COVID-19 has made many humanitarian projects almost impossible. But one thing it has done is given people time to think about their next steps. Darfur United used that time to help create the World Unity Football Alliance.
Places like Darfur, the Chagos Islands and Western Sahara aren’t recognized by FIFA. People from those places don’t have the chance to celebrate a goal in a World Cup qualifier or see their representatives playing against the world’s biggest soccer stars.
Teams like Darfur United aim to give people from those disenfranchised places something to gather around. Darfur United was set up by humanitarian action and support group iACT to give hope to people in refugee camps in Darfur.
Back in 2013, Darfur United and other soccer associations from outside FIFA joined together to form CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Nations. CONIFA hosts tournaments for these teams, including their showpiece event, the World Football Cup, which was last held in London in 2018.
Since then, a rift has emerged within CONIFA, with different soccer associations having different visions of where CONIFA was heading. This rift eventually led to several of the members creating the World Unity Football Alliance.
Gabriel Stauring, founder of Darfur United, told me that they had issues with CONIFA for about a year. But the moment the penny dropped, was at CONIFA’s annual general meeting in January, where, frustrated with the direction the organization was heading in, several members of CONIFA’s executive committee resigned.
Stauring said that the AGM made it clear that Darfur United couldn’t achieve everything they set out to do within the confines of CONIFA alone. He said that “there were just too many things that didn’t connect with our own values”, particularly Darfur United’s efforts to use sport for the greater good. He also said that despite paying their dues, being vocal and attending meetings, Darfur United got nothing out of CONIFA apart from what they did themselves, so they decided to set up the World Unity Football Alliance for teams with similar values who wanted to connect more, and to fill the gap that they felt CONIFA didn’t cover.
Most the teams in CONIFA are already fighting an uphill battle just to play soccer against like-minded teams, without fighting among each other. But CONIFA’s internal structure makes it difficult for some of the teams to achieve their goals within the organization.
Paul Watson, one of the executive committee members who resigned in that January AGM, told me he thought some of the problems within CONIFA are so deep-rooted that they couldn’t be fixed. For example, in order to be inclusive, members can join CONIFA without being particularly active, but if they want a vote in the AGM and a voice within the organization, they have to pay a 500 euro annual membership fee.
In a world where some teams only have the budget for a banana after training and have to resort to crowdfunding in order to allow their players to travel to tournaments, that fee is a big deal, especially for teams where humanitarian issues are a large part of the reason for their existence. Haji Munye, chairman of Barawa FA, a team made up of diaspora from southern Somalia, told me that fee could feed 50 families in Barawa for a month.
The result being that despite the best intentions of well-meaning volunteers, CONIFA’s decisions end up being made by only a handful of its members, and some of the disenfranchised groups that CONIFA appears to be set up in order to help, have ended up being somewhat disenfranchised within CONIFA itself.
According to Darfur United, WUFA’s model is less centralized, more collaborative than CONIFA. Rather it intends to be a platform for its members to do things on their own initiative and help members who have less resources or who have other difficulties. Paul Watson said that whereas with CONIFA, teams barely talked to each other outside of tournaments, “what’s great is that now you’ve got all the teams chatting to each other, sharing stories about their cultures, about their teams, and now teams are talking a hundred times more than they were before.”
So where does this leave CONIFA? The members of WUFA are some of CONIFA’s more active members. Barawa, for example, hosted the last World Football Cup in London. And while CONIFA has more than 60 members, Watson told me that in reality, only around 25 of these are properly active, meaning that the two organizations could end up being of a similar size in the near future. CONIFA is still growing though and has added several new members this year.
Both WUFA and CONIFA should be able to coexist. Apart from Darfur United, many of the members of WUFA are still in CONIFA. WUFA doesn’t ask teams to leave CONIFA, and CONIFA’s constitution prevents it from kicking out any team. CONIFA has said in a statement that it welcomes the new organization, and that “We do not see this as a competition… we are positive for anything that can strengthen our members and their activities.”
CONIFA’s new general secretary Jason Heaton also said that despite the members at the AGM voting for the general secretary to become a paid position, he has decided it is “much more beneficial to invest any available funds into the future of CONIFA and its members instead.” And that those WUFA members who are still part of CONIFA will receive support to keep growing and developing. He also said plans are underway to fully develop continental competitions from next year, which would mean more localized investment on all continents.
For the World Unity Football Alliance, there are plans for some sort of tournament next year, most likely in the United States, followed by a larger world event in 2022.