States and nations are not the same thing. A nation is a “people,” itself a difficult concept to define under international law. A state is a recognized political entity that meets certain criteria. International lawyers will tell you that the characteristics of statehood include a defined territory, a government, a permanent population, and the ability to enter into foreign relations.
State formation in the 19th century and also right after World War I often sought to build states for nations (hence the term “nation-state”) but the terms are not coterminous.
So what are the hallmarks of nationhood? Many know in their hearts that there may be no more important mark of nationhood than a national soccer team. C’mon, you know it’s true.
And sometimes, peoples would like to remind you that they are nations—if not states!—and want to be recognized as such (nations or states, it gets a little blurry).
So, pay attention, soccer fans and international lawyers, because this weekend will be the final match in the 2016 Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) World Football Cup, sometimes referred to as the World Cup of the unrecognized. According to this NPR report, host Abkhazia is the current favorite after Western Armenia and Kurdistan were unexpectedly eliminated.
ConIFA should not be confused with FIFA, the international federation of football associations. As I had explained in a post from a couple of years ago, membership in FIFA is not based on being a state, but rather on being a football association. Thus, if you look at a list of FIFA member associations, as England and Wales are separate associations, they have separate World Cup teams. Nonetheless, joining FIFA can be subject at times to some of the same political tensions as the recognition of a state.
According to FIFA’s statutes (.pdf), to be eligible to become a member of FIFA, an applicant must first be a member of one of the six main football confederations: the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA), the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), or the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). Without going into all the statutes of these individual confederations, it is likely that some vote among the existing member associations in a given confederation will be a first hurdle that an aspirant FIFA-member must pass. (See, for example, UEFA’s rules (.pdf).)
Thus, although membership in FIFA is technically not based on statehood, the process largely relies on statehood and state-based football organizations (but for noted exceptions, such as England and Wales). Consequently, unrecognized entities such as South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh have little chance of seeing their football associations become part of a confederation, let alone FIFA.
Now consider ConIFA’s membership rules, which are linked not to statehood, but to “nationhood” or being a “people”:
CONIFA is made for national teams that represent a nation which is not a member of FIFA (yet). For that reason only non-members of FIFA can join CONIFA. The second requirement is that the applicant is represent of a nation. The following table explains in detail what we consider a “nation”:
1.The Football Association is a member of one of the six continental confederations of FIFA.
2. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the IOC.
3. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of one of the member federations of ARISF.
4. The entity represented by the Football Association is in possession of an ISO 3166-1 country code.
5. The entity represented by the Football Association is a de-facto independent territory.
6. The entity represented by the Football Association is included on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.
7. The entity represented by the Football Association is included in directory of countries and territories of the TCC.
8. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of UNPO [Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization] and/or FUEN [Federal Union of European Nationalities].
9. The entity represented by the Football Association is a minority included in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
10. The entity represented by the Football Association is a linguistic minority, the language of which is included on the ISO 639.2 list.
Every Football Association that fulfills at least one of the above criteria is very welcome to apply for CONIFA membership!
[Emphases and bracketed text added.]
As for the aspiration of at least some of these entities to become generally recognized as states, consider the parenthetical “(yet)” from the first sentence.
And why might a a sports tournament be important to people with much bigger issues to worry about? Because you can cheer your team, wave your flag, feel a sense of unity, sing when your winning and… yes, you can actually win. And if you don’t there’s always next year.
When you live in an unrecognized regime, you take your wins where you can get them.
Whether any of these associations become part of FIFA, let alone whether or not those entities that also seek to be recognized as states will ever achieve that goal, is a long and doubtful journey. But in many cases that is due to reasons of military intervention, history, and/or international law. For today, there is a football to be played.