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#/