Faraway Lands and Football Shirts: an interview with Sascha Düerkop – CONIFA’s General Secretary

On an uncharacteristically warm Thursday evening, I met Sascha Düerkop in a quiet cafe outside Euston station to talk about next month’s World Football Cup being held in London. Sascha is the General Secretary of CONIFA (The Confederation of Independent Football Associations) and is one of the main people responsible for the alternative World Cup taking place in the capital from May 31st to June 10th. He arrived wearing a bright blue football shirt (more on that later on) from Kabylia, one of the teams competing the contest and was more than happy to answer my questions about all things CONIFA.

How did you get involved with CONIFA?

“Personally I got involved by collecting football shirts! I was trying to get a shirt from all 211 FIFA members, and when I couldn’t buy any more as they weren’t available, I found out there were alternative international teams so I decided to contact some of those. These teams sort of sucked me in and I was absolutely fascinated by the stories that they had. I was in regular contact with some of these teams, and the organisation that previously organised World Cups before collapsed internally, and I happened to be at the meeting when they collapsed, and so a few of the teams approached the head of CONIFA (Per-Anders Blind) and myself to see if we wanted to start a new organisation or rebuild the old one. So we started a new one in the end but it was really by accident.

“I’m a mathematician, I’m not normally a sports manager but I became one by accident. Now, I have just quit my position at a university after obtaining my PhD because CONIFA was too much work! So currently I’m working for CONIFA voluntarily and still working at another university to at least support myself with a little bit of money.”

How was the decision made for London to be the next hosts of the World Football Cup?

“It was the deal with Paddy Power (the official sponsors of the tournament) that convinced us, they approached us and were the very keen to host the tournament either in the UK or Ireland to put it in front of their target audience. We have four or five teams based in and around London, and so we made the decision that London was the best place to go. We spoke to all the possible candidate teams that could host the tournament and Barawa were the ones to take it forward.

“We have an administrative group organising the tournament, the core of which is made up of less than ten people and two of the people in that group are from the Barawa team. They have helped to book some of the grounds hosting matches, and they travelled around the region a lot because they are on the ground in London unlike most of the others.”

Your job must involve travelling to a lot of the teams that make up or want to join CONIFA, just how many of places have you visited as part of your role?

“Most of my holidays seem to be travelling to unrecognised countries! I think I’ve been to between 10-15 of these places, including all of the unrecognised countries except for Somaliland. I have to do a lot of researched when travelling to these areas, the one place that can be dangerous to travel to is Nagorno-Karabakh (a region of south-west Azerbaijan) where there are still shootings at the border every month, but the capital (Stepanakert) was fine at the time. I think two months after I left, Azerbaijan scaled launched a full-scale attack again, including firing rockets at the capital, so this is a tense region for sure.”

What’s the best trip you’ve been on since being a part of CONIFA?

“I think the best place I’ve been to was South Ossetia which was my last trip. Last year they had five tourists from Russia and that’s it, so you can find no information about the place. It’s a very, very remote region, a small village in the middle of the Caucasus mountains made up of about 30,000 people. It was absolutely mind-blowing to be there. It’s so difficult to obtain a visa as well, you need to be on a list at the border to get in, but they don’t really have a visa procedure, so nobody is able to enter the country because no one can get onto that list!”

How difficult was it to try and organise the stadia being used for next month’s WFC?

“Incredibly difficult! It varies a lot for where we go with our tournaments. For example, in Abkhazia (the previous WFC hosts) all the stadiums were government-owner, so we contacted the government and they booked the slots we need to play our matches. In London, we had to do all the leg work ourselves, and up to now we’ve spoken to over 50 clubs in the hope of convincing twelve of them to host matches.

“The clubs we do have involved have all been very supportive though, and have helped market the tournament and try to get the local community involved. We want to celebrate non-league football in London and the UK in general at the competition.”

Enfield Town are hosting the final and more matches than any other ground, how supportive have they been throughout this process and what’s the latest on the situation regarding Northern Cyprus?

“Enfield is just perfect for hosting the final as they have been so supportive of the cause, and they are doing a lot of work to get tickets sold and to fill the ground. It was just the perfect fit.”

“The ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus sent a note to some of the clubs asking them to not host any matches, but interestingly, he sent the note to the clubs that were not due to host any of Northern Cyprus’ matches anyway. There was a petition against Enfield Council to not host any of their matches, but the council announced that the matches will take place, and all of the other clubs are behind the cause too. We don’t anticipate any problems, but we have seen these situations before, so we are well-trained in knowing what to do if something does happen.”

“In 2014, the World Football Cup was hosted in Ostersunds, Sweden and we had an issue where Azerbaijan protested against Nagorno-Karabakh playing in the tournament. I think the Azeri Prime Minister wrote a letter to the Swedish government, but the government weren’t interested in intervening.”

