Soccer helps provide an identity for all nations, a vision of their imagined community made real. The FIFA World Cup this June will offer citizens around the world a chance to see their countries materialize on the field of play in shorts and boots. But what happens if the place where you live isn’t regarded as a nation by FIFA? Across the globe, there are places—autonomous regions with aspirations to nationhood, homelands to ethnic minorities, even stateless communities—that spring from the gaps and cracks in the international system of nation-states. Their names would test any geographer: Bonaire, Mayotte, Skåneland, Gozo, and so on. But just like every other country, they want to see themselves represented through football. For a growing number of these places, that means starting or joining a league of their own.
On a sunny September afternoon in 2012, I came to the Stade Jean-Bouin in the suburbs of Paris to watch the opening game of the Coupe de l’Outre-Mer (Overseas Cup), a biannual competition for French overseas territories. Tahiti took on the Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte, an island off the northern coast of Madagascar. That Tahiti team later travelled to Brazil in 2013 to play in the Confederations Cup, where they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Spain and Uruguay. But that day in Issy-les-Moulineaux, Tahiti were no match for Mayotte. The explosive striker Chamsidine Attoumani scored a hat-trick as Mayotte strolled to a 3-1 victory.
Mayotte would falter later in the tournament, missing out on the semi-finals on goal difference. But while Tahiti went on in the next year to compete in one of FIFA’s most prestigious international competitions, Mayotte now face a bleak and uncertain footballing future. Both Tahiti and Mayotte are overseas possessions of France. What’s their difference? Tahiti is a member of FIFA, the global governing soccer body; Mayotte is not.
The Mayotte and Tahiti teams march out at the 2012 Overseas Cup. Photo: Steve Menary
After three editions, the Coupe de l’Outre-Mer was cancelled this year. France’s soccer federation wrote to the members of the Outre-Mer with the bad news, claiming that the tournament was too expensive to stage and had failed to draw the interest of spectators, commercial backers, and the media. For Mayotte, the cancellation of the tournament further limits its opportunities for international recognition on the soccer pitch.
The demise of the Overseas Cup hit some territories harder than others, revealing the arbitrariness of international status in soccer. New Caledonia and Tahiti are in FIFA and compete for qualification to the World Cup. Both get a steady stream of money from FIFA for the development of the sport. French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Martin were admitted last year as full members of the regional CONCACAF confederation, the governing body for soccer in Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. This provides them with a measure of influence and legitimacy, but limited resources until they progress to FIFA membership. Similarly, Réunion is only an associate member of the Confederation of African Football.
The poster for the final Overseas Cup in 2012.
Their footballing identity has been largely wiped off the map
Mayotte and St Pierre and Miquelon, the French territory off the coast of Newfoundland, are only affiliated to France’s soccer federation, and are starved of both resources and influence. Now with the disappearance of the Coupe de l’Outre-Mer, their footballing identity has been largely wiped off the map.
Why are some countries in FIFA, and others not? In the case of Mayotte, political disputes stymie entry into the world’s family of footballing nations. The island is claimed by the Comoros, which blocks any of its moves towards FIFA recognition. Similarly, the Falklands (claimed by Argentina) and Gibraltar (by Spain) have been prevented from attaining FIFA status. In 2013, after a fifteen-year legal battle and three rulings in their favour by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Gibraltar Football Association settled one of the sport’s longest running disputes. After years of filibustering by UEFA (European soccer’s governing body) and the Spanish vice president, Ángel María Villar Llona, Gibraltar was admitted to the European association.
There are no clear standards or requirements for achieving FIFA status
In addition to representation in UEFA tournaments, that means a new source of income for soccer in Gibraltar. The Gibraltarians can now access funds from UEFA’s HatTrick programme to build a new stadium at Europa Point. Gibraltar’s soccer authorities are still hopeful of eventually joining FIFA. Membership would guarantee $250,000 a year from FIFA’s Financial Assistance Programme plus more money for development.
Kosovo, another disputed territory, managed to bypass UEFA completely. To get into FIFA, new members must normally be accepted by a regional confederation first. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008 but the Football Federation of Kosovo was stonewalled by UEFA due to Serbian objections. Frustrated by UEFA’s intransigence, FIFA president Sepp Blatter over-ruled his European counterpart (and potential successor) Michel Platini. Kosovo can now play international friendlies. In its first official match in early March 2014, it drew with Haiti. Restrictions remain on Kosovo’s ability to express its nationhood on the pitch. Kosovo is not allowed to play a national anthem before matches, to wear national colours, or to play neighbouring countries for the next two years.