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CONIFA bringing the joy of football to every corner of the world

If there is one truly global sport, it is football. Last year, more than half the world's population tuned in to watch the World Cup - that's even more people than those who watched the last Olympics. It is a sport that you will see being played by kids in every corner of the world, regardless of wealth, religion or social background.

Having said that, there are 195 countries in the world, plus dozens more de facto nations and disputed territories. Only a minority of these actually get to compete on the largest stage. But that is where CONIFA comes in.

Giving everyone a chance to compete

Ten years ago, Somaliland had plenty of football fans and budding players. But the North African territory had no proper football pitches on which to play, and there was no organised structure to Somaliland football. It is a familiar story in disputed territories across the world, where talented kids have the same dreams as those in the UK, Italy or anywhere else. They want to play the sport they love and represent their country - even if that country doesn't officially exist.

Fast forward to the present day, and Somaliland is relishing in its preparations to host next year's CONIFA soccer euro cup. It's an incredible progression over the course of a decade, and is exactly what CONIFA is all about.

A little background

CONIFA was established in 2013 to help develop football in the non-FIFA affiliated football associations of the world. These are a melting pot of territories, de facto nations and demographic groups within nations. But they all have one thing in common - a love of football and a desire to get behind their team in a competitive environment.

The first major event that CONIFA helped put together was the 2014 CONIFA World Football Cup. This invitational tournament was contested by 12 teams and the event was hosted by Sapmi, a cultural region in northern Scandinavia that is inhabited by the Sami people. The area is also known as Lapland. Matches took place in Ostersund's Jamtkraft Arena, and the event was won by French team County of Nice, who defeated Ellan Vannin, a team representing the Isle of Man, in the final.

Growing with every passing year

Since then, CONIFA has organised a major tournament every year, with a World Cup in even years and a European Cup in odd ones. As membership of CONIFA has grown, so has the competition to compete in these events.

CONIFA now has 54 members, 29 of whom are within Europe, so as is the case in the FIFA equivalents, the process of seeing who will qualify to play can be just as exciting and hard-fought as the tournaments themselves.

The second CONIFA World Cup had political overtones that proved the governing body was prepared to stand behind its members. In the 2015 European event, the team from Abkhazia was blocked from participation due to the Hungarian government refusing to issue visas. CONIFA responded with an "if the mountain won't come to Muhammad" approach and its Executive Committee decided that the 2016 event would take place in Abkhazia. In a fairytale finish, the hosts won the tournament, with a nail-biting 6-5 win on penalties over Panjab.

Last year, Barawa was the official host, but due to logistical and infrastructural constraints surrounding the small territory in south west Somalia, the matches themselves were held in and around London. It proved to be an inspired choice, as the city was going football crazy, with Russia 2018 just weeks away. This was an event that really got CONIFA onto the radars of everyday football fans. Karpatalya beat Northern Cyprus on penalties in a final that was played at Enfield's Queen Elizabeth II stadium. Despite the pouring rain, a solid crowd of 2,500 turned out to make this the most successful CONIFA World Cup yet.

Off to Artsakh for the CONIFA European Cup

This year, CONIFA will be looking to build on that success when the third CONIFA European Cup takes place in Artsakh in the Southern Caucasus. Simply visiting this beautiful but largely unknown region is the stuff of dreams, and being able to watch such an important football tournament at the same time makes it a no-brainer for any football fan who loves to explore new places.

CONIFA is anticipating that a new lead sponsor will help to give the tournament even more publicity and really take the event to the next level. This is an organisation that is operated entirely by volunteers, and that aims to bring joy to people living in areas that are often the subject of strife and hardship. The CONIFA European Cup is a tournament to which every football fan should be proud to lend his or her support.

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