It's the most prestigious international soccer competition you've never heard of.
On Monday, the rebel world cup kicks off in a freshly rebuilt stadium here, with Kurdistan facing off against a team from Szekely Land, a Hungarian minority in present-day Romania.
Even sports experts in next-door Russia seem fuzzy about the quality of the 12 teams from unrecognized statelets and independence movements around the world who will be vying for the championship of the diplomatic twilight zone they inhabit. But here in Abkhazia, a subtropical breakaway Georgian territory of a quarter million people on the Black Sea, it's a huge deal – for sporting accolades, but also for the opportunity to showcase Abkhazia itself.
"This is our chance, finally, to show the whole world that real people live here; who not only love and play soccer, but are capable of receiving guests and hosting a major sports event," says Artur Mikvabia, prime minister of Abkhazia. "This is not about politics at all, this is about sports."
A game of proto-nations
The competition's main sponsor is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), founded in 2013, with 36 members around the world from five continents.
Several of them are actual statelets, with their own territory and government, like Abkhazia, Somaliland, Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Some are wannabe states, like Quebec, Greenland, Tibet, Darfur, and the Ukrainian rebel republic of Luhansk. Others seem more notional, such as Cascadia, an independence movement in North America's Pacific northwest. Western Armenia's team is comprised of descendants of Armenians who were driven out of Turkey a century ago. The Chagos Islands represents former inhabitants of a British-controlled Indian Ocean archipelago who were driven out in the 1960s to make way for the US military base at Diego Garcia.
Abkhazian players say the main team to beat is Padania, winners of last year's CONIFA European Cup, who represent a separatist movement in northern Italy. Also quite fearsome, they say, are Sapmi, who are Laplanders from northern Scandinavia, and Szekely Land.
"For us in Abkhazia, joining CONIFA was a way out of our uncertain situation. For all the members, it's a way to express their aspirations through sport," says Dmitry Pagava, CONIFA's representative in Sukhumi. "We're all in a similar situation, and we all put our hearts and souls into this because we want to promote ourselves, to show the world that we are just as good as anyone else."
Previous efforts to create an alternative soccer association collapsed, in part because politics are never far from the surface in this league. Getting some members to work together, such as the Turks of Northern Cyprus with Armenians and Kurds, is a bit like herding cats. But Mr. Pagava says they've solved that by promoting fellowship first and foremost, and focusing on the game.
"Unlike FIFA matches, all the competitors stay in our World Cup from the beginning to the end, and they all take part in the opening and closing ceremonies," he says. "The emphasis is on building friendship and cooperation."
Moment in the limelight
But the political subtext is clear. According to Prime Minister Mikvabia, a former soccer player himself, Abkhazia has spent about $3.5 million rebuilding the capital Sukhumi's Dynamo Stadium, plus a good deal more on hosting the visiting teams and other competition-related events. There have also been efforts spruce up the seaside city, which is still littered with ruined buildings from the brutal 1992-93 civil war that ended with Abkhazia's de facto but globally unrecognized independence from Georgia.
The immediate hope is that the official world soccer association, FIFA , will finally admit Abkhazia into its ranks and allow its national team to play in the big leagues, people here say. That may not be totally in vain. Kosovo, a European state torn away from Serbia in a 1999 NATO-led war that is still not recognized by the United Nations, was recently allowed into FIFA. Other not-quite-states that lack UN recognition but play in FIFA competitions include Palestine, Taiwan, Tahiti, and the Faroe Islands.
"Of course we want FIFA recognition, says Mikvabia. "We know it would happen faster if others didn't create political obstacles for us," he says, referring to Abkhazia's nemesis, Georgia, which enjoys the support of the UN in its insistence that Abkhazia is part of Georgia.
Members of the Abkhaz national team, many of whose members usually play for local soccer clubs in Russia, say they're really fired up about the upcoming match.
"We are totally ready. This is a really big moment for us," says Akhra Simonia, who plays defense. "All of Abkhazia is watching us, depending on us. This is not the little leagues, this is where we show the world what we can do."
The Abkhaz team has already faced off against Ukraine's rebel Donetsk People's Republic last week in Dynamo Stadium, and earlier against the Armenian breakaway statelet of Nagorno-Karabakh. Adgur Gunba, sports editor for Abkhazian State TV, insists it's going to be a world-class soccer spectacle.
"Our team is ready. Every year the level keeps growing. Even though big international competitions are closed to us, we are finding the ways to build our abilities and play the game. Everyone in Abkhazia is going to be watching nothing but this" eight-day competition that begins Monday, he says.
One big fan is Konstantin Yanulidi, a soccer veteran who used to play for the Georgian team in Soviet times, and later for the Sukhumi Dynamo team.
"Soccer traditions go back a long way in Abkhazia, but after the collapse of the USSR and the civil war that followed, we lost a lot," he says. "Young Abkhazians haven't had heroes to believe in and real matches with their own team to root for. That's why this is so important, because it will give the kids who want to develop Abkhazian soccer an exciting experience and inspire them to take it to a new level."