The Non-FIFA Renegades
Soccer helps provide an identity for all nations, a vision of their imagined community made real. The FIFA World Cup this June will offer citizens around the world a chance to see their countries materialize on the field of play in shorts and boots. But what happens if the place where you live isn’t regarded as a nation by FIFA? Across the globe, there are places—autonomous regions with aspirations to nationhood, homelands to ethnic minorities, even stateless communities—that spring from the gaps and cracks in the international system of nation-states. Their names would test any geographer: Bonaire, Mayotte, Skåneland, Gozo, and so on. But just like every other country, they want to see themselves represented through football. For a growing number of these places, that means starting or joining a league of their own.
On a sunny September afternoon in 2012, I came to the Stade Jean-Bouin in the suburbs of Paris to watch the opening game of the Coupe de l’Outre-Mer (Overseas Cup), a biannual competition for French overseas territories. Tahiti took on the Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte, an island off the northern coast of Madagascar. That Tahiti team later travelled to Brazil in 2013 to play in the Confederations Cup, where they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Spain and Uruguay. But that day in Issy-les-Moulineaux, Tahiti were no match for Mayotte. The explosive striker Chamsidine Attoumani scored a hat-trick as Mayotte strolled to a 3-1 victory.
Mayotte would falter later in the tournament, missing out on the semi-finals on goal difference. But while Tahiti went on in the next year to compete in one of FIFA’s most prestigious international competitions, Mayotte now face a bleak and uncertain footballing future. Both Tahiti and Mayotte are overseas possessions of France. What’s their difference? Tahiti is a member of FIFA, the global governing soccer body; Mayotte is not.
After three editions, the Coupe de l’Outre-Mer was cancelled this year. France’s soccer federation wrote to the members of the Outre-Mer with the bad news, claiming that the tournament was too expensive to stage and had failed to draw the interest of spectators, commercial backers, and the media. For Mayotte, the cancellation of the tournament further limits its opportunities for international recognition on the soccer pitch.
The demise of the Overseas Cup hit some territories harder than others, revealing the arbitrariness of international status in soccer. New Caledonia and Tahiti are in FIFA and compete for qualification to the World Cup. Both get a steady stream of money from FIFA for the development of the sport. French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Martin were admitted last year as full members of the regional CONCACAF confederation, the governing body for soccer in Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. This provides them with a measure of influence and legitimacy, but limited resources until they progress to FIFA membership. Similarly, Réunion is only an associate member of the Confederation of African Football.
Mayotte and St Pierre and Miquelon, the French territory off the coast of Newfoundland, are only affiliated to France’s soccer federation, and are starved of both resources and influence. Now with the disappearance of the Coupe de l’Outre-Mer, their footballing identity has been largely wiped off the map.
Why are some countries in FIFA, and others not? In the case of Mayotte, political disputes stymie entry into the world’s family of footballing nations. The island is claimed by the Comoros, which blocks any of its moves towards FIFA recognition. Similarly, the Falklands (claimed by Argentina) and Gibraltar (by Spain) have been prevented from attaining FIFA status. In 2013, after a fifteen-year legal battle and three rulings in their favour by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Gibraltar Football Association settled one of the sport’s longest running disputes. After years of filibustering by UEFA (European soccer’s governing body) and the Spanish vice president, Ángel María Villar Llona, Gibraltar was admitted to the European association.
In addition to representation in UEFA tournaments, that means a new source of income for soccer in Gibraltar. The Gibraltarians can now access funds from UEFA’s HatTrick programme to build a new stadium at Europa Point. Gibraltar’s soccer authorities are still hopeful of eventually joining FIFA. Membership would guarantee $250,000 a year from FIFA’s Financial Assistance Programme plus more money for development.
Kosovo, another disputed territory, managed to bypass UEFA completely. To get into FIFA, new members must normally be accepted by a regional confederation first. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008 but the Football Federation of Kosovo was stonewalled by UEFA due to Serbian objections. Frustrated by UEFA’s intransigence, FIFA president Sepp Blatter over-ruled his European counterpart (and potential successor) Michel Platini. Kosovo can now play international friendlies. In its first official match in early March 2014, it drew with Haiti. Restrictions remain on Kosovo’s ability to express its nationhood on the pitch. Kosovo is not allowed to play a national anthem before matches, to wear national colours, or to play neighbouring countries for the next two years.
