If nobody can agree on what a nation is, everyone agrees that nations need to have a football team. Deep in the subtropics between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains, a small group of men are betting that the latter can forge the former.
Astamur Adleiba wants to use football to blaze a trail towards nationhood for Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia home to 240,000 people. A genial, bushy-browed man with an artificial right hand and a physique that reflects the staple Abkhaz diet of wine, kebabs and gooey cheesebreads, Adleiba was a driving force behind Abkhazia’s hosting of the Conifa World Football Cup in late May. The tournament is a championship for the unrecognised states, diasporas and stateless people that have not been admitted to Fifa, the sport’s scandal-plagued governing body.
“My idea was to show the world we are a real independent state,” Adleiba said as he watched Northern Cyprus labour to a draw with the Korean diaspora in Japan. “We just want to live independently. And they’re not letting us.”
The newly refurbished Dinamo stadium, home to the team of the same name Adleiba runs, is one of the few modern buildings in Sukhumi, the capital of a state recognised by few and seemingly adrift in time. Abkhazia has the feel of a Russian magical realist novel gone wrong. Crumbling Neoclassical Stalinist edifices and palm trees line its sleepy streets, half-empty since a vicious separatist conflict after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Looming over the stadium’s east stand is a 13-storey Brutalist parliament building, unrestored since it caught fire during the war. Abkhazia’s football federation has its offices in the basement.
Visually and geopolitically, Abkhazia is a kind of post-Soviet Cuba, reliant hugely on Moscow for financial support, security, food and wine exports. Millions of Russian budget tourists come each year for its pebble beaches and unreconstructed sanatoriums that still proudly display busts of Lenin. Only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru have opened diplomatic relations with Abkhazia since it declared independence after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008.
Like Abkhazia, the 11 other participants in the tournament are quite literally international nonentities without broad recognition or, for some, much more than a flag. Few of the players are professionals. Only 10 have any experience of international football-playing for minnows of the game such as Norway, Armenia and Iraq. Only four of the teams represent functioning quasi-nation-states. Barring Abkhazia, the only one diplomatically recognised by any country is Northern Cyprus, created when Turkey invaded the island in 1974.
“There are countries that are really fighting for independence, and there are ones that don’t give a damn about their independence, they’re just regions,” Adleiba said, spitting out the last word like an insult.
Modern international football is closely tied in with a country’s national pride. The smaller the country, the greater the scope for it; Euro 2016 will be remembered less for its dour draws between continental superpowers than the heroics of Albania, Iceland, and Wales.
But often, that association is an uneasy one, as shown in the violent clashes between English and Russian fans, German and Ukrainian fans, and Croatian fans against other Croatian fans. In a famous description of serious sport as “war minus the shooting”, George Orwell tied the ascent of football from pastime to obsession to “the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige”.
The changing nature of citizenship has changed the make-up of national football teams — and with them, what it means to represent a country. Roman Neustädter, a midfielder born in Ukraine and raised in Germany by a father who played internationally for Kazakhstan was drafted into the Russia squad on the eve of the tournament under a presidential decree from Vladimir Putin. The increasingly transactional nature of citizenship has seen players from Brazil, which exports footballers like Cuba exports doctors, line up for European greats such as Italy, Germany and Spain. Footballing triumphs and failures often become metaphors for a nation’s fate. Newspapers and fans took England’s humiliating defeat against tiny Iceland — population 323,000 — last month as a symbol for the chaos unleashed by the Brexit vote only four days earlier.
Representing your country is more difficult when there is no consensus on whether it is a country at all. Several not-quite-states like American Samoa, Macau and England are Fifa members; in May, they were joined by Kosovo, which has yet to gain full international recognition since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008, and Gibraltar, which is a territory of the UK. Yet others remain shut out despite years of efforts. They include the Isle of Man, which has greater autonomy within Britain than Gibraltar does; Kiribati, which is a UN member state; and quasi-sovereign countries such as Abkhazia, which sees creeping double standards in Kosovo’s admittance.
“The Albanians managed to conquer Serbian territory, Kosovo, and got independence. We’re happy for them,” Adleiba said. “But then why are they allowed, and we aren’t?”
Conifa, the organisation behind the tournament, attempts to redress these perceived injustices. “The system is totally non-transparent,” says Conifa general secretary Sascha Düerkop. “As long as there is no rule, everyone should be able to get in.”
Düerkop is a lanky doctoral student in mathematics at the University of Wuppertal with a floppy, asymmetrical haircut and an air of general bemusement. He discovered the world of unrecognised football through his hobby of collecting national team shirts (he owns 201 shirts from Fifa’s 211 member nations, and is particularly struggling with Aruba).
