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Via CONIFA

At This World Cup, Players Risk Imprisonment to Compete

What you need to know about the CONIFA World Cup, the football tournament for breakaway nations.

The ConIFA World Cup, the global football tournament for unrecognized nations, and football associations not affiliated to FIFA, is about to begin its third edition. The championship will kickoff on 31 May in Sutton, Greater London, where the Barawa FA team will act as host.

Barawa FA, named after the port city of Barawa in southern Somalia, represents the Tunni and Bravanese people who live there, but it also represents the wider Somali diaspora in the United Kingdom. So, even though the tournament will be played in England, this will be the most African ConIFA competition to date, with not only an African member hosting and heading the organizing committee, but with two other African teams taking part in the competition: Matabeleland and Kabylia.

This will be the largest edition of the ConIFA World Cup so far, with 16 teams playing in 10 stadiums—seven in Greater London, two in Berkshire and one in Essex. In contrast, the previous edition, held in Abkhazia—a separatist region of Georgia—in 2016, featured 12 teams in two stadiums; while the inaugural edition, held in Lapland—a region encompassing parts of northern Sweden, northern Norway, northern Finland and north-western Russia inhabited by the Sami people—in 2014, only featured one stadium and 12 teams. It will also feature the largest number of African teams so far, as only two participated in 2014 (Darfur and Zanzibar) and 2016 (Somaliland and Chagos Islands).

The tournament has also raised its profile. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power announced it will be sponsoring the tournament, probably seizing the opportunity to take bets on the tournament, which will occur between the end of national European leagues and the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in mid-June.


ConIFA also secured Mark Clattenburg, who served as a referee in the English Premier League for over a decade, as main referee. Clattenburg will oversee the inaugural game (between Ellan Vannin, the team representing the Isle of Man, and Cascadia, the team representing the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon and the Canadian Province of British Columbia), and the final game, to be played on 9 June in Enfield.

Clattenburg and the other 24 referees in the tournament will also debut a green card sponsored by Paddy Power. This card will be shown to players who dive or who protest the referees' decisions, and who will have to be substituted immediately.

But who are the African teams in the tournament and how did they get here? Learn more about them below.

Barawa

Barawa, as mentioned, are a Somali team based in London, and their players come mostly from the semi-professional non-league divisions in the English football pyramid. However, they will be fielding Kingsley Eshun and and Ode Alfa, both of which play for Queens Park Rangers' – a Championship team – youth sides, as well as Aryan Tajbakhsh, who plays for League Two side Crawley Town.

The team joined ConIFA in June 2016, and have never played in a ConIFA competition, though they did play in the World Unity Cup in Sutton that same year, a competition in which Tamil Eelam – the team representing the separatist Tamil region of Sri Lanka – qualified for this year's World Cup.

But Barawa didn't have to worry about qualifying matches for long. They were selected hosts in June 2017 and qualified automatically for the 2018 World Cup, despite being ranked 11th in ConIFA standings, one of the lowest of all members.

In the World Cup, Barawa will face Ellan Vannin, Tamil Eelam and Cascadia in Group A.

Sampi vs. SomalilandPhoto by Kieran Pender

Matabeleland

Matabeleland is a region in southern and south-western Zimbabwe inhabited mostly by the Northern Ndebele people. Matabeleland was the stage of a series of massacres –– known as Gukurahundi –– committed in the 1980s by the Zimbabwean National Army, during the government of former president Robert Mugabe, who is part of the Shona majority. Even now, there is an independent movement in Matabeleland lead by the Matabeleland Freedom Army.

However, the Matabeleland Football Confederacy was created by the Save Matabeleland Coalition with the official purpose of promoting soccer in the region as a way to foster development, and to give local kids a sense of identity and purpose.

Matabeleland joined ConIFA in 2016 and their team is made up mostly of local kids who participate in Save Matabeleland Coalition programs. They are coached by Englishman Justin Walley, and both Bruce Grobbelaar –– who played for the Zimbabwe national team and Liverpool FC –– and Matt Perrella –– a professional U.S. goalkeeper –– will work as goalkeeper coaches. However, due to political concerns, they did not announce their roster publicly.

They qualified to the 2018 World Cup after playing many regional friendlies, and then being selected by ConIFA to participate in the competition But they ran into finance financial problems. They sought $35,000 to help pay for visas and airfares through various crowdfunding efforts, which included a contest, sponsored by Paddy Power, to design Matabeleland's kits.

However, they have yet to play their first official international game within ConIFA. That will change in later this month when they face Padania –– a team representing a separatist region in northern Italy ––, Székely Land –– a team representing the Hungarian diaspora in Romania, and Tuvalu –– the island nation that is part of the UN, but has not been admitted as a FIFA member due to their lack of facilities –– in Group C.

Sampi vs. SomalilandKieran Pender

Kabylia

The Kabylia football team represents the Kabyle people, a Berber ethnic group who inhabit northern Algeria. Since the Algerian independence from France in the 1960s, the region of Kabylia has been fighting for greater recognition, as many there feel that the new nation has tried to "Arabize" them. For example, Algeria only recognized Berber languages as official in 2016.

Because of this, many Kabyle emigrated to other countries and some famous French footballers are of Kabyle descent, most notably Zinedine Zidane, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema. Zidane has even had to correct the record in some interviews, noting that he did not grow up speaking Arabic in his Algerian household in Marseille, as some interviewers assumed, but Kabyle.

In 2001, the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK) was founded by folk singer Ferhat Mehenni as a non-violent movement seeking to obtain self-government rule for Kabylia. MAK has endorsed the Kabylia football team, which joined ConIFA barely last year and, like Matabeleland, qualified after playing various regional friendlies.

However, the scene in Kabylia was not as celebratory as in Matabeleland. According to the Kabylia-based news agency Siwel, after qualification, the Kabylia manager Alex Bellabacci was arrested by the Algerian authorities and held for questioning.

Because of the animosity of the Algerian authorities towards the Kabylia team, is hard to get info on who their players will be –– like Matabeleland, they did not announce their squad publicly. However, it is expected that they will bring a mix of local players, and players from the diaspora.

In any case, they will be part of Group D, where they will square off against Panjab –– a team representing the Punjabi diaspora in the United Kingdom ––, United Koreans in Japan –– a team comprised of both people of North Korean and South Korean descent living in Japan –– and Western Armenia –– a team representing Armenians living in what is officially recognized as the eastern part of Turkey.

Somaliland goalkeeper. Photo by Kieran Pender

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Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

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Below is an excerpt from the seventh chapter in Sierra-Leonean journalist and author Isha Sesay's new book, "Beneath the Tamarind Tree," the "first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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