LONDON: With drums thundering and flags swirling, fans at the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup revelled in the rare chance to see their often-disputed homelands take their place on the international stage.
The tournament, being contested in London by 16 sovereign nations, partially-recognised states, minorites and peoples outside the auspices of football’s official governing body FIFA, got off to a raucous start Thursday.
Fans of Tibet and Abkhazia streamed to the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium in north London.
It may have a majestic name, but the 3,000-capacity 1950s athletics ground on Donkey Lane, the home of seventh-tier club Enfield Town, epitomises semi-professional English football – with a burger stand, an ice cream van and a tiny club shop selling programmes through a hatch.
However, for the 300-odd fans who turned up, it was the biggest sporting stage they could hope to see their homelands on.
“I’m not a football fan. I’ve hardly ever been to a match in my entire life but this is something that shows us in a positive light,” said Abkhaz expat Chkotua Atakan, 43, a product designer living in Britain since 1986.
“This is the only kind of opportunity we get,” he told AFP.
“We are a normal country. The only difference is recognition.”
On the Black Sea, Abkhazia is considered by Georgia as a Russian-occupied part of its territory.
Dancing around, bellowing his support and waving a large Abkhaz flag, Serdar Agirbay, 55, said: “We’re having a great time.
“The whole world should know Abkhazia – where it is, who we are.”
The Tibet fans stood a few metres away, belting out their own songs.
Phuntsok Dalu, 42, an information technology support worker, said there were around 800 Tibetan exiles in Britain, including 400 in London.
As there were around 150 people cheering on Tibet, the match brought out a significant proportion of the expat population.
“This is the biggest stage that we have, ever,” said Dalu.
“Normally, people don’t consider Tibet as a country. This is a place where we can show our identity.
“It’s about us being a free country, not just football.”
Karehung Tenzin, 41, a nurse, said the match result was irrelevant.
“We can support them emotionally and spiritually,” she said.
“If we lose, its OK: at least Tibet is out here.”
On the pitch, reigning champions Abkhazia were on top throughout and beat wild cards Tibet 3-0.
The Tibet side are based in the exile community in Dharamshala in northern India, where they practice on a muddy field and often have cows interrupting play.
“To play on this grass was a little tough for our boys,” Tibet coach Penpa Tsering told AFP.
“The Dalai Lama said we should play football, but be good people and play in a gentle way, not rowdy.
“I think we can do better in the next game. The boys are very spirited for the sake of our country.”
CONIFA director Paul Watson had the team’s anthems on a memory stick in his jeans pocket and was lugging packs of bottled water around.
“We’re a very tiny organisation. We really are just a handful of very passionate volunteers. We love what we do and we really believe in it,” he said.
“It’s grassroots, amateur and people who play for the love of it. In a way, that’s the beauty of it.
“While FIFA covers a vast amount of the world, there are people slipping through the cracks. There will always be a need for a more flexible model of identity.” -- AFP