Conifa’s aim is to give a platform to groups with national aspirations but no Fifa representation. As geopolitical boundaries change, so does their membership. Teams from “people’s republics” formed in eastern Ukraine during a 2014-15 war are bidding to host next year’s European championship; a pro-Remain team in Britain applied to join the day after the UK voted Leave.
Together with Per-Anders Blind, a part-time referee and a member of the Sami ethnic group from the part of northern Scandinavia known as Lapland, they set up Conifa’s first tournament in Sweden in 2014. Organising the unrecognised proved difficult. For the first tournament, Conifa had to appeal to the UN to issue travel documents to a Darfur team made up of refugees from camps in Chad. The Darfuris conceded 61 goals in four games, and received asylum at the end of the tournament.
The Abkhazia team — all of whom, like the majority of Abkhaz, have Russian citizenship under a mass “passportisation” programme — could only send a threadbare squad of 13 after just as many players were denied Swedish visas. The next year, Abkhazia was forced to pull out of the European championship after pressure from Georgia saw Hungary refuse them entry.
Adleiba, aided by his cousin, Dmitry Pagava, pushed to hold the tournament at home. Abkhazia’s government threw its weight behind the bid, aided with money from Moscow. Efforts to rebuild the Dinamo stadium with Rbs650m (around £7.75m) under a Russian programme, then stalled, were restarted. LCD scoreboards, artificial turf, and 4,300 white, yellow, red and orange plastic seats were brought in from Russia. Abkhazia supplied another Rbs25m.
Adleiba and Pagava were unsure whether anyone would actually turn up. Two English fans who came as tourists discovered they were the only foreign supporters to make the trip. “All my friends back home think I’m daft,” said Kevin O’Donovan, a bus driver from Cambridge. Efforts to generate money by selling TV rights found no takers.
Simply getting to Abkhazia was a challenge. The only legal way is to take a train overnight from Tbilisi and walk or take a donkey cart across a derelict bridge to the border. Organisers advised teams to take the easier route through Russia, prompting statements of protest from Georgia. Somaliland’s team only made it in with a frantic call to the Abkhaz authorities after Russian border guards decided the bus of 18 black men in matching tracksuits were going to Abkhazia to gather intelligence.
Much to Adleiba’s surprise, the tournament became the talk of Abkhazia. Locals mobbed the Somaliland team, many of whom had not even played organised football in years, for selfies like they were stars. “It’s amazing, you feel like there isn’t any barrier,” said Abdirahim Sultan, who is studying to become a radiologic technologist. (“They’ve never seen a black guy,” Adleiba said.)
The biggest cult figure was former accountant Harpreet Singh, the leader of the Panjab team and perhaps the only person taking the tournament as seriously as the Abkhaz. Singh, a tall, sleek Sikh who sports a purple turban, a flowing salt-and-pepper beard, piercing eyes, and a thick Midlands baritone, spent all his savings two years ago to set up the team, which he envisions as a “global brand” to capture the hearts of the world’s 125m Panjabis. “I’m in love with my people,” he recalls telling his eldest son, then four, when explaining his decision. “I love the akash, the sky, I love the mitti, the dust. I feel the pain of my people. It is my destiny to do this.”
After months of scouring English semi-pro teams online in search of players with “Panjabi ferocity on the pitch”, Singh set about recruiting a manager, an assistant manager, a first team coach, an opposition analyst and a physiotherapist, all with professional experience. Lacking the money to pay them, Singh explained his vision of “glory for Panjab and harmony for the people” in a pub called the Red Lion in West Bromwich. “A football team isn’t like a chip shop, where you just make another chip shop. You have to make people believe,” he said.
Dinamo stadium was well over capacity for Abkhazia’s home matches. Fans waving flags and wearing face paint spilled into the stairwell; when space ran out for them there, the rest stood pitchside or climbed the fence behind the goal. Raul Khajimba, de facto president of Abkhazia, took a place in the VIP box for the team’s first game against the Chagos Islands, members of a diaspora evicted from their home in the Indian Ocean by the UK in the 1960s to make way for a US naval base. After a red card and injury saw the Chagos team, mostly made up of cleaners at Gatwick airport, go down to nine men, Abkhazia cruised to a 9-0 victory. “The president was celebrating every goal like they’d won the World Cup,” said Jens Jockel, a Conifa functionary and fellow football-shirt collector. “It was a bit much.”
In embracing the tournament, Abkhazia’s de facto government sought to make it a coming-out party for its self-styled state. Khajimba, a life-long Abkhaz functionary who could seem equally at home as a Soviet bureaucrat in 1986, 1956 or 1936, gave it his personal backing. “We wanted to show that we are coming out of isolation and building a state,” Khajimba said. “We’re not trying to get everyone to recognise us — we already recognised ourselves.”
