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The Western Sahara and Football: A Path toward Self-Determination?

[Image of Western Sahara's national team, nicknamed [Image of Western Sahara's national team, nicknamed "The Dromedaries," training. Image from In Bed With Maradona/Ed Stubbs]

In April this year, a story appeared on an Algerian football website,  Le Competiteur, noting that the country’s national football team was planning a friendly match against Western Sahara. The question for the article was how Algeria’s regional rival Morocco would respond.

Following incomplete decolonization by Spain in 1975, Western Sahara--which borders Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania--was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejecting the occupiers’ claims to pre-colonial sovereignty and asserting the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. A bitter war, during which the Sahrawi resistance movement, known as the Polisario Front, were able to drive out Mauritanian but not Moroccan forces, ended with a ceasefire in 1991. The Sahrawis were promised a referendum on self-determination under the auspices of the United Nations. But that referendum has still yet to take place and Morocco continues to occupy the majority of Western Sahara with the Polisario controlling the rest. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees, many whom have been there since they fled Moroccan forces in 1975-76, remain in camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

So how would Morocco respond to a friendly between Algeria and Western Sahara? Le Competiteur reported that instead of televising the game, Moroccan television would screen a replay of its national team beating Algeria 4-0 in 2011. 

Le Competiteur is a parody website, so everyone involved laughed at the macabre humor and moved on. But the joke also contained a kernel of seriousness.

It is said that every new nation or groups making claims to nationhood needs to have a national football team, otherwise you may as well not exist in the first place. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm once declared: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people. The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself.” So, in the absence of recognition by formal political bodies, recognition by the Fédération Internationale de Football Associated (FIFA)—which is larger than the United Nations—can be a boon in struggles for political self-determination. 

The most recent beneficiaries of the strategy to seek greater international recognition through football are Palestine, Kosovo, and Gibraltar.  Palestine’s case is probably the most celebrated. Recognized by FIFA in 1998 and playing in Asia (while Israel plays in Europe), the participation of Palestine in regional and international competitions has not always been easy given the obstacles imposed by the Israeli occupation. Yet as international studies scholar Glen Duerr argues, “... simply by playing, the Palestinian identity is furthered because it exists.” The national team provides “an ongoing psychological and cultural sense that a Palestinian state is legitimate and therefore should be part of the international community.”  Just last year, the media profile of the Palestinian team received a significant boost when it qualified for its first ever Asian Cup tournament in Australia.

Then there is Kosovo. At least eighty UN member states do not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The key objectors include Kosovo’s larger neighbor, Serbia. Nevertheless, in May 2016, Kosovo was recognized by both UEFA and FIFA. Right now, Kosovan club teams cannot play in UEFA continental competitions, and both FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) take care not to draw Kosovo with Serbia or Bosnia. Outside of the former Yugoslav republics, a curious opponent of Kosovan independence is Spain. This is not surprising, however, as Spain is wary of anything that may encourage its own separatist regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country to seek greater recognition. However, Spain could not stop the application of Gibraltar—a territory it disputes with Britain—for membership of first UEFA, in May 2013, and then of FIFA in May this year. 

But spare a thought for those nations, such as Western Sahara that are neither one of the 193 UN member states nor one of the 211 member associations of FIFA and do not have powerful supporters (as Kosovo does in the form of the United States and Gibraltar in the form of the United Kingdom).

In May and June this year, twelve national teams who are not recognized by FIFA met for the second Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) World Football Cup, the biggest international football tournament outside of FIFA. Established in May 2013, ConIFA organizes biannual world cups for national teams who represent nations, minorities, isolated dependencies, or cultural regions not recognized by FIFA.

The first ConIFA World Football Cup was held in Sweden in 2014. ConIFA currently has thirty-five members, including some more familiar names such as Monaco, Kurdistan, Tibet, and Québec, along with other less familiar ones such as United Koreans in Japan, Chagos Islands (an island in the Indian Ocean annexed for British military use) and Arameans Suryoye.

The most recent tournament was played in Abkhazia, a breakaway territory that most of the world considers part of Georgia. The host nation won, beating Panjab (representing diaspora Punjabis) on penalties in the final. The tournament garnered some marginal, mainly online media attention (see here and here, for example). A number of articles highlighted how the participants overcame a myriad of political and logistical obstacles, language barriers, lack of training, and resources to produce an event that, in the words of one journalist, despite its flaws was a celebration of “more diverse concepts of nationhood” than most international tournaments allow. For many of these nations “this World Cup is one of the few international instances where they are recognized as a country.”