There are no clear standards or requirements for achieving FIFA status. Membership of the United Nations has been touted as one criterion and has been used in the past to thwart Kosovo’s ambitions. However, there are still 23 members of FIFA that are not represented in the United Nations, from Tahiti to Palestine to the tiny British Caribbean holding of Montserrat, which belongs to FIFA even though it does not have a single soccer club, let alone a domestic league.
And UN membership has not helped the likes of Tuvalu and Kiribati. The two under-developed Pacific island chains have been told they need better infrastructure, including regular leagues and top-notch hotels, to gain seats at international soccer’s top table.
Facing the opaque and inscrutable FIFA bureaucracy, many nations and communities have opted to go another way. Some use soccer as a vehicle to project their own unique identity. The Associacion Occitana de Fotbòl (AoF) exists solely to promote the language of Occitan, once widely spoken in the south of France. Anyone can join the association, provided they speak Occitan.
The formation of the AoF was the idea of Pèire Costa, whose own soccer career with Châteauroux in France’s Ligue 2 was ended early by injury. He ploughed his aspirations into bolstering Occitan culture, which was resurgent in other areas, including in the music of bands like Massilia Sound System. Costa took Occitania onto the football pitch with the formation of the AoF in 2003.
But he had wider aspirations. In December of that year, Costa and a group of football enthusiasts met up in a bar called La Mort Subite in Brussels to form a new association for places that fall outside the jurisdiction of FIFA.
This “NF Board,” which sought to tie together places and peoples as disparate as Kurdistan and Skåneland (in southern Scandinavia), was also the dream of a Frenchman named Jean Luc Kit, Monaco-based travel agent Christian Michelis, and Belgian lawyer Luc Misson.
Kit and Michelis were inspired by a 1997 visit to the British Crown Dependency of Jersey, which was hosting the Island Games, a bi-annual multi-sport event for islands as diverse as Bermuda, the Falklands, Gotland and Crete.
Back then, the notion of international football outside FIFA was barely discussed outside of a handful of Internet message boards. Kit and Michelis’ idea was to set up an umbrella federation that would act as a “waiting room” for places either trying to get into FIFA as well as those like Occitania or Sápmi (more commonly, but pejoratively, known as Lapland) for whom football served as a vehicle to project their unique identity and for whom membership in FIFA would be truly impossible. Originally, their grouping was known as the Non-FIFA Board then changed to the New Federation Board. But the Non-FIFA moniker stuck.
While the NF Board forged an avenue of its own beyond FIFA’s remit, it wasn’t immune to the same internal politics that besets the world football body. In 2006, the NF Board staged its first tournament when Costa’s Occitania hosted the Viva World Cup at Hyères in southeastern France. Only two other sides—Sápmi and Monaco—took part after the original hosts, the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, decided to host their own event after falling out with the NF Board.
With £100,000 to cover transport and accommodation costs, Northern Cyprus attracted unfunded national teams outside FIFA, such as Greenland and Zanzibar. Even Crimea sent a side, which reached the final only to lose to the hosts. Just as governments in the past have used the FIFA World Cup for propaganda purposes, the government of Northern Cyprus used the tournament to bolster its own national identity.
Undeterred, the NF Board staged further tournaments in Sápmi (2008), Padania in northern Italy (2009), the Maltese island of Gozo (2010), and Kurdistan in 2012. In 2005, the prospect of inviting Kurdistan to Northern Cyprus proved problematic, given the noted political antipathy between Kurds and Turks. In a sign of détente, Northern Cyprus was one of a dozen sides that competed in Kurdistan in 2012.
Unfortunately for the cause of non-FIFA football sides, clashes of personality have slowed the workings of the fledgling federation. The NF Board was combusting as Michelis’ relationship with Kit foundered. “The situation was really tense and difficult,” Michelis told me, “and I decided to resign and not to hear from him [Kit] anymore. Then the other members decided to follow me and resigned or left the NFB.”
