Esperanto vs Western Sahara Challenges Our Ideas Of What International Football Looks Like

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When we talk about international football, we generally mean national teams organized by the official football associations of sovereign states. They’re affiliated with FIFA and their continent’s confederation, and through those associations they’re eligible to compete in various sanctioned international tournaments, including the FIFA World Cup. Pretty uncontroversial, right? Except that’s not the whole story.

On Friday night, a small but enthusiastic crowd at the Stadium Lille-Métropole in Lille, France, were treated to an international friendly between two nations that do not, strictly speaking, exist.

The home side (so to speak): the Tutmonda Esperanto Futbala Asocio, or Esperanto National Team. For the uninitiated: Esperanto; is a constructed language conceived in the late 19th century by the Polish linguist L. L. Zamenhof. It was developed to be a universal second language, one that was easy to learn and politically neutral, with the hope that Esperanto would advance the cause of world peace by transcending nationalism and cultural barriers. There are about 2 million speakers worldwide, 1000-2000 of which are native speakers. Esperanto speakers are a fascinating cohort— the sense of identity they've cultivated around the language is so strong that they've essentially evolved into a stateless people.

Their opponents: Western Sahara, as represented by the Sahrawi National Team. Western Sahara, also known as Sahara Occidental and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic- is a disputed territory in the Maghreb in Northern Africa. After Spain relinquished sovereignty over the area in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania tried to establish control of the region but were met with a fierce independence movement. Today, Western Sahara is essentially an unrecognized state, with its legal and political standing in the international community remaining ambiguous for almost five decades.

The match was scheduled in conjunction with the 100th World Congress Of Esperanto;, which is being held in Lille through this weekend. While this isn't the first football match to kickoff during the annual Esperanto convention- last year's meeting in Buenos Aires saw a team of Esperanto speakers face off against an Armenian XI- this is the first game held under the auspices of the newly-formed TEFA (the Esperanto FA, essentially). One of the criticisms about Esperanto and the mission of the community is that the language doesn't belong to a living culture. One way to address that problem is to build that culture— and few things in this world bring people together like football.

The game itself provided plenty of excitement for the first 45 minutes, as Western Sahara capitalized on some crucial defensive errors to jump out to a 4-0 lead. Sadly, the Esperanto XI never got the opportunity to redeem themselves in the second half.

While the match was tragically cut short, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the event itself or what it meant to the participants. Whatever one may think of the Esperanto language and its utility, the vision that the community of Esperantophones clings to is admirable. For them, Esperanto is more than a language— it’s a dream of a world that has shrugged off borders and old hatreds and embraced peace. On the 100th anniversary of their biggest community event, Esperanto speakers organized an international friendly with another stateless people. The game did not resemble what we typically think of when we think of international friendlies— sanctioned by FIFA, awash in corporate sponsorships, greeted with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and often amounting to little more than a cash grab. In Friday night’s match between Esperanto and Western Sahara, we see what international football can look like without FIFA, and what a national team can look like without national borders.

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