One team that was conspicuous by its absence though was Western Sahara. It just so happens that of all the teams at the ConIFA tournament, Western Sahara has perhaps the most convincing case for recognition by FIFA.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) —the state proclaimed by the leaders of the Sahrawi people in 1976—has been recognized by over eighty UN member states (although some have subsequently withdrawn or frozen recognition). Crucially, the SADR is also a full member of the African Union (AU), the continent’s equivalent of the European Union (EU), while the UN has repeatedly recognized the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi.

Western Sahara—which does not enjoy the same media spotlight of say Palestine—had one of its rare periods of media attention in March this year, following UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria when he described the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara as an “occupation.” Morocco responded by accusing Ban of violating the UN’s supposed neutrality and impartiality regarding the situation and then proceeded to expel eighty-four UN and AU staffers from the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Although Morocco has reportedly offered to let four of the UN staff return, the dispute continues. There is widespread international recognition of the basic facts of the Moroccan occupation: no state recognizes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara (not even the United States or France), the International Court of Justice has also rejected Moroccan and Mauritanian sovereignty claims, and the UN continues to advocate for self-determination for the Sahrawi people. And yet a combination of factors have allowed Africa’s last colony to remain under occupation. These include powerful support for Morocco (particularly from the United States and France), the success of Moroccan lobbying in promoting an alternative image of the country as an attractive tourist destination (Michelle Obama and her daughters just visited), playing up unfounded concerns about an increase in terrorism should Western Sahara become an independent state, as well as general international indifference.

That is where football comes in. In 2012 Western Sahara’s national team, nicknamed "The Dromedaries," participated in the VIVA World Cup in Kurdistan, a tournament organized by N.F.-Board, a precursor to ConIFA that also ran competitions for nations outside of FIFA. In 2013 N.F.-Board fell apart because of political infighting and was replaced by ConIFA. Western Sahara became a victim of this politics, which explained its no-show in Abkhazia. In an email, however, ConIFA’s General Secretary Sascha Düerkop told us that following recent developments, he expected Western Sahara could soon join the organization and hopefully play in the next tournament.

Not surprisingly for a struggle that attracts little political intervention internationally, Sahrawi leaders see the power of football recognition. In 2012, Sheikh Sidi Tigan, then-president of the Sahrawi Football Federation, told James Dorsey of the blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer" (and author of a 2016 book by the same name): “Our external objective is primarily to project our identity through sports. Many people don’t know our problem or would not be able to find us on a map. Soccer can change that.” In an interview with us, Dorsey agreed that recognition by FIFA would “absolutely” help the Sahrawi cause.

Which raises questions as to why Western Sahara has not tried to exploit this strategy more or why recognition by football bodies, like FIFA, has been so hard to come by. Moroccan opposition is obviously one large obstacle that would stand in the way of recognition. Even when Western Sahara played in the unrecognized VIVA World Cup, Morocco made sure to negotiate a deal with the Kurdish hosts that prevented the Sahrawis from flying their flag at the ceremonies and matches. But as the other cases highlighted earlier show, powerful opposition to recognition is not in itself insurmountable.

While Dorsey does not think recognition by FIFA is likely under present circumstances, the vagueness of the criteria mean that nothing is certain. FIFA statutes state that “... membership is only permitted if an association is currently a member of a confederation.” Western Sahara is currently not a member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) but, as already noted, is recognized by the AU (and was recognized by its precursor the Organisation of African Unity in 1982). It is like being a part of the EU, but not UEFA. Teams representing Western Sahara have played friendly matches against club sides from Algeria, Spain, and Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the Sahrawi Football Federation was formally established in 1989. In 2001 SADR’s twenty-fifth anniversary was marked by a match against a Basque Veterans teams in the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria. Attended by over 4,000 fans, the match was suspended with the score at 2-2 as temperatures got too high. More recently the Sahrawi national team played a friendly against the Esperanto national team (yes, representing the language) in France in 2015. Yet despite its place in the AU and its sporadic footballing appearances, it appears Western Sahara has never attempted to become a member of CAF or play against a national team represented in FIFA.