Kit insists the organisation is “still alive”, but one of its exiles, Per Anders Blind from Sápmi, set up a rival organisation called ConIFA. Blind recently wrote to NF Board members in search of reconciliation, although this seems unlikely to involve Kit himself.
Both organisations confusingly claim to have many of the same members. The question of which members support which association will be answered in June, when Ostersund in Swedish Sápmi stages ConIFA’s World Football Cup. Unlike FIFA’s World Cup, which will happen at the same time, this competition will feature sides less well known on the international stage, including Occitania, Zanzibar, and a team representing Sweden’s Aramean Suryoye minority. Group C, to take an example, will pit Darfur and Quebec against Padania, a secessionist region of Northern Italy. Breakaway states such as Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh will also be participating.
There will, however, be no Gibraltar, Kosovo or even Mayotte. For these places, playing matches against politically “controversial” opponents only imperils their own position with respect to international, continental, and national football authorities. Small, unrecognized nations often face this unenviable choice: do they participate in a non-FIFA tournament and get the chance to represent themselves on the football pitch, or do they play it safe and maintain what little support and funding they have from the powers that be? FIFA, UEFA, or the French football federation may not take kindly to their participation in events outside the traditional jurisdiction of international football.
And therein lies the sad truth about football outside FIFA. These matches usually mean so much more to their participants than money. They tap into football’s unrivalled ability to channel meaning, to allow people to express their identities. But the cold hard reality of the bottom line can trump the aspiration of representing your community to the world.
In Rwanda, a Tour of Disaster
It’s been 20 years since Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s Falcon 50 aircraft was shot down on the outskirts of Kigali, sparking the biggest genocide since the holocaust. Jon Rosen visits the scene that triggered the bloodshed:
Our Lady of the Falkland Islands
The UK has shown no signs of budging from the Falkland Islands, but this group of Falkland War veterans hope that Argentine-born Pope Francis will raise the issue of the archipelago’s ownership when he meets Queen Elisabeth II for the first time today.
As part of their quixotic campaign to get the islands back, they carried this Virgin statue, the patroness of Argentina, all the way from Argentina to Rome.
A League of Their Own
After years of mismanagement, Kenyan soccer is finally coming into its own. But can it replace the English Premier League in the heart of Kenyan fans?
Weaving through downtown Nairobi on a recent Saturday afternoon, I entered Lazaru’s Inn, a small bar in the heart of the city centre, to join the Kenya Arsenal Fan Club for the Arsenal v. Everton FA Cup quarterfinal match. By kickoff, there are over 100 Arsenal supporters sitting shoulder to shoulder; the rowdiest contingent is gathered around a screen in the back. Fans wearing red and yellow Arsenal jerseys with names and customized messages such as “The Unbeatable” and “Verminator,” for Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, emblazoned across the back, are already shushing people. Enthusiasm turns to dismay when the SuperSport channel is changed to the West Brom vs. Manchester United match. The crowd in the back heaves, and people begin hurling insults towards the bar; one fan mutters that the video jockey is an ignorant Manchester United fan. The channel is changed back in enough time for the crowd to roar at Arsenal’s goal in the sixth minute.
Mania for the English Premier League is a nationwide phenomenon that isn’t hindered by ethnic or class divisions; both the country’s poorest and its elite can be found watching a match or arguing its merits. Kenyan football fans primarily rally around Arsenal and Manchester United, though there are a substantial number of Liverpool, Chelsea and, increasingly, Manchester City fans.
The fanaticism has reached, in several high-profile cases, a deadly level. A couple of weeks before Christmas John Macharia, 28, leapt off his seventh-floor apartment balcony in Nairobi and plummeted to his death. Macharia had been a devoted follower of Manchester United, and he killed himself shortly after its shock 1-0 defeat against Newcastle at Old Trafford. Suleiman Omondi, a 29-year-old Arsenal fan, hung himself after his team suffered a defeat against Manchester United, in 2009. After Macharia’s death, Nairobi’s county police commander Benson Kibui urged Kenyan soccer fans to support local teams rather than glamorous European sides such as Manchester United. “They should enjoy the matches,” he said “but they should not commit suicide since life is very precious.”
The Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry dominates social media. Arsenal fans call out “Manure” fans on their performance this season, and Manchester United fans respond with taunts about how Kenyan starlet “Lupita Nyong’o has won more trophies than Arsenal in the last nine years.”
That the vast majority are Arsenal and Manchester United fans is no coincidence. As the local league disintegrated throughout the 90s, people sought their sports entertainment in the English Premier League and Bundesliga highlights shown on local TV. By the end of the 90s, the broadcast of full Premier League matches on Kenya’s SuperSport channel tipped the balance, and as people grew increasingly disenchanted with the local football scene, the fervor for the English league grew.
“During that entire period, Kenyan football was dead, and English football became religion,” says Carol Radull, a leading sports reporter. “I think it was Samuel Eto’o who said ‘you can go to any village, in any part of Africa, kick a ball and make an instant friend.’ Kenyans understand the language of football, we just respect foreign football more than we respect our own.”
Kenyan football has a tainted history of wrangling, scandal and corruption; it was banned by FIFA in 2004 and 2006 because of political meddling. Steve Bloomfield, journalist and author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa summarizes the systemic breakdown in his chapter on the Kenyan national team, the Harambee Stars:
“It was a story of stolen gate receipts, missing FIFA funds and institutional match-rigging. Senior figures in the football administration had been charged with corruption but Kenya’s notoriously creaking justice system had failed to prosecute anyone… The mix of money and power led to a succession of rows over who should control football, arguments which have had a terrible effect on the game itself.”
Just follow the acronyms: The Kenya Football Federation (KFF) became synonymous with corruption and mismanagement, and was rebranded into Football Kenya Limited (FKL,) it is here that the structure becomes increasingly entangled with the KFF and the FKL running parallel for a period of time, before the governing body was once again reimagined as the Football Kenya Federation (FKF)— its current manifestation. The underlying issues however, have remained.
Bob Munro, 71, is completely at ease; his sweater is draped over his shoulders, and his shirtsleeves are rolled up. The waiters, at the popular local restaurant where we have met, refer to him by first name. At first glance, Munro doesn’t strike you an authority on Kenyan football; he has a kindly smile, his glasses are the proper old school kind (round, no frames) and, well, he’s white.
Munro, a native of St. Catharines, Ontario, has come a long way from the ice hockey and baseball of his youth, and is now one of the go-to people on Kenyan football. Munro, who moved to the country as an advisor to the United Nations Environmental Program and UN Habitat in 1985, founded the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in 1987, and the professional team Mathare United FC in 1994. Both are based in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums, which are home to at least 60% of Nairobi residents. MYSA, a global pioneer in sports for development, was the only league in the stands to have a column for ‘garbage cleaning’ in the points table; the association now has over 1,800 youth football teams, and over 25,000 boys and girls who develop their community through environmental cleanup, HIV/AIDS awareness, and literacy programs. MYSA and Mathare United FC were amongst the 165 nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and are expected to defend their FIFA Football for Hope championship title in Brazil this year.
When I meet up with him at Rustic Bistro, Munro explains what went wrong with Kenyan football, and why the need for independent youth football was so great. “There was a culture of corruption deeply embedded, which was in favor of a few teams at the expense of the others, and where the football officials basically exploited the clubs financially, without attracting money to invest in developing the game,” Munro says.
He adds that besides marriage, and in the worst cases, death, there are only a couple of avenues out of the slums; education and sports. The culture of corruption compromises opportunities for young people in both.
“[Youth] can’t use their football skills to get their families out of poverty, because the football officials are mismanaging the league and stealing the money, but they are also stealing their future. That’s the worst part.”
The corruption, which was basically extortion, made it virtually impossible for Mathare United and other teams to play a fair game, if they managed to play at all. Throughout the 1990s the federation imposed exorbitant costs on the teams; everything from an extraneous $150-$250 membership fee to the approximately $100 per player for ‘players cards’ which were basically pieces of cardboard that players had to fill and attach a photo too. There were additional fees to register for cup finals, and more money required for special players cards for each particular cup.
All this, and teams stood no chance of winning matches away from home.
