Just days before the world’s most highly-paid superstars head to France this summer for Euro 2016, a very different but equally important tournament will be drawing to a close in the slightly less well-known surroundings of Abkhazia – a partially recognised state within Georgia.
The second Confederation of Independent Football Associations (or ConIFA) World Football Cup will see 12 teams such as Kurdistan and Punjab compete for the honour of being the champions of the non-FIFA world.
The non-FIFA world is a parallel universe to the star-studded game that the men in suits preside over. The teams involved are almost entirely amateurs motivated solely by the opportunity to express an identity they have been denied on the world stage.
Among the 12 sides who qualified out of a possible 23 are the Chagos Islands, who are looking to fulfil their dream of a first international competition and whose road to Abkhazia is as emotional as it has been difficult.
In one of the least known injustices of the 20th century, the Chagossians were forced to leave their Indian Ocean island home in the late 1960s when the British government sold the island of Diego Garcia to the USA on a 50-year lease for an airbase.
More than 1,000 Chagossians were herded into boats under duress and initially dumped in the Seychelles and Mauritius where they were left in poverty, but they were eventually given the right to settle in the UK.
The main Chagossian community now lives in Crawley, close to Gatwick Airport, and it is in these decidedly non-tropical surroundings that the Chagos Islands national football team has been training for the ConIFA World Cup.
In a just world the Chagos Islands would be part of the Asian Football Confederation and would be involved in World Cup qualifiers but exiled from the FIFA family as they are exiled from their rightful home, they are determined to at least seize upon the chance offered to them by ConIFA.
The timing is also poignant. The US’ 50-year lease on Diego Garcia expires this year and a court case is ongoing to decide what happens next. The Chagossian team hopes that competing in an international competition may bring their plight to the world’s attention at a crucial time.
“Our people can’t live in the land they represent on the field because the Chagossian people have been exiled from their homeland for more than 40 years, but we play to let people all over the world know about our ancestors’ motherland,” Sabrina Jean, a campaigner for Chagos refugees and one of the team’s founders, explains.
However, again unlike the teams who will compete at Euro 2016 or at the next FIFA World Cups in 2018 and 2022, the Chagos team is battling to raise the money for their flights to Abkhazia. They need £3,000, roughly the amount that Cristiano Ronaldo earns in two hours.
“We cannot return to our islands, but we can return a trophy to our community if the football loving public get behind us,” star midfielder Ricky Louis said.
To support the Chagos Islands national football team and allow them to live their dream of competing at a World Cup you can visit their crowd funding campaign page: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cheer-chagos#/
Russia and Poland stepped up their preparations for Euro 2016 with thumping victories over Lithuania and Finland, while Austria overcame tournament newcomers Albania 2-1.
In Berlin, a minute’s silence was observed in memory of the victims of the Brussels terror attacks, with both sets of players wearing black armbands in honour of Dutch great Johan Cruyff who passed away on Thursday at the age of 68.
Toni Kroos gave Joachim Loew’s men a 43rd-minute lead at the Olympic Stadium with a crisp left-footed drive that beat Jack Butland, who was then immediately stretchered off with a leg injury, at his near post.
After seeing a first-half effort incorrectly ruled out for offside, doubled Germany’s advantage on 57 minutes by heading home a Sami Khedira cross for his first international goal in almost four years.
But Harry Kane halved the deficit four minutes later as the Tottenham striker produced a piece of skill befitting the late Cruyff to fire beyond a helpless Manuel Neuer.
Substitute Jamie Vardy made an immediate impact after replacing Danny Welbeck, with the Leicester City forward superbly flicking home Nathaniel Clyne’s right-wing cross on 74 minutes.
England should have gone ahead after Vardy pounced on a loose pass inside the Germany area, only for Dele Alli to blaze over with the goal gaping.
But Dier ensured Roy Hodgson’s side weren’t left to rue that miss as the Tottenham midfielder powered home a header from Jordan Henderson’s corner in the 91st minute to complete a remarkable turnaround.
Earlier Russia, who will face England in their opening match of the European Championship, cruised to a 3-0 victory over Lithuania in Moscow with goals from Fedor Smolov, Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Glushakov.
Poland have again been drawn alongside title frontrunners Germany at this summer’s finals, having already faced them in qualifying, and strolled to a morale-boosting 5-0 demolition of Finland in Wroclaw.
Rennes midfielder Kamil Grosicki and Verona winger Pawel Wszolek both netted twice apiece with Filip Starzynski also on target as star striker Robert Lewandowski came on for the final 27 minutes.
Austria co-hosted the 2008 finals with Switzerland and booked their place at this year’s edition after dropping just two points during qualifying in a group that also featured Sweden and Russia.
In Vienna, Marcel Koller’s side defeated an Albania team heading to their first major tournament courtesy of early strikes from Marc Janko and Martin Harnik, with Ermir Lenjani pulling one back for the visitors.
Hungary will also travel to France in June after a 30-year finals absence, and Balazs Dzsudzsak struck 11 minutes from time in Budapest to cancel out Mario Mandzukic’s first-half opener in a 1-1 draw with Croatia.
Harry Redknapp made a successful start as Jordan manager as his side cruised to a comfortable 8-0 win over Bangladesh.
Directly after the game, Redknapp got his first taste of media action as he was quizzed by a local reporter about the win.
This is when the problems started.
It became clear quite fast that Redknapp’s Arabic was not up to scratch, and the reporter’s fractured English added to this confusion.
Judging by his reaction it looks like ‘Arry will need some time to get used to the local media, although he deserves a round of applause for his effort!
Redknapp’s second and final match with the team will be against Australia in Sydney on Tuesday.