The World Cup for Countries You Haven't Heard Of
Even as soccer’s World Cup verges on taking over the planet’s sports consciousness for a full month, a vastly smaller (and infinitely stranger) international footballing event took place last week on the Maltese island of Gozo. (Don’t feel bad, geographers—I had to look the place up, too.) The VIVA World Cup featured teams representing global powerhouses like Occitania, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In last Saturday’s final, Padania defeated Iraqi Kurdistan by a score of 1 to 0.
What? Well, exactly. The VIVA World Cup, founded in 2006, basically exists to provoke puzzlement and curiosity. Unlike FIFA’s 32-team extravaganza featuring nothing but boring, old-fashioned nation-states (and England), the VIVA championship is open to unrecognized nations, loosely organized ethnicities, and language groups unknown to soccer’s conventional structures.
After just four years, the Cup has established an eccentric, low-tech profile of its own:
Who are these non-countries? The Two Sicilies is (are? were?) a Southern Italian region synonymous with a Naples-based Bourbon kingdom that folded in the 19th Century. (The Sicilies squad no doubt engages in a fierce rivalry with fellow VIVA entrant Padania, which represents a collection of Northern Italian provinces.) Occitania comprises regions of France home to a medieval Mediterranean dialect. Iraqi Kurdistan perhaps comes closest to being a so-called “real” country, with its longstanding (but controversial) autonomous status within Iraq. The Sami people from northern Scandinavia sent a powerful team to previous VIVA Cups but did not participate this time around.
So what should we make of this odd simultaneous exercise in soccer and geopolitical Dungeons and Dragons?
On the one hand, the VIVA World Cup is—on its own somewhat humble level—a serious competitive event. Many players who took the field in Gozo earn their keep with professional or semi-professional club teams. As a spectacle, it shared at least some commonalities with the “real” World Cup, such as awkward song-and-dance numbers. The tournament has even known its own share of political controversy—the Padania team is associated, at least in some minds, with Italy’s right-wing Northern League party; and Iraqi Kurdistan has hopes to host the next VIVA Cup, hopes that tie fairly explicitly to the region’s aspirations for greater autonomy. On the more benign side, like its big brother in South Africa, the Gozo event fed local development and promotional goals, such as the small island’s efforts to brand itself as an eco-tourism destination.
And on the other hand, this odd little tournament simply serves as an imaginative, even romantic antidote to the glitz and media hyper-power of the official World Cup. (Personally, I would like to see such American alterna-nations such as Cascadia, the Second Vermont Republic, and Texas field teams in future VIVA Cups. Perhaps Texas could recruit native son Clint Dempsey—a useful player.)
Held on an endearingly small scale, this gathering of football outsiders serves as a reminder that not every sporting event needs to be a logistical juggernaut. After four installments, the VIVA World Cup has become a fixture on the bizarre end of the international soccer world—and proof, if any were needed, that the world of sports holds no end of surprises.