvenir shop as his teammate Jang Hwi Jeong rides a bigwheel toy car on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Members of the Kurdistan team listen to a speech from their manager in the dining hall of their hotel on June 2, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Kurdistan, which was comprised of Iraqi Kurds and brought one of the largest delegations to the tournament, was one of the early favorites to win the tournament but were eliminated by Padania on penalties in the quarterfinals. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Members of the Kurdistan team listen to a speech from their manager in the dining hall of their hotel on June 2, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Kurdistan, which was comprised of Iraqi Kurds and brought one of the largest delegations to the tournament, was one of the early favorites to win the tournament but were eliminated by Padania on penalties in the quarterfinals. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Panjab's Terlochan Singh, right, collides while attempting a header with Western Armenia's Raffi Kaya, left, during a quarterfinal match on June 2, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The hard fought match ended in a scuffle that involved players, police and fans, many of whom were ethnic Armenians. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Panjab’s Terlochan Singh, right, collides while attempting a header with Western Armenia’s Raffi Kaya, left, during a quarterfinal match on June 2, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The hard fought match ended in a scuffle that involved players, police and fans, many of whom were ethnic Armenians. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Abkhaz fans exult as their team draws even 5-5 on penalties after falling into a 3-1 hole during the CONIFA Final against the Panjab team on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Abkhaz fans exult as their team draws even 5-5 on penalties after falling into a 3-1 hole during the CONIFA Final against the Panjab team on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Roland Niczuly, goalie for the Székely Land team, throws his shirt to team staff member Aron Szabo while posing for a portrait at Anacopia Fortress on June 4, 2016 in New Athos, Abkhazia. Many of the teams took advantage of off days to visit the historical and natural features of separatist nation. The fortress, constructed between the second and fourth centuries, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Roland Niczuly, goalie for the Székely Land team, throws his shirt to team staff member Aron Szabo while posing for a portrait at Anacopia Fortress on June 4, 2016 in New Athos, Abkhazia. Many of the teams took advantage of off days to visit the historical and natural features of separatist nation. The fortress, constructed between the second and fourth centuries, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Karwan Mantk, of the Kurdistan team, plays a traditional flute-like instrument called a shimshal while waiting to depart to the final match between Abkhazia and Panjab on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Karwan Mantk, of the Kurdistan team, plays a traditional flute-like instrument called a shimshal while waiting to depart to the final match between Abkhazia and Panjab on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Abkhaz forward Ruslan Shoniya celebrates after scoring an 88th-minute goal to even the score at 1-1 with Panjab in the CONIFA final on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Abkhaz forward Ruslan Shoniya celebrates after scoring an 88th-minute goal to even the score at 1-1 with Panjab in the CONIFA final on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Georgiy Zhanaa hoists the CONIFA trophy after Abkhazia defeated Panjab in the CONIFA Final on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. At left, several of Zhanaa's teammates don a South Ossetian flag in a show of solidarity with Georgia's other separatist republic. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Georgiy Zhanaa hoists the CONIFA trophy after Abkhazia defeated Panjab in the CONIFA Final on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. At left, several of Zhanaa’s teammates don a South Ossetian flag in a show of solidarity with Georgia’s other separatist republic. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Lyuba, 79, holds an Abkhazian flag and a portrait of the first president of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, after Abkhazia's victory over Panjab in the CONIFA Final on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Lyuba, 79, holds an Abkhazian flag and a portrait of the first president of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, after Abkhazia’s victory over Panjab in the CONIFA Final on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Panjab's Terlochan Singh, left, and Jaskaran Singh Basi, right, dance at a celebratory banquet following the closing ceremonies on June 6, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Panjab’s Terlochan Singh, left, and Jaskaran Singh Basi, right, dance at a celebratory banquet following the closing ceremonies on June 6, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Mike Sakir, captain of the Chagos Islands team, checks out of his hotel room, his cleats left as a gift for the hotel staff, on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)
Mike Sakir, captain of the Chagos Islands team, checks out of his hotel room, his cleats left as a gift for the hotel staff, on June 5, 2016 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. (Pete Kiehart for ESPN)

Additional reporting by Ilioné Schultz

Source: ESPN

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