Abkhazia’s national identity is mostly based on ethnic grounds, particularly against Georgians. Separatists who fought in the 1992-93 war expelled hundreds of thousands of Georgians, hitherto the dominant ethnic group in the region. To become an Abkhaz citizen, one must live in Abkhazia for 10 years and pass an exam in the fiendishly difficult Abkhaz language. Khajimba came to power in 2014 after his predecessor fled on the heels of protests against his plans to give citizenship to the remaining 40,000 Georgians. A bill that would have allowed foreigners to buy prime real estate on the Black Sea riviera — and thus, in many Abkhaz’ minds, allowed Russia to subsume the region — inflamed passions to the point where one of its prominent opponents narrowly escaped a car-bombing unhurt.
Abkhaz officials say they prefer life in limbo, since both reconciliation with Georgia and absorption by Russia would subsume their national identity. “Nobody’s lining up to recognise us,” Khajimba said. Yet that stance has inevitably driven Abkhazia into Moscow’s embrace. Months after Khajimba became president, he signed an agreement that proposed to merge the Abkhaz army with Russia’s in exchange for a doubling of Russia’s subsidies. Russian support comprises Rbs2bn of the Rbs5bn budget. The rouble is the sole tender, leaving Abkhazia exposed to Russia’s economic slump. After Russia responded to the drastic fall in the rouble rate by adopting a free float, Abkhazia asked to be granted observer status at Russia’s central bank, only to be rebuffed.
Abkhazia’s football team knew they were fighting for national pride. They cruised through the tournament without conceding a goal, dispatching Western Armenia, Sapmi, and Northern Cyprus to delirious crowds who spilled from the stands and on to the pitch. Crowds chanted “Aiaaira!”, the victory slogan from the 1992-93 war. Hours before the final, the stadium was overflowing well beyond capacity. Many with tickets could not even make it into the stadium, and climbed on walls to watch the game from outside. Wild cheers erupted as a decrepit-looking helicopter flew over the stadium, trailing an Abkhaz flag hoisted to a long cable hanging below it.
Panjab were to be Abkhazia’s opponents after a surprise run that saw them defeat heavily favoured Padania, a vaguely separatist region in northern Italy, and Western Armenia, whose players, coaches and fans ran on to the pitch to attack the Panjab players in fury at their nail-biting 3-2 quarter-final loss. Singh had discovered that Panjab’s flag was only printed on one side. A faint map of the greater Panjab could be visible on the back as it flapped faintly in the breeze. The dates of the reign of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, whose reign over the Sikh Empire from 1799 to 1839 inspired Singh to set up his amateur team, had been drawn on by hand. “They just got the picture and sent it to the local market,” he grumbled.
After a lacklustre first half, Panjab’s centre-forward raced through and chipped goalkeeper Alexei Bondarenko to take the lead, silencing the crowd. The atmosphere became more funereal with every passing minute. With five minutes left, the announcer plaintively asked the stadium to “support the team more actively”. Suddenly, Abkhazia broke free down the rightwing and flung a low cross into the six-yard box, where substitute Ruslan Shonia was on hand to tap it in. The crowd roared as if it were 10 times the size. “The best part is that he’s got a Georgian last name!” Adleiba grinned.
The match went straight to penalty kicks. Abkhazia missed two of their first three, giving Panjab two chances to win the match. Miraculously, Bondarenko saved both with desperate dives to his left; Abkhazia held their nerve to force sudden death. A middle-aged Abkhaz policewoman in the cordon, too nervous to watch, looked to the sky in prayer. In the third round, Bondarenko kept out another shot headed for the left-hand corner. Midfielder Vladimir Argun then sent Panjab’s goalkeeper the wrong way.
Fans poured on to the field to mob the players. The dancers in traditional dress waiting for the closing ceremony joined them. A teenage boy grabbed a faded picture of Vladislav Ardzinba, Abkhazia’s first president, from a gold-toothed elderly woman and led the crowd in a singalong. Fireworks lit up the sky. Half the crowd was still on the pitch. One of the Somaliland coaches ran on clutching a giant Abkhaz flag in one hand and a tiny Somaliland flag in the other. Teenagers mobbed Singh, the intensity now drained from his eyes, for selfies. Cars flying the Abkhaz flag skidded in circles around the central square, in front of the burnt-out parliament. Khajimba declared a national holiday.
Winning may not have brought Abkhazia any closer to international recognition — even from Fifa. But as its team’s captain lifted up the Conifa trophy, which looked like it had been bought on the cheap at a sporting goods store, it meant something more.
“This is as real and independent a country as there can be,” Adleiba said. “Can’t you feel it?”
Max Seddon is the FT’s Moscow correspondent
Photographs: Max Avdeev