Secondly, Western Sahara could apply to FIFA on the precedent that multiple teams from one state are members of FIFA. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, while technically one country, field separate teams in UEFA and FIFA competitions. While that is a historical anomaly that dates back to the origins of the game and the founding of FIFA, it is still useful to note. (Some would argue that no territorial or political disputes exist between the four British “home unions,” though recent political developments will not rule that out and brings them into the conservation.) More applicable are the cases of Hong Kong and China or now Spain and Gibraltar.

Then there are nations without a state like Palestine and Kosovo. They obviously took advantage of the fact that there is nothing in the FIFA statutes that explicitly states that UN membership is a necessary prerequisite for recognition. This had ostensibly been the case since the late 1990s following the recognition of Palestine and yet the regulations remain unclear. Indeed in the case of Kosovo, UEFA’s legal department itself effectively rejected the legal significance of UN recognition or lack thereof. CAF’s statutes make no mention of recognition by the UN. Instead CAF statutes simply state that it shall only recognize “one national association per country,” a vague term which has no clear relationship to UN member states.

Given the lack of clarity concerning the exact implications of the various statutes highlighted above, if the AU recognizes Western Sahara as a member state then surely CAF, and by implication FIFA, can too? While Morocco recently announced that it wants to re-join the AU and urged the organization to withdraw its recognition of SADR, neither of these are likely to happen quickly with the AU reiterating its support for the Sahrawi people. Morocco’s announcement, however, does highlight the pressing need for Western Sahara to raise its profile and gain further international recognition/legitimacy.

The decisive factor here is perhaps the existence of powerful backers, diplomatic clout, or power and influence within FIFA, which is what Western Sahara lacks for now.

That leaves one other, creative option for states like Western Sahara that James Dorsey highlighted as their best possible path towards recognition and which Le Competiteur joked about: that is, they need look no further than the history and the experience of their neighbor Algeria during that country’s struggle for independence from France.

In 1958 Algeria was engaged in a violent liberation struggle against its colonial occupier, France. The war had been going on for four years already. While the Algerians frustrated France on the battlefield, it had less success in changing public opinion in France and the West more broadly. But it so happened that many Algerian footballers were playing in France’s top league. Some were even selected for the French team playing in the World Cup in Sweden in 1958. A plan was hatched to bring the war in Algeria to the attention of French people. The idea was to form an Algerian national team, Equipe FLN. The dominant Algerian resistance, the National Liberation Front (FLN) based in Tunisia, contacted the best Algerian players in France to leave and form a new Algerian national team in exile. Most of the players managed to leave clandestinely to embark on a world tour to promote Algeria’s independence struggle. In the end, Equipe FLN played between fifty and one hundred games across Europe, Asia, and Africa despite not being recognized by FIFA, and in the process gaining invaluable publicity and recognition for the Algerian struggle and the quest for independence. Crucially, the Algerian flag flew during the matches and its national anthem played beforehand. The effect was to cement the idea of Algeria, of independence, and to effectively counter France’s propaganda. Independence was finally achieved in 1962 and the role of these footballers were highlighted as a key strategy in that quest.

Is this still a viable strategy? Cold War politics meant whatever objections France and its allies had, the Algerians were defended and welcomed by the the Eastern Bloc, newly independent African and Asian countries as well as China. More decisively, the Algerian team contained some of the best players in France’s top leagues. Contrast this with Western Sahara now. None of the friendly matches played by Sahrawi teams so far have been against FIFA nations and they have all received limited attention. Yet Western Sahara does enjoy widespread support throughout Africa, as well as support in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Given the vagueness and seeming flexibility of the relevant statutes, Düerkop thinks that the main thing preventing Western Sahara and other similar nations from gaining recognition is the absence of the goodwill of the majority. But before enough goodwill (or perhaps political will may be more accurate) can be generated, Western Sahara needs to be on the news. Joining ConIFA and competing in its future tournaments would be a positive development for the Sahrawi national team and Western Sahara. But a match like the one against Algeria—as Western Sahara’s strongest ally and given the history of the Algerian football team—joked about by Le Competiteur would certainly help draw far more attention to the Sahrawi national team and the broader struggle of the Sahrawi. It could even help to kickstart a footballing publicity drive similar to that of the famous Algerian team. 

Competing in international football matches and gaining recognition is no panacea, as Palestinians and others know, but it would be a vast improvement on the current reality in which the harsh Moroccan occupation continues to be largely ignored.

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