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 By Rory Smith

Football a source of pride and a symbol of unity at CONIFA World Cup

ConIFA World Cup
South Ossetia players, left, and the Darfur United team enter the pitch prior to the CONIFA World Cup.

The memory that stands out to Jirijoonas Kanth from his occasional, unofficial, intensely unlikely international career is not of a game, of a goal, of a win. It is something more private, something more personal, something he never expected to experience.

"We were in the same hotel as a lot of the other teams," he says, casting his mind back a couple of years. "I remember talking to the players from Darfur. It was eye-opening, learning about their lives, about where they came from, about what it was like. Having the chance to meet people from so many different places was really special. It was unique."

Kanth is, by professional standards, an unremarkable player. He plies his trade for FC Kiffen. There is a reason you have not heard of them: based just to the west of the centre of Helsinki, they currently sit in the third tier of Finnish football. Kanth, at 29, is just one of hundreds of thousands of players across the world, just about making a living from the game, a long way from the spotlight that illuminates the elite.

He is, though, also a member of a unique band. Kanth is an international, but he does not play for a country: he plays for his people. Though he insists he "feels Finnish" to his core, his heritage is with the Sami -- traditionally known in the English-speaking world as Lapps -- the semi-nomadic, indigenous people of Scandinavia.

The Sami do not have a nation; their ancestral lands span the north of Finland, Norway and Sweden. They do not have a parliament or a currency. They do have a language, but many, like Kanth, do not speak it. They also, as it happens, have a football team, and Kanth is part of it. "I have always known my roots," he says. "It is an honour to represent them. It makes my parents, and it would make my grandparents, very proud."

As France puts the final touches to its preparations for Euro 2016, the country is full of hope, and fear. Fear that the terrorist atrocities that have shattered and exhausted the nation throughout the past year might not yet be at an end; fear that what is meant to be a carnival of unity could be a magnet for yet more nihilistic murderers inspired by Islamic State.

But hope, too, that perhaps this is the tournament the country needs. France, after all, knows the power football has to heal a nation. Eighteen years ago, as the 1998 World Cup approached, France was no less divided, no less fraught, than it is now. The banlieues seethed with hopelessness and tension, some of it racial, some of it generational, captured brilliantly by Mathieu Kassovitz in the 1995 film La Haine.

The three central characters in that film represented the divide: one was white, one black, one of North African descent. Kassovitz gave life to the image of modern France as black-blanc-beur and ridden with despair; three years later, the country's football team achieved something that meant that phrase would come to stand for something entirely more positive.

The side captained by Didier Deschamps seemed to represent the full spectrum of the new France: the Basque Bixente Lizarazu; Lilian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe; Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants; Youri Djorkaeff, of Polish and Armenian descent. They were the black-blanc-beur team, and their victory offered a vision of what could be achieved by all colours and creeds working together.

A year after the World Cup, the apparent surge of the far-right Front Nationale collapsed. Where before Jean-Marie Le Pen's party had been polling at around 16 percent, in 1999 they mustered just 5.7 percent of the vote in elections to the European parliament; many, at the time, attributed it to an optimism and harmony that could be traced back to that night at Saint Denis. How France -- where, as in so much of Europe, the far right rises again -- could use such a tonic in 2016.

It is not just France that has witnessed the power of football to define national identity. Much the same could be said of Germany after the 2006 World Cup, where the fact that victory eluded Jurgen Klinsmann's team was rendered irrelevant by the rediscovery of national pride; to many, it was the tournament that gave the country its flag and its confidence back.

As a slew of recent documentaries has made clear, too, England went through something similar 10 years previously. Terry Venables's team did not win Euro '96, but that summer -- along with Britpop, New Labour and the rest of it - had a powerful effect on the English psyche, not just completing football's rehabilitation after the dark years of hooliganism but energising the country.

ConIFA World Cup walkout
Abkhazia's goalkeeper Aleksei Bondarenko jumps for the ball against Sapmi's Steffen Dreyer.

Nowhere does football demonstrate its power to be a source of pride, a symbol of unity, an act of defiance for a whole country, though, more than when it is played by teams representing people without a state.

Sascha Duerkop happened upon the world of unofficial international football entirely by chance. "I collect football shirts," he says. In July 2011, he started a blog detailing his devotion, stating as his mission his desire to collect kits from all 208 (now 209) FIFA member nations. "But then I started discovering the shirts of teams who were not part of FIFA. I investigated where they came from, got in touch with a few of the guys and it started from there. That is how I got involved."

Now, Duerkop is general secretary of CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, the home for football teams from countries that do not have a home. They have 35 members -- Duerkop, of course, has a replica of each of their shirts -- having seen two, Gibraltar and Kosovo, move on toward greater recognition.

"We are a non-political organisation," he explains. "Our members have to meet certain criteria, and they have to be elected by the current members should they wish to join. But we have a lot of teams who have joined for very different reasons."

There are those -- like Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus and Kurdistan -- who view themselves as "real nations" deprived of legitimacy by the international community. Others, such as the Chagos Islands, have been stripped of territory; more still, including the representatives of the Tamil people, the Romani people and the Sami, are diaspora teams, connected not to a place but to a community.

"The effect can be quite different from team to team," says Duerkop. "For the Tamils, it is a binding tool that works to bring a diaspora community together. For the Chagos, football is a way of connecting to a homeland. For Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia, it is important for them as a way of [showing that] they exist, that they represent a real entity."

The best stage for doing that, of course, is a tournament. Last week, 11 teams gathered in Abkhazia -- an autonomous region in the Caucasus, which most of the international community regards as part of Georgia -- for the second CONIFA World Cup. There were supposed to be 12, but the Romani side were forced to pull out, a neat illustration of the challenges the organisation faces.

"We had problems with passports for many of the players," says Giuseppe Pardeo, the team's coach. "The squad had all of their bags packed and the flights booked, but there were bureaucratic issues, and because of the difficulties of getting into Russia (Georgia, which does not recognise Abkhazia, had said there would be no access from their side of the border) we had to pull out. The players are devastated. It is very sad.

"This tournament gives a chance to Romani people to say to the world that they can play football, that they are proud. They are seen negatively by a lot of people in Europe and this is a problem. Football is a way of proving that is wrong, that they are different to how people think. The players love the chance to represent their people."

Pardeo insists his team would have stood a good chance in the finals, staged in Sokhumi, the region's capital, and Gagra, a seaside resort just up the coast of a place once known as the Soviet Union's Florida. Kanth, too, was hopeful, noting that "the standard of teams varies hugely from tournament to tournament, and the standard of players within the teams, too."

With neither the historic Republic of Nice or the Isle of Man, the finalists from the first edition of the competition -- held two years ago in Ostersunds, Sweden, when Kanth made friends with players from Darfur -- present, it was an open field. Eventually, the hosts, Abkhazia, won, beating Panjab in a dramatic penalty shootout in the final. The players hugged and embraced in their lime green shirts. In the stands, fans brandished the green, white and red flag, a symbol of a place told it is not a country.

"We think our members deserve the chance to play," says Duerkop. "We think they deserve to be recognised. Many of them are known only for negative headlines. We want to change that. We want the world to see them. We want them to be able to show who they are."

Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.


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