Asian hopes high for 2018 CONIFA World Cup

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre takes a look at Asian prospects in the lesser known version of the football World Cup.

Asia’s five representatives at this year’s World Cup are certainly an eclectic bunch – one plays matches at their home stadium in the West Midlands of England, another operates as a defacto club side in the sixth tier of the Japanese football pyramid, another made their international debut barely two years ago, yet another has let their official website lapse to the point where it’s now a landing site for clothing sales and the last of the collection has never played an official match in their homeland.

This, of course, isn’t the FIFA World Cup but rather the ConIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) World Cup, which is contested by nations or regions that are unaffiliated with FIFA and which will be held just a week before the more recognised of the World Cups kicks off in Russia later this year.

Under a unique arrangement the third edition of the ConIFA World Cup will be ‘hosted’ by the Barawa FA (who represent the Somali diaspora in England) but with all the matches played in London.

Whilst not as glittering as the star-studded event late last year in Russia, the official draw was held this weekend for the ConIFA World Football Cup in Northern Cyprus, with all 16 nations now learning the tough road they’ll have to follow to be crowned champions.

Unlike the more mainstream World Cup the representatives from Asia actually have a very strong chance of being the last one standing at the end of the 11-day tournament that will end just four days before Russia host Saudi Arabia in Moscow to kick off the FIFA event.

Of the 47 teams that fall under the ConIFA umbrella representing, as they term it, ‘nations, defacto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories’ only 16 have earned the right to compete in London and whilst the confederation structure is looser than that which FIFA operates there’s a good chance that at least one Asian side could emerge as champions.

The most likely contender is the team that also sits at number one on the latest rankings that were released last month and that’s the Panjab Football Team, a UK-based side that represents the Punjabi community in that nation.

Having conceded a late goal in regulation time they then lost the final of the previous (2016) World Cup on penalties two years ago and with a recent narrow defeat to the England C side they are, along with the team that defeated them last time in Abkhazia, being talked about as favourites for the upcoming event.

Whilst debutants Tibet as well as Tamil Eelam face a tough task to progress from their groups, the other pair of Asian representatives (Western Armenia & United Koreans in Japan) are both highly ranked and would have fancied their chances however in a cruel twist both were lumped together with Panjab making Group D quite clearly the dreaded Group of Death.

Playing as FC Korea in the Kanto Soccer League in Tokyo but competing under the ‘United Koreans’ banner for the World Cup the only side from the eastern half of Asia will still fancy their chances of progressing given that they have an advantage of training and playing together week-in, week-out, that many others don’t have.

Speaking with FOX Sports Asia shortly after the draw, team manager, Seong Chan-ho, admitted his side had been handed a very tough assignment.

“United Koreans will play against the toughest teams – Panjab is very strong physically and they have excellent technique and Western Armenia is also strong and whilst we don’t know much about Kabylie (a historical region in northern Algeria) I suppose they are also strong.

“The first match against Western Armenia will be the key for us because if we can win it will really give us impetus and even though we are in the toughest group if we start well that can give us power.”

For most nations, the message and symbolism of their teams competing on the global stage is just as, if not more, important than the actual football and that’s no different for the United Koreans side.

“Of course our aim is to go to London and be World Champions!

“Also we would like to let all the world know that there is the United Korea in Japan.

“We are not South Koreans nor North Koreans but United Koreans and we want to show how United Koreans can play at the World Cup.”

Whilst many have been questioning whether football has lost its soul as the major tournaments, leagues and club teams are awash with cash and branding, at least one football tournament is showing that the sport is also about hope, empowerment and belief.