Separatist Abkhazia has been picked as the venue for the wannabe and stateless nations’ soccer championship in 2016.
It is soccer without borders in a direct sense. Arameans, Laplanders, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and all sorts of “sportingly isolated” peoples will be heading down to the Russian-backed, Georgian-claimed Black Sea region for the next installment of the soccer event that debuted in Sweden last year.
Twelve teams, including from Darfur and the Isle of Man, participated in the competition with the County of Nice as the winner.
The enthusiast group behind the event – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) that some describe as the anti-FIFA – is on a mission to put unrecognized or less-recognized self-declared countries like Abkhazia “on the world map” to have them share “the joy of international soccer.
“We are sure that Abkhazia is a perfect choice to enjoy a perfect football and cultural experience,” CONIFA said in a statement. Although Abkhazia has the reputation of a twilight zone still recovering from the ruins of the early 1990s separatist war with Tbilisi, CONIFA claims that “top-class infrastructure” can be found there.
The main city, Sokhumi, does boast a new, purportedly international-standard football stadium. Abkhazia, which relies heavily on financial assistance from Russia, bets strongly on its tourism sector to reboot its economy, but, in recent years, complaints about higher prices than services have been cause for controversy.
Nonetheless, Abkhazia’s delighted de-facto officials insist that visiting soccer teams for the CONIFA World Cup will get a royal welcome. The president of the breakaway territory’s football federation, Jemal Gubaz, said that Abkhazia should go all out to make sure the tournament is a grand occasion.
But Abkhazia might need to whip its de-facto national team into shape. At the 2014 championship in Sweden, Abkhazia was beaten by its breakaway cousin, South Ossetia, another region that claims independence from Georgia.