In terms of football, Somaliland is an underdog in a tournament of underdogs. But as a country, it's more well-defined and constituted than many of its competitors. In the 19th Century, Somalia was divided by European colonial powers. France got what is now Djibouti; the area around Mogadishu became part of Italy's short-lived North Africa Empire; and Britain colonized what is now Somaliland, largely in order to resupply its garrisons in Yemen. When the British and Italian territories both became independent in 1960, they united in a spirit of nationalist unity. (Both people from Somaliland and the Republic of Somalia self-identify as "Somali.")
When the country descended into ethnic warfare following the ouster of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somaliland's regional government decided to jump from the sinking ship, declaring its independence on May 18, 1991. It has existed as a stable, though completely unrecognized, state ever since.
This political stability has allowed Somaliland, in a relative sense, to prosper. In contrast to the carnage in Mogadishu, Hargeisa is today described as one of the safest large cities in Africa. The dis-arming of militia groups has been relatively successful. Since an export ban was lifted in 2007, Somaliland has done a brisk trade in livestock with the nearby gulf countries. Multiple flights a day leave from the international airport.
But political recognition has eluded Somaliland, in part because western powers would view this as tantamount to giving up on Somalia's territorial integrity. This makes it difficult for people from Somaliland to travel on their own passports. Somaliland also remains desperately poor: its GDP per capita in 2014 was just $347, according to the World Bank. In recent years it's been devastated by drought. It's a place, in other words, in need of something to cheer for.
For Aden, the ideologue to Mohamed's organizer, a real national football team is vital to Somaliland's future as an independent country. "Somalia has been at war for thirty years but they've still got a league going on, a premier league kind of thing. Somaliland has been peaceful for 25 years but there hasn't been a league and there's only been one stadium, and no one has ever played in it," he said.
One might wonder why, given all of Somaliland's challenges, football should be one of the nation's priorities. "As a youngster, going back to Hargeisa, I used to hang around with the local boys," Aden told me. "They graduated from school and everything. They wake up, walk around, come back at 12, eat lunch, go to sleep, go back out. There's nothing to do, nothing to look forward to in the daytime. That's why I don't blame them for trying to escape the country. Eighty-nine percent of Somali youngsters don't work. So if you're not working, if you're not playing sports, what other options are there for you?"
Omar Abdllahi Adare, Khalid Jama Muse and Guled Aden stand in the hallway of their hotel prior to a game. Photo by: Jason Andrew
Abkhazia, like Somaliland, is a de facto independent country lacking widespread recognition. A distinct cultural region, Abkhazia existed as a kingdom from the 8th to the 11th centuries. Since then, it has been ruled by Georgia, the Ottoman Empire, and finally the Russian Empire, which forcibly deported tens of thousands of Abkhazians to Turkey. During the Communist Era, it was, confusingly, made an autonomous republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. After Georgia split from the Soviet Union, Abkhazia demanded its own independence, resulting in a bloody civil war, which ended in Abkhazia's de facto autonomy, the killing or displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, and the expulsion of nearly a quarter of a million ethnic Georgians from the territory.
Following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Moscow formally recognized the independence of Abkhazia, along with fellow breakaway republic South Ossetia. This was partly a tit-for-tat response to the U.S. recognition of Kosovo over Serbian and Russian objections. But besides Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru recognize its independence.
The teams and ConIFA staff traveled to Abkhazia through Russia, crossing at the internationally recognized border just south of Sochi. The Abkhazian authorities, with Russian cooperation, helped them secure visas. Wanting to avoid the considerable hassle and expense of obtaining a multiple-entry Russian visa, I—along with most of the other international reporters covering the tournament—entered via Georgia through the sole crossing at the Inguri River bridge.
The ConIFA Cup may well have been Abkhazia's opportunity to shine on the world stage
On a gray, blustery Saturday morning, photographer Jason Andrew and I made our way to the crossing—which, from the point of view of the vast majority of the world's governments, isn't an international border at all. If Georgia was actively trying to prevent anyone from attending the games, it wasn't evident from the bored and seemingly drunk officer who gave our passports a cursory look at the roadblock before the border area.
From the checkpoint, it's about a one kilometer walk to the potholed bridge where Abkhazian-controlled territory begins. As cars aren't allowed, horse-drawn carriages carry the bags of locals bringing consumer goods into Abkhazia. At the Abkhazian border post, there was an inspection by the Russian security services, followed by an extensive cross-examination by a baby-faced Abkhazian border guard. Though it was all pretty routine, it was hard not to keep in mind that a Georgian man had been fatally shot by guards last month at the crossing under mysterious circumstances. The ConIFA Cup may well have been Abkhazia's opportunity to shine on the world stage, but that evidently didn't mean it was taking any steps to make entering the place less of a slog.
While waiting to cross the border, I encountered two middle-aged British football fans carrying almost no luggage. Throughout the week they were the only foreign fans I met, though there were unconfirmed rumors of two Californians floating around. Kevin O'Donovan, a van driver from Cambridge, and Martyn Jones, a retired stevedore from Ipswich, are fans of obscure international football who travel to foreign competitions two or three times a year. "Whatever looks the most unusual," said Jones. "And where the flights are cheapest," O'Donovan added. The two had been to games in Pakistan, Lebanon, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
The sun sets over the seafront promenade in Sukhumi. Photo by: Jason Andrew
After about three hours at the border, we made our way to Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital. Though war and nearly a quarter century of economic stagnation and neglect have left it the worse for wear, the city's appeal is still apparent, particularly the sea-front promenade dominated by the pre-Soviet Hotel Ritsa. It's not hard to imagine the thriving seaside resort area that Abkhazia was throughout czarist and Soviet times, though there are still bombed out structures and empty buildings everywhere. The effect is something like if the Jersey Shore were subjected to months of heavy aerial bombardment and then left to decay for twenty years, but people were still vacationing there. Abkhazia is still a popular tourist destination—almost exclusively for Russians, though, for obvious political reasons.
On the night of Saturday, May 28, the twelve participants in the 2016 tournament filed into the newly constructed stadium in Sukhumi for an Olympics-style parade of nations. From the gleaming new facility sitting 4,300 spectators, you could see the hulking remains of Abkhazia's Soviet parliament building, bombed out during the war and left in ruins as a kind of national symbol. The stadium was a glaring contrast to the crumbling buildings around it, though with its sheet metal and wood paneling, it felt a bit like something assembled from an IKEA kit. As we arrived before the opening ceremony, workers were still painting section numbers on the walls.
Still, it was hard not to be a little inspired by the parade of almost-countries, carrying their flags around the pitch that night, representing an alternate-reality political map—a World Cup for a world that could have been.