The ‘Other’ World Cup
May 30 to June 6, Gozo will host the 4th-ever VIVA Tournament
We are nearing the season of that sacred ritual that transpires only once every four years and brings much of the world to a standstill to watch a round ball move around a field in the hopes that it might finally pierce a net. While the World Cup of soccer ranks as the unparalleled greatest sporting competition in the world, this year’s rendition has posed a conundrum in getting fans out of their armchairs and on a plane to South Africa.
With lagging ticket sales, unsubstantiated threats of terrorism, security concerns, and fears of price-gouging, you’re not alone if a month-long sojourn in South Africa is not in your plans this June.
Never fear! A soccer World Cup of a different breed gets underway at the end of May just a two-hour flight away from Vienna in Gozo.
Gozo? You’re also probably not alone if you have never heard of Gozo, the second largest island of the Maltese archipelago. The so-called "Island of Calypso" of 31,000 inhabitants will be hosts of the fourth-ever VIVA World Cup of unrecognized nations from May 30 to June 6, bringing together a collection of would-be nations for the sake of national expression through the world’s most potent sport.
Organized by the New Federation Board, formerly known as the Non-FIFA Board, the tournament will feature squads representing nations such as Iraqi Kurdistan, Sápmi, as well as the local Gozitan equivalent. Each participant assembles an eleven, raises funds and ignores national boundaries for the chance to express themselves if not politically but culturally for future representation. The list of participants reads like an unwritten history book of forgotten civilization.
The inaugural edition of the tournament in Northern Cyprus in 2006 saw Sápmi, the northern Scandinavian people also known as Laplanders, dismantle a squad representing Monaco 21-1, the loser being a far cry from the professional Monegasque club plying their trade in the French Ligue. Padania won the subsequent 2008 and 2009 cups named after Nelson Mandela, upending Arameans Suryoye (Syrian Christians) and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Padanian national team, whose name derives from the Po river in northern Italy, is said to be promoted by Lega Nord, the nationalist right-wing party supported by president Silvio Berlusconi that saw an increase of its constituency in the recent March elections resulting in control of the Piedmont and Veneto regions. A team representing the other half of the Italian boot, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, a formerly recognized political entity before the reunification of Italy by 1861, recently became a member of the NF-Board, and is expected to field a team for the first time in this year’s tournament.
Organizer and NF-Board co-founder Jean-Luc Kit contends that the games are not about separatism, in spite of the participants’ intentions.
"It’s a question of ethics in sports," Kit states. "We make sure that no political message is broadcast before and during the sporting events we organize." On its website President Christian Michelis adds that the Board "sets out to be an institution which is apolitical and open to all."
As the organizers have seen, "open to all" can open the floodgates of unrepresented peoples, attracting some dubious applicants. The Brussels-based office has received applications for membership from Sealand, a 550 sq. meter oil platform 10 km off the southeast coast of England with an "official" population of no more than five. Another applicant is Saugeais, a self-proclaimed micronation consisting of 11 communities in the Doubs department of eastern France, created as a joke in 1947 when a local hôtelier named Georges Pourchet greeted the visiting prefect with the question: "Do you have a permit allowing you to enter the Republic of Saugeais?"
"One must exercise prudence between someone who declares his or her bedroom as independent, and a population that legally profits from a judicial loophole to declare the constitution of an independent state," Kit points out. Thus, such entities are associated but not affiliated with the NF-Board.
Although many members and would-be participants admit nationalistic interests, many are in it for the love of the community ties expressed through the game.
"We can enjoy ourselves through our own competitions," said Gozo, FA media representative Mark Cini about his island’s relationship with the larger island of Malta. The rivalries between each local community on Gozo are expressed through traditional feasts, musical performances and, why not, sporting events like soccer. "We don’t want to have to go to Malta whenever we need services like hospitals," a fact that extends onto the playing field.
Anticipated participants of this summer’s tornament include Provence and Occitania, both representing not a political entity, per se, but people who speak a threatened language. The southern French region of Occitania represents those who still speak the langue d’oc, which was spoken until the northern speakers of langue d’oïl overtook the area over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries and proclaimed what is now known as France. "Oc" and "Oil" were the respective words for "yes."
For those interested in attending, matches will take place at Gozo Stadium in Xewkija (pronounced "shoo-kee-ya") and Sannat Ground in Sannat. Free time on the Island of Calypso, a reference to the Homerian tragedy in which the nymph was held captive at the 67 sq km isle, can be well spent exploring. There are many bays with limestone rock formations, lagoons and beaches, and historical sites like the megalithic temples at Ggantija. If that’s not enough, visitors can try an excursion to the neighboring island of Comino, boasting a 17th century watchtower and a population of four. Perhaps, you will meet the policeman and priest who make daily trips to the island to render their services.
Yet, the voyage within the voyage will be offered by the players from the unrepresented nations in the matches they contest, and the trickle of fans who will make the trip to show their support. Some will be speaking an unfamiliar language, others waving an unfamiliar standard of a would-be nation. Regardless of their political intentions, all will be there to enjoy the spirit of communities from around the world in a convivial atmosphere "open to all."