A European football tournament for nations and territories excluded by FIFA kicks off this evening, with the hosts North Cyprus facing Kárpátalja in the opening match at the Atatürk Stadium in Lefkoşa. The winner of the CONIFA Euro Cup 2017 will be crowned in the TRNC capital next Sunday.
A total of eight teams are taking part in the week-long competition running under the banner ‘freedom to play football’: Abkhazia, Ellan Vannin, Felvidék, Kárpátalja, North Cyprus, South Ossetia, Székely Land, and reigning champions Padania.
Group stage matches will be hosted in four stadia across the TRNC: Atatürk Stadium, the Mete Adanır Stadium in Girne, Dr. Fazıl Küçük Stadium in Mağusa, and Üner Berkalp Stadium in Güzelyurt, giving football fans island-wide an opportunity to watch the games.
North Cyprus is part of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, CONIFA for short – a global non-profit organisation that “supports representatives of international football teams from nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories.” It was founded in June 2013, and organised its first World Football Cup the following year in Ostersund, Sweden.
Hungary hosted first CONIFA Euro Cup in 2015
The inaugural CONIFA Euro Cup took place in Hungary in 2015. The tournament was originally meant to be hosted in the Isle of Man. However, an increase in the number of entrants resulted in the competition being moved to Székely Land, located in Hungary’s east.
Three teams scheduled to play – South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus – were subsequently forced to withdraw due to visa problems, leaving six teams to take part. Padania beat the County of Nice to pick up the trophy, with the Isle of Man’s Ellan Vannin coming third.
CONIFA has thrown a lifeline to players in politically unrecognised territories like the TRNC, who are barred from FIFA-managed tournaments. FIFA’s members are usually admitted on the basis of their country being a full member of the United Nations. While Cyprus is represented, the TRNC is not.
Turkish Cypriots, although co-founders of the Cyprus Football Association (CFA), found themselves thrown out of the body in April 1955 due to politics. Greek Cypriots, hell bent on a Hellenic vision of Cyprus through ENOSIS (union with Greece) did not want to share power with Turkish Cypriots – even in football. Turkish Cypriot teams were thrown out of the CFA league and locked out of stadium owned by Greek Cypriots, forcing the Turks to form their own football federation later that year so the could continue with their domestic matches.
FIFA still bans international friendlies for Turkish Cypriots
The Cyprus Turkish Football Federation (KTFF) never formally applied to FIFA. After the 1974 War and division of the island, they were given permission by the world body to play friendly matches with international opponents. However, that was withdrawn after the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus was declared in 1983 and the Greek Cypriots lobbied the UN and other international bodies for the non-recognition of the TRNC in all international arena, including sport.
As a result, even friendly matches with sides from Turkey are banned: those who break this risk huge fines or even expulsion from FIFA’s European body UEFA. It means many talented young players from North Cyprus have been denied the chance to explore their full potential, forced to play amateur football in the hope one day an international scout will find them.
The discrimination North Cyprus footballers and teams face are in direct contravention of FIFA’s own constitution, yet Turkish Cypriots have never mounted a legal challenge to overturn the ban.
In December 2005, human rights group Embargoed! ran a memorable campaign to highlight Turkish Cypriot footballers’ ongoing international isolation. To coincide with the KTFF’s fiftieth anniversary, players from the TRNC’s biggest club Çetinkaya ‘stripped for their rights’. The story was not only front page news on both sides of the island, but also went worldwide.
Heightened awareness of the injustices Turkish Cypriot players face forced FIFA into action. Over the past decade, it has attempted to play peace-maker and find a solution acceptable to both Cypriot communities.
The last big push came in 2015, with KTFF and CFA heads agreeing for KTFF and its teams to become associate members of the internationally recognised CFA. However, Greek Cypriot clubs blocked the admission of their Turkish Cypriot counterparts, ensuring the FIFA ban remains intact.
CONIFA Euro Cup 2017 match details
CONIFA provides a vital opportunity for talented Turkish Cypriots and others from unrecognised territories to play against international opposition. While many of the sides are comprised of amateur players and the tournament lacks the big-money glitzy feel of FIFA-managed competitions, it is an important platform to forge positive cultural and sporting relations globally, while helping to put lesser known nations and locations on the international map.
Tournament matches will be shown on TRNC broadcaster BRT. Catch the opening ceremony and first match live tonight from 5pm UK time (7pm locally). For those without Turkish satellite, they can watch online here – click on BRT1 under Canlı Yayın (Live Broadcast). For tournament match details, visit the CONIFA Euro Cup 2017 web page.