Tibet, Zanzibar and the Alternative World Cup The Clash of the Lilliputians
In a football tournament for the nation-less, Hamburg on Saturday hosted the final of the FIFI Wild Cup. Five teams from regions not recognized by the United Nations competed. And a part of Hamburg seceded from Germany to field the sixth squad.
With just under one week to go before the World Cup kicks off in Germany on Friday, the atmosphere in Hamburg's Millerntor football stadium on Saturday afternoon was thick with anticipation for the international contest. Standing for most of the match, fans waved a sea of mini green, black and yellow flags while closely following the action on the pitch -- spontaneous cheers were followed by distraught groans as chances were created and wasted. A wave cheer even rippled around the stadium shortly after the half -- and the chanting was almost ceaseless. Over and over, the air above the field vibrated with a staccato three syllables: "ZAN-ZI-BAR! ZAN-ZI-BAR!"
As it turns out, the FIFA World Cup isnt the only international football tournament being hosted this year by Germany. On a cloudy, cold day in Hamburg, the final match of the FIFI Wild Cup saw the crowd favorites from Zanzibar, made up of two islands off the coast of Tanzania, fall to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -- recognized as an independent nation by nobody except Turkey -- on penalty kicks following a hard-fought 0-0 draw in regulation. Also among the announced crowd of 4,122 were the players from the teams vanquished earlier in the week in a tournament featuring six teams hailing from regions recognized as independent nations neither by world soccer's governing body FIFA nor by the United Nations. In addition to the finalists, Tibet, Gibraltar and Greenland also made the trek. The host was the Republic of St. Pauli, a part of Hamburg normally associated with the lascivious Reeperbahn and for supporting every failure of cult team FC St. Pauli. The Republic of St. Pauli -- not recognized by the government in Berlin -- was called into existence solely for the tournament.
No grass and four months of night
Not a detail was overlooked. The flags of Zanzibar and Northern Cyprus were flying over the stadium; national anthems were played prior to the start of both the third place game -- which Gibraltar won against St. Pauli (mostly made up of the professional team's youth squad) -- and the final; sponsors were plentiful to cover the almost 750,000 tournament price tag; and skydivers swooped down from the gray skies just before the final kick-off to deliver the game ball. The tournament mascots Schmitz (short, fat) and Schäfer (tall, thin) did their best as cheerleaders.
Indeed, the atmosphere had all the electricity of the World Cup -- with one decisive exception: Most of the players kick for small clubs in their homelands and had only rarely played in international matches.
"This tournament is really a lot of fun," said player Anders Cortzen from a small town mid-way up the west coast of Greenland. "In Greenland, we don't have grass and have to play on sand so this is really different. We also don't have sun four months out of the year. And now we're staying in a real luxury hotel!"
The Tibet team featured only exile Tibetans, many of whom, like the Dalai Lama, live in India. Quite a few of them, in fact, make their living as traveling salesmen, voyaging through the subcontinent selling jeans and other clothing. "We'd really love to be in the final," said Namgyal Dhakyel, the 30-year-old assistant team manager who works at an auto parts store in Switzerland, who still appeared to be in positive spirits despite his team's loss in their two group-phase matches by a total of 12 to 0 against St. Pauli and Gibraltar. "But we've made the best of it and have had a super time here in Hamburg. It's the first time in their lives that they've played in such a big stadium with such a big audience. The memory will last a lifetime."
Monaco, Vatican or Turkish Cyprus?
Jörg Pommeranz, who normally works for a TV and film production company, was the brawn behind the FIFI Wild Cup. The first impulse for holding the event, he says, came from the Tibetans, who called St. Pauli wondering about setting up a friendly. Others claim it originated from within St. Pauli's notoriously free-thinking fan club. Either way, the idea quickly mushroomed into the FIFI Wild Cup tournament. And speed was vital. The organizers only really got serious in late February and there were visas to be arranged, sponsors to find and a myriad details to see to.
Add to that the fact that many of the countries didn't even have "national teams," and the task seemed almost impossible. Pommeranz began calling around to see who might be interested in attending. The answer came quickly: Everybody. Teams from across Europe wanted to come including the national squads of the Vatican and Monaco. Only in late May, though, was the line-up final with the addition of Turkish Cyprus on May 23. "It wasn't an easy decision to decide who to invite," Pommeranz says. "There were a lot of great teams who wanted to come."
In the end, he decided to go for quality. Before the tournament got started, Turkish Cyprus, had been undefeated in 2006 including victories over Kosovo, Kurdistan, and Occitania.
And inviting Zanzibar was a no-brainer. The team's German manager, Oliver Pocher, is a mini-star in his home country having hosted numerous comedy shows on the Viva music channel and as a regular on the popular late-night talk show "TV Total." He was named Zanzibar's manager as part of his "Rent-a-Pocher" TV show and aired a series in spring 2005 on his efforts to qualify the island nation for this year's World Cup.
From comedy to serious football
But while entertainment may have been on the minds of Pocher and the organizers at the beginning, it quickly became apparent that nobody had told the players about the light-hearted origins of the event. Already in the afternoon match for third, Gibraltar and St. Pauli offered up a hard fought game. Gibraltar -- a tiny British dependency with a population of about 30,000 people, 300 Barbary apes and a single football stadium -- won 2-1 after the St. Pauli keeper was sent off for an intentional hand ball outside the area just before half.
With fans unleashing chants even for the teams no longer in the tournament, the intensity on the field only increased during the final. Fouls were plentiful and action was stopped numerous times for trainers to attend to injuries on the field. Finally, a particularly nasty foul by a Zanzibar player resulted in red card for him and a brief shoving match. "For us, it was a real tournament," Turkish Cyprus coach Süleyman Göktas said during the post-match press conference, his face partially obscured by the large silver-colored Wild Cup trophy. "We came here to play football. We won the cup and we're happy."
Pocher, on the other hand, wasn't in the mood for comedy after the bitter defeat. "The loss was a big disappointment," he said. "I had to look after some of my players after the game and a number of them broke into tears. It was hard work getting them to smile again."
Back out on the field, the party continued. After politely waiting for the Turkish Cypriots to finish their celebratory scrum -- and for the Zanzibaris to get over their initial disappointment -- the rest of the teams paraded onto the field and took victory laps as the crowd stood and cheered.
And next year? "We'll have to see if the idea has a future," says Pommeranz. There are no doubt a number of regions across the globe hoping that it does.