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2016 ConIFA World Football Champ To Be Crowned This Weekend


This might surprise you, the soccer World Cup is happening right now. OK. This is not the FIFA World Cup we're all familiar with. This is the ConIFA World Cup. It's an event for the world's unrecognized states and minority peoples, featuring a dozen teams from places like Kurdistan, Somaliland and Northern Cyprus.

Now, the host for this year's tournament is the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, and that's where we've reached Max Seddon of The Financial Times. Max, good morning.

MAX SEDDON: Good Morning.

GREENE: Well, could you start by telling us a little bit about Abkhazia? They're hosting this. They have a team, and this might sort of give us a window into the kinds of teams competing here.

SEDDON: So Abkhazia is a tiny and beautiful region on the Black Sea coasts between Georgia and Russia that has beautiful beaches and the unspoiled beauty of the Caucasus Mountains. It's been de facto independent from Georgia for more than 20 years, and Abkhazia is hosting this tournament.

It's basically become this giant coming-out party for Abkhazia as a nation. We are in the semifinals stage of the tournament, and Abkhazia are the favorites to win.

GREENE: How's the soccer?

SEDDON: The soccer is not of the tightest standard. There's a divide between the teams that could be at a mid-ranking, you know, if they were in FIFA. These are teams that would probably not make the World Cup. If they did, they wouldn't make it out of the group stage. And then there are some teams that are basically just glorified Sunday league teams of amateurs, but there have, nonetheless, been some pretty exciting games.

Last night, easily the best game of the tournament so far was a huge upset where Punjab - the Punjabi diaspora in the U.K. - they held on for a surprise 3-2 victory against Western Armenia who were the dark horses to win the tournament. And Punjab were 3-nothing up at halftime. They held on to go into the semifinals. And the Western Armenian players reacted by starting a mass brawl at the end of the game...

GREENE: Oh, God.

SEDDON: ...That the police had to break up.

GREENE: So it sounds like regular soccer.

SEDDON: Yeah, just like regular soccer. It's the same everywhere.

GREENE: Max, I read someone in the Georgian government - a spokesman - saying that any players who came to Abkhazia from Russia, they would be banned from Georgia in the future. They could face criminal charges. I mean, are there all sorts of problems with players getting here, journalists getting there with passports and visas and so forth?

SEDDON: There is the way through Georgia which I went. You have to go to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, then you have to take an overnight train or drive five, six hours to the border in northwestern Georgia. Then you have to either cross the border by foot or go over a donkey cart.

GREENE: A donkey cart.

SEDDON: Yes. There are these guys with donkey carts who will carry you across the border. But it's only about a 15-minute walk, so you don't really need that.

GREENE: (Laughter) Who do you think's going to win this thing?

SEDDON: Two of the three favorites were dramatically knocked out yesterday - Kurdistan and Western Armenia who were the dark horses to win this thing. So Abkhazia - they have a good team. They have a lot of professional players in Russia play for their national team, and they have - most importantly, they have the home crowd behind them.

So they've got the semifinal against Northern Cyprus who are also a strong team. That's a Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus. And it would really be their - just cap off their big moment for them if they can win this.

GREENE: There you have it. Max Seddon, we're glad you made it to cover this event. And thanks so much for talking to us.

SEDDON: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Max Seddon is a Moscow correspondent for The Financial Times. He joined us on the line from Abkhazia via Skype, and he's covering a very different kind of World Cup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.