What sort of atmosphere are you expecting at the tournament next month?

“It’s going to be a great mix of non-league and international football which seems to be a contradiction but it’s actually not. The whole of CONIFA is driven from the bottom up, and the teams have all the power, so they make all the major decision for the organisation. I mean, at the end of the day, we are just service people trying to arrange a great festival.”

“We hope to sell out the final, and we anticipate selling out a few other matches as well. For example, Northern Cyprus vs. Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus vs. Tibet are currently selling very well from the group stages. On average, we expect crowds to be between 500-1000 people for each game.”

How much support can CONIFA give to its members when it comes to funding, especially for international tournaments?

“We are dirt poor ourselves so we can’t help directly! What we do is try to link teams up with companies who are keen to sponsor us, and if for some reason it doesn’t work out, then we will put them in contact with one of our members who may be a better fit. For example, Giordano and Stingz are the official supplier not just of our referee kit, but also Cascadia and Tuvalu, so we try to link teams together and we all make a little bit of money out of that.

“I’ve also met the European Union a couple of times, and I’m meeting them next month, and we are appealing to NGOs to support those teams.”

Will any of the matches be broadcast and how much press coverage are you expecting from the tournament?

“The five big matches; the opening game, one quarter-final, both semi-finals and the final itself will have a full production of HD cameras, similar to the Premier League, and they will go live on Facebook through various channels. This includes Goal.com our media partner and one of the quarter-finals will go live through Spencer FC’s social media channels.

“Some of the other matches have had their TV rights sold to broadcasters in Northern Cyprus and Turkey, and will bring their own TV crew and produce the matches, and stream them in both Turkish and English and we expect Abkhazia may have their own TV crew as well with Russian or Abkhaz live commentary.”

“So far, we have accredited 150 journalists, compared to the 160 or so from Abkhazia two years ago, but it’s a different type of journalist this time. In Abkhazia, it was mostly political journalists, so many of them had no idea about the football, but this time the focus is on football blogs, football radio shows, so it’s a complete change in attention. There will still be some political journalists too, but it’s great for us to extend the reach of the tournament too.”

Do you expect any of the squads to bring any professional players with them in their squads?

“There will be one or two players from the MLS I expect, and some from the top flights of Russia, Slovakia, Turkey and Serbia, so mainly Eastern European leagues. I think approximately 30-40 players will be professionals out of the 250 so it’s only a small portion but we will definitely have some.”

And finally, as a fellow football shirt collector, do you have a favourite out of all the CONIFA teams and just how many shirts do you currently have?

“I really like the Kabylia shirt, and the Matabeleland design is very impressive. Paddy Power ran a competition to create a design for their shirt and the public voted for their favourite. There were some really amazing designs, so I like the more flashy shirts.

“I have about 700 shirts approximately, and I currently have every national team shirt for every FIFA nation except for Liberia, Djibouti and North Korea. The collection is doing well!”

 

After spending half an hour chatting, Sascha and I spent moved on to one of Euston’s finest (and unsurprisingly busy given the weather) pubs where we continued to talk about football in general.

He informed me of his future plans to visit Zanzibar and Somaliland later in the year in the hopes of organising tournaments in 2019 and 2020 in the regions respectively. When talking about the plans for any of the largest clubs in London to take on some of hosting responsibilities, Sascha informed me that a variety of reasons stopped these teams from taking part. From relaying pitches and friendly matches, to exorbitant prices and political issues, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. He told me Craven Cottage was the dream destination for the final given its location and history (and possibly because I told him I was a Fulham fan) but sadly the ground wasn’t available.

He lamented that the English non-league culture of arriving at games and buying tickets on the day was skewing their figures on how many people they anticipate attending, while also admitting that he still didn’t expect attendances to quite reach those in Abkhazia two years ago. The final of the WFC 2016 was attended by 11,000 people in a 4,500 seater stadium, with another 15,000 people on the streets outside. The stadium was so packed that evening that two stands collapsed prior to kick-off, although Sascha didn’t seem too concerned by this.

We talked about Fulham, Felix Magath, fallen giants in German football, Northern Cypriot domestic football and a plethora of other topics as the cold English beer kept us hydrated (“It’s not as bad as I’ve been told” Sascha added while sipping his third pint).

Given the experiences he’s had since forming CONIFA five years ago, it seems that this mild-mannered German is prepared for pretty much anything London can throw at him and his organisation when sixteen sides descend upon the capital in just a few weeks time.

If you would like to buy tickets to this summer’s tournament, full ticket details can be found here. And you can follow Sascha on Twitter @CONIFAGenSec

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