The tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia received more attention in the last few weeks. The Europa League final in Baku and the political issues about the travel of Henrikh Mkhitaryan made more people interested in the situation at the Caucasus and the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, as the Armenians call it.
Coincidentally, a football tournament will be kicked off in Stepanakert, the biggest city in the region. Eight teams will take part in the special tournament that will be played for the fourth time. Welcome to the CONIFA European Football Cup.
There were few organizations and tournament in the past that tried to gather around non-FIFA affiliated teams. Since 2013, CONIFA became the international governing body for these teams, and they are doing it with a huge success.
After hosting two European Cups in Hungary and Northern Cyprus and two World Cups in Sweden and Abkhazia, CONIFA broke another record last year with hosting the CONIFA World Football Cup at the global football capital, London. It brought more interest in CONIFA's activities, and people became aware of different stories and identities.
Nowadays there are 57 members in CONIFA from all over the world. The members are representing regions, states, ethnic minorities and diasporas that live abroad. Unsurprisingly, the major teams are in Europe, which makes the CONIFA European Football Cup as one of its main stages.
There are some missing names in the tournament this year. The biggest one is the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup winners, Kárpátalja, that represents the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, and cannot take part in the tournament after the Ukrainian government and football association decided to investigate the players for using separatist propaganda. Also their runner-ups, Northern Cyprus, didn’t enter the tournament. Another former CONIFA World Football Cup winners, County of Nice, was registered but withdrew few weeks ago.
It leaves us with two major favorites. The first is Padania, the team that won the previous two CONIFA European Football Cups. The idea behind this team is an idea of the Italian political party, Lega Nord, that wants to dissolve Italy and to create the state of Padania in Northern Italy. Whether the players support it or not, they are representing the region and led them also to the third place a year ago at the CONIFA World Football Cup.
The other favorite is Abkhazia, who won the 2016 CONIFA World Football Cup. Abkhazia is another disputed region at the Caucasus and it is part of an ongoing conflict between Georgia and Russia. You can find in the squad players from the local league in Abkhazia but also players from lower leagues in Russia.
Another team to pay attention to is Székely Land, which represents the Hungarian minority in Romanian. Most of the players in this team are playing for Miercurea Ciuc, the leading Hungarian-Romania team that recently promoted to the Romanian second tier.
Among the participants, there are other teams that played at CONIFA's previous tournaments, like Sápmi, known better as the Lapps from the North of Scandinavia, who hosted the first-ever CONIFA European Football Cup. There is also one debutant – Chameria, which represents the Albanian minority in Greece.
It will be nine days of football, but it will be more than that. It is a chance to meet people, to learn about different cultures and share stories.