Nice has won the 2014 football World Cup. Most readers would be unfamiliar with the new world champions, a county in the southeastern region of France. They also need to be told that this tournament is not the one that is being held in Brazil by the avarice-stricken Fifa. This World Cup is a championship that takes place to recognize Stateless people and honour their love for the game. It is organized by ConIFA, an umbrella organization that brings together teams from football-loving, but conflict-ridden, regions. It serves as a platform for amateur teams that are not recognized by Fifa.
This year, the tournament was held in Sweden’s Östersund and featured 12 teams comprising displaced populations, including tribal people from Darfur and Sri Lankan Tamils. Also represented were regions with autonomous aspirations such as Québec, Occitania in France, the Isle of Man, Abkhazia — a disputed part of Georgia — Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and the former champions, Kurdistan, among others.
At a time when the onfield triumphs in Brazil are being feted around the world, the ConIFA championship brought to light tales of heroism which deserve global attention as well. Consider Darfur United. A team made up of players from refugee camps in the Chad-Sudan border, it was initially wrecked by internal strife. Drawn from five different tribes with distinctly varied cultural traits, the men spent the first few days of their training fighting among themselves. By the end of the training period, their love for football had forged them into a cohesive unit where mutual distrust had given way to a sense of shared respect for difference.
Football is romanticized precisely because of its potential to bridge the differences among ethnicities, classes and countries. Consequently, what gets brushed under the carpet are the ironies associated with the game. Fifa routinely pats itself on the back for exhibiting a messianic zeal to globalize football. Yet it continues to prohibit disenfranchised people from participating in its premier tournament. That the idea of representation in a tournament ironically known as the World Cup involves the covert elimination of voiceless groups goes to show that the globalization of sport — not just football — is inimical to the spirit of democratization itself.
The Refugee World Cup continues to languish in terms of coverage. The conniving media, corporations (sponsors) and influential nation states must take the credit for ensuring that public attention remains focused on Brazil’s cheerful stadiums. Östersund, as well as the angry demonstrators in Brazil, must stay out of the public eye because global sporting events — the World Cup in Brazil, for instance — are carefully calibrated political exercises to conceal the horrors perpetrated by the respective dispensations.
The anonymity of and the apathy towards the World Cup for Stateless people reveal a churning within football itself. For years, football was thought to have been the vanguard of the local as opposed to the global. The genesis of several renowned football clubs is in reality the product of specific, and often violent, histories involving dissonant faiths and identities. The legendary footballing rivalries — Real Madrid versus Barcelona in Spain, Celtic versus Rangers in Scotland, even East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in Bengal — are critical legacies of a less idealized past.
Is the modern, global, beautiful game then a sinister attempt to sanitize an intrinsically unequal society?