“The corruption in Kenyan football was so bad, referees would give a penalty to the home team to win a match or get a draw,” Munro says. The situation was dire, but in 1998 the Mathare United team had finally made it into the nationwide league, and they weren’t about to miss out on their opportunity. A friend of Munro’s donated a JVC camera and battery pack to the team, and they went on the offensive.
“In 1998 our team manager was the most fit person on the team,” Munro remembers, laughing. “At the prematch he would go shove [the camera] in the referee’s face, and during the match he was running up and down the field with this camera and battery pack.” The referees, unused to being on video, refrained from blatant rigging, and the team garnered enough points to move forward.
“That camera was broken, it didn’t work,” Munro adds with a conspiratorial grin. “But in the end, it did work.”
The FKF remains far from exemplary; as recently as July 2013, BBC reported that the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission was investigating the FKF for the alleged misappropriation of $410,000, and three Kenyan referees are currently under investigation for fixing a club match in South Africa in 2010. However, there has been one fundamental change in local football: the formation of the Kenya Premier League.
The formation of the league was messy and drawn out. The process began in 2003, when 12 of the top clubs, including Mathare United, resigned from the KFF. The teams had tired of being sidelined after every federation election, and so they set up their own company, and even hosted a “Transparency Cup” to combat corruption, thereby effectively launching the Kenya Premier League. Soon after, FIFA admonished them for being a “renegade league” and told them they had to go back to the federation. In the subsequent years however, after recognizing the league’s competence, and in an effort to overcome the corruption of the federation, FIFA supported the clubs’ decision to retain some autonomy. The Kenya Premier League returned to the fold as an affiliate, with a league run by the clubs, like the English Premier League and South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.
For teams that had once trampled on each other to stay in favor with the federation, and therefore in favor with the referees, the balance of power had shifted. As Munro, who was also one of the league’s founding members, describes it, there was fair play in the new league, and a strict ‘no receipt, no expenditure’ rule. The league had no money, and devised a simple system: the home team paid the referees and kept the gate receipts. Their defining ideology cut straight to the point: those that produce football on the field should make the decisions off the field.
“We’re only opponents for 90 minutes twice a year, the rest of the time we have the same problems, we should be sharing with each other and helping each other, and not let others divide and rule us,” Munro passionately adds.
By 2007-2008 season, the local football scene had changed entirely: football had become professional, and before long, SuperSport was so impressed it negotiated the league’s television rights. Tragically, 2007-2008 was also the year everything changed for Kenya; violence erupted after a disputed election, and the country was in flames. Over a thousand people were killed in the violence and countless others displaced.
In an effort to promote national unity, the Kenya Premier League stepped in to fund and co-chair the national team, the Harambee Stars, in the run up to the World Cup qualifiers. By May 2008 both the government, which was struggling to support the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, and the FKF had said they could not afford to support the national team. With a loan of approximately $150,000, the Kenya Premier League shared the management of the national team with a reluctant FKF.
The league unanimously selected Mathare United coach Francis Kimanzi to coach the national team, and in a single season Kenya rose 52 places in the FIFA ranking from 120th to 68th. This success was short-lived, and with it the hopes that Kenyan players would be eligible to play in Britain; where a national ranking of under 70 is required in order for players to qualify for direct transfer. The federation unceremoniously dismissed Kimanzi in 2008 after he refused to take his players to a lucrative friendly in Egypt. The federation reclaimed control of the national team, and before long Kenya had plummeted in the rankings.
The league however, has continued to grow in strength and popularity. Salaries have gone from an abysmal $35-$58 a month to $233-$349, with the league hoping to reach $814- $1,162, in order to be regionally competitive. The total annual budget of Kenya’s major teams AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia, community based teams founded along ethnic lines, but which have become increasingly diverse with the recent professionalization of the sport, used to be $58,000-$69,000 and have increased tenfold. The two teams used to draw an average of about 2000 people to the stadium in the mid to late 1990s, that number is now an average of 10,000-15,000 fans in the stadium during a derby match.
Viewership of local league matches has also quadrupled since SuperSport bought the rights to broadcast the matches, according to sportscaster Radull. A large SuperSport rig is a staple at all premier league matches.
