A month before Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Berlin, Germany hosted another international tournament. It featured a comedian as player-manager and an open call for streakers, yet it still managed to cause a geopolitical stir.
Sport and politics have always been clumsily entwined. While there’s talk of boycotts in Russia and Qatar, both tournaments look certain to go ahead. After all, what are we going to do ‒ not watch? Administrators can stifle the spirit of the game knowing most of us will still turn up.
In this climate, the status quo can be near impossible to shift. But, in 2006, a few people gave it a shot.
It started with FC St. Pauli, the self-styled punks and proud underdogs of German football. The club, based in Hamburg’s red-light district, is renowned for its progressive, anti-fascist ethos.
In 2006, they were languishing in the third tier and looking to drum up publicity.
With the backing of an online betting company, they cobbled together an invitational tournament for non-FIFA nations to be played in the lead-up to the official World Cup.
Through luck and logistics, five outcast nations turned up: Greenland, Tibet, Zanzibar, Gibraltar and Northern Cyprus, alongside tongue-in-cheek hosts: the ‘Republic of St. Pauli’. Monaco was also slated to compete, but they pulled out before it began.
Together, they comprised the slapdash (and entirely made-up) Federation of International Football Independents. The FIFI Wild Cup was born.
Each side had some barrier to entry with FIFA or their local confederation:
– It’s a niche pop fact that Greenland’s football stadiums can’t grow grass, despite it being their national sport. Other factors like climate, inaccessibility, and being a Danish territory have also contributed to its exclusion.
– Back in 2001, Tibet’s first ever international was a friendly against Greenland in Copenhagen. China ‒ who claim ownership of the mountain region ‒ threatened an embargo on Greenland’s shrimp exports, as well as a ban on all trade with Denmark. The match went ahead without consequence, paving the way for both the Tibetan exiles and Greenland to join the Wild Cup.
– Zanzibar has been recognised as part of Tanzania since the socialist revolution of the 1960s. This nullified its independent membership to the Confederation of African Football (CAF). A German production team made a documentary about Zanzibar’s failed attempt to join FIFA. With many players already in town to promote the film, they were prime candidates for the tournament.
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– Gibraltar’s attempt to join UEFA in 1999 was derailed by protests from Spain. Caving to boycott threats, UEFA changed its membership criteria after the application was submitted to state all new entrants must be part of the United Nations.
– Northern Cyprus (or Turkish Cyprus) has been under an international embargo since it declared independence in 1983, a claim the UN actively rejects. Turkish Cypriot teams are banned from competing internationally. FIFA allegedly tried to block their trip to Hamburg but with some extra paperwork they arrived safely.
Finally, FC St. Pauli rebranded itself as a republic ‒ partly as a joke, but also to skirt around the concerns of the German Football Association (DFB). Instead of their usual club roster, St. Pauli gathered their youth players and amateurs from around Hamburg.
St. Pauli representative Steffen Frahm said: “We had a call from the DFB saying if we or anyone from our first team played they would stop it, but that was all.
“The Chinese consul also came and asked us to stop Tibet playing and of course we said no.”
St. Pauli has never been too fussed about bowing to bureaucracy. Their emblem is a skull and crossbones after all.
Head of Amateur Sports at the DFB Willi Hink added: “We informed FIFA about this tournament and received the answer that [it] is not covered by FIFA regulations so they have no obligations.
“So, at the end, it’s people who want to play football and there is also some social benefit. Let them play.”
There was a sense of mischief about the whole endeavour. Prior to the opening match, the stadium announcer at St. Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion declared the Wild Cup a “Sepp Blatter-free zone”.
German comedian Oliver Pocher was in charge of Zanzibar, taking on the managerial role as part of his Rent a Pocher TV show. He even brought himself on for a cameo when another local comedian turned out for Northern Cyprus.
Cracks were also evident when players hoofed the ball high over the stands and play had to be halted while officials sourced a replacement.
To give the organisers credit, they tried to make it feel like a proper tournament.
Flags flew above the stadium and anthems played. A skydiver even breezed in to deliver the match ball for the final. Poor weather cruelled crowd numbers, but those who turned up did so in full voice.
St. Pauli and Gibraltar progressed on equal points from Group A, ahead of goalless Tibet. In Group B, Northern Cyprus and Zanzibar advanced at the expense of Greenland.
Northern Cyprus beat Gibraltar 2-0 in the first semi-final, while Zanzibar squeaked past St. Pauli 2-1.
After the semis, sponsors sent out a press release encouraging more streakers to join the action.
An excerpt: “Streaking is not allowed by the World Football organisers FIFA…It’s quite a different matter at the FIFI Wild Cup, which is currently reaching its final phase on St. Pauli FC’s holy pitch.
“The threatened streaking species has at last found a home. At what is almost the largest football event of the year…a regular streaker happening took place on Thursday at the semi-final between Gibraltar and Northern Cyprus.
“The end game between Turkish Northern Cyprus and Zanzibar on June 3rd is also expected to set a new standard and feature naked happenings once again.”
In the final, Northern Cyprus and Zanzibar played out a tense 0-0 in regular time in front of 4,122 spectators. Except no one had planned for extra-time. After some confusion, it went straight to penalties, Northern Cyprus prevailing 4-1 in the shootout.
If some were treating the tournament as a joke, no one told the competitors.
“For us, it was a real tournament,” said Northern Cyprus coach Süleyman Göktas post-match. “We came here to play football. We won the cup and we’re happy.”
Meanwhile, there were no laughs for Pocher in the Zanzibar dressing room: “The loss was a big disappointment. 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.”
The Wild Cup ended up being a one-off, not drawing enough viewers to tempt organisers into a repeat. But it was not without influence.
While promoters made a point of hyping up the novelty factor, for the players of marginalised nations, it was a genuinely big deal.
“You have to understand, there are only about 30,000 people in Gibraltar, and this is the most prestigious tournament I’ve played in anywhere,” said Gibraltar striker Roy Chipolina. “I probably won’t get to play in a tournament this professional again.
Gibraltar’s UEFA application was denied again in 2007, before the Court of Arbitration for Sport stepped in to ensure their inclusion in 2013. Chipolina scored their first official goal in a friendly against the Faroe Islands in 2014. And they’ve since taken part in Euro 2016 qualifiers.
“Sometimes I think FIFA forgets it doesn’t own football,” said Greenland coach Jens Tang Olesen. “It’s supposed to be a World Cup, but FIFA doesn’t share it with the world.”
Greenland’s Nuuk Stadium had FIFA-approved artificial turf laid in 2016.
In 2017, Zanzibar were admitted to the CAF, eligible for the Africa Cup of Nations, only to have the invitation overruled by FIFA.
Meanwhile, Tibet and Northern Cyprus remain in the wilderness. “We just wanted a chance to express ourselves,” said the Turkish Cypriots’ media rep, Cengiz Uzun, in 2006.
“FIFA says it’s a World Cup, but FIFA is all about money. It is inhuman to keep us out of sports.”
As for FC St. Pauli, they won the Regionalliga Nord the following season, gaining promotion to the 2. Bundesliga. And in 2009, the club became the first in Germany to adopt a set of guiding principles.
For example: “FC St. Pauli conveys a way of life and is a symbol of sporting authenticity. This allows people to identify with the club independently of any success it may achieve on the pitch.”
The FIFI Wild Cup was far from perfect ‒ and bonkers in practice ‒ but it was football in its most inclusive, subversive form.