Saturday

4th Feb 2023

Football diplomacy comes to Malta

  • Children with footballs in Kurdistan, which will host the next Viva World Cup (Photo: Grietje)

As South Africa gets ready for the World Cup in June, the EU's smallest country, Malta, is planning to host a potentially controversial tournament for football teams from unrecognised entities.

The Viva World Cup is to take place from 31 May to 6 June on the Maltese island of Gozo, with eight teams to play in the men's finals.

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Five teams have so far confirmed participation. Most of them come from European regions which have a strong identity but which do not have full-blown separatist movements.

The list includes: Gozo itself, Occitania (a linguistic region which covers parts of France, Italy and Spain), Padania in northern Italy and Provence in southern France.

One is a hot potato. Kurdistan, which will play in Gozo and which will also host the 2012 Viva World Cup, is a semi-autonomous region in Iraq. Some Kurds in neighbouring parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria talk of a Greater Kurdistan. Turkish jets have bombed Kurdish militants in Iraq. A Kurdish militant group, the PKK, is on the EU's terrorist register.

Previous Viva World Cups have included teams from Turkish-controlled Cyprus and from Tibet.

The New Federations-Board (NFB), the NGO behind the games, is also in contact with football associations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Basque Country in France and Spain, Chechnya in Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Transnistria in Moldova about future participation. Kosovo, which is recognised by 22 EU member states, is trying to get into the official football body, Fifa, instead.

NFB co-founder and football historian Jean-Luc Kit told EUobserver that the games do not have a political agenda, other than to promote mutual understanding.

"We are allergic to politics. If anybody tries to make a political or religious statement during a match, then we stop the match," he said. "We have never changed a border with a game of football."

The teams do get to wear their 'national' colours, fly their flags and sing their anthems before each game, however. And Mr Kit is sympathetic to the Kurdish cause.

Having travelled to Erbil in Kurdistan to help set up the 2012 event, he said the city already hosts several foreign consulates and is a thriving business centre: "It [Kurdistan] could be the future Switzerland of the Middle East."

Viva World Cup participants are not shy about its political connotations.

"It's important politically for us to take part. We are trying to take part in all international events and organisations. But we are being systematically blocked by the Greek Cypriot administration," Havva Ulgen, a Brussels-based envoy for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, said. Her team is not playing this year due to a "technicality."

The European Commission does not give any money to the NFB. But culture commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, herself a Greek Cypriot, cautiously "welcomed" the games.

"They may be trying to make a statement about their status. Fair enough. But they are there to play football. When you play football, your main interest is scoring goals," her spokesman, Dennis Abbot, said.

The NFB said Maltese authorities are helping it to get low prices in hotels. But the Maltese foreign ministry is happy to distance itself from the tournament. "[The Gozo Football Association] operates independently of the government of Malta. We therefore see no link between this event and relations between the government of Malta and third countries," it said in a statement.

Football diplomacy

Turkey declined to comment on Kurdistan's attendance in Malta. But Ankara understands the potential importance of sporting fixtures.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Armenia for a Fifa World Cup qualifier in 2008, the move opened the door to restoring diplomatic relations after decades of animosity.

Meanwhile in Kiev, the government is looking forward to co-hosting the Euro 2012 football championships to underline Ukraine's credentials as a normal European country fit to one day join the EU.

If Uefa [the Euro 2012 organiser] pulls the plug on Kiev because of poor infrastructure it would damage pro-EU feeling in the country, Andrew Wilson, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told this website.

"There are many other Europes, which overlap with the EU, and they all matter," he said, on the political significance of cultural events and multilateral clubs, such as the Council of Europe.

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