On a Sunday in late March, one such van is parked outside the Mombasa County Stadium. It is half time, and the stadium is packed. Kenyan football heavyweights Gor Mahia are playing against hometown favorites Bandari in the Kenya Premier League. The score is 1-1, it is 90 degrees, and the humidity is getting to everybody. Gor Mahia’s green and white can be seen across the stands, fans are wearing all kinds of hats: baseball caps (one even has a green and white Mohawk fashioned from straw), cowboy hats, straw hats, and even a green helmet. While Gor Mahia’s fans have made their loyalty as apparent as possible; Mombasa residents have also shown up in force, a sea of blue supporting their home team against the giants of Kenyan football.
The start of the second half is delayed due to what the announcers are calling a crowd invasion; Bandari supporters have spilled past the mesh wire perimeter, and over onto the pitch. People mill about, in what is hardly an invasion, before moving back to the stands. As the game resumes, Gor Mahia fans begin chanting and clapping, and before long Bandari fans wielding vuvuzelas and flags are making an equal amount of noise. Groans of disappointment at almost goals, and shouts of dismay over fouls, of which there are many, fill the air. Bandari’s Victor Majid scores the team’s second goal in the 74th minute, and the crowd begins stomping on the wooden beams, cheering and chanting, and waving flags. As far as they are concerned, the game is over. The remainder of the match is an exercise in stalling from Bandari; kicking the ball out, passing it to their goalkeeper from afar, and taking as many measures as they can to maintain possession of the ball. Gor Mahia fans are muted, worried, as the game draws to a close. A large contingent of green and white are streaming out of the stands before the final whistle is blown. It is yet another successful match, regardless of the winner: everything a league could hope for.
The Kenyan renaissance however, is still its early stages. Competitors are still far ahead in terms of investment, Tanzanian clubs have 7-8 times the annual budget of Kenya’s top teams, and clubs like Congo’s TP Mazembe and Egypt’s Al Ahly and Zamalek have annual budgets of over $11 million, putting them at 30 to 40 times more than the most well-funded Kenyan teams.
“We’re just starting down that road,” says Munro. He argues that Kenyan football can be a billion dollar industry if it attracts the right kind of investment. This, he says, is where the fanaticism around English football becomes problematic.
“Yes, the EPL moved into the vacuum created by the poor state of our football in the 1990s, but they have dominated our TV screens and fans are identifying with foreign teams rather than Kenyan teams, and they are even partnering with local banks who could be investing in local football,” says Munro, referring to the Arsenal debit cards launched in Kenya and Uganda by Imperial Bank last year. “They are siphoning off potential investment in local football, and this issue has to be addressed in global football, especially if by acting that way they destroy football in Africa.”
Back at Lazaru’s Inn, the chanting, stomping and high fives after Arsenal’s fourth goal demonstrate that no matter how fast or far Kenyan football has become, the English Premier League takes precedence, and that although its arrival may have filled a void, it is loved in its own right.
“Kenyans love football,” says an Arsenal fan named Kennedy Gitau, looking jubilant after the victory. “Ever since the EPL came to Kenya, the local game has transformed. For Kenyan football to grow, the clubs will have to look for their fans, and not wait for their fans to come to them.”
Now Batting, Cuba: Q&A with Reynerio Tamayo
When they take the field on Opening Day this afternoon, the Chicago White Sox roster will include no less than four Cuban players, part of an unprecedented wave of Cuban talent in Major League Baseball.
Cuban artist and satirist Reynerio Tamayo spoke to us via email today about Opening Day, Cubans’ love for baseball, and the growing opportunities for Cuban artists in the world.
Greg Hamilton, a 60-year-old Canadian, has been traveling to Myanmar since 1986 to study and play chinlone, a dance/hackysack hybrid that is the country’s national pastime. As one of the sport’s chief evangelizers, he is determined to share it with the world and help it gain the recognition, at home and abroad, he believes it deserves.
Greg Hamilton, a 60-year-old Canadian, has been traveling to Myanmar since 1986 to learn and play chinlone, a dance/hackysack hybrid that is the country’s national pastime. As one of the sport’s chief evangelizers, he is determined to share it with the world and help it gain the recognition, at home and abroad, he believes it deserves.
Loud and Proud
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