The Other Euros: Hungarian Gypsies, Isle of Man and Crimea Feature at Europeada

Steve MenarySpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 23, 2016


Imagine if the teams for Euro 2016 were selected by language and not country.

According to a Eurobarometer survey, 38 per cent of Europeans speak English, which would give England manager Roy Hodgson the biggest pool of players to pick from, ahead of France and Germany with 12 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.

There are 23 officially recognised languages in the European Union and more than 60 minority and regional languages.

Keeping those minority languages alive is the idea behind the third Europeada football tournament, which is being played out in South Tyrol, Italy, from June 18-26 as Europe’s big guns contest Euro 2016.

The event is organised by the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN). The tournament’s motto is "Vielfalt, Achtsamkeit, Respekt," which translates as Diversity, Awareness, Respect.

"The idea was to organize a sporting event, where the linguistic minorities play the essential rule,” Siegfried Stocker, president of the 2016 Europeada organizing committee, told Bleacher Report.

The inaugural Europeada ran alongside Euro 2008 and was staged at Graubunden, Switzerland, by speakers of Rhaetian, a dialect spoken by people from the eastern Swiss Alps.

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The most recent tournament was staged in 2012 in Lusatia, a region that straddles the German states of Brandenburg and Saxony, by the Sorbs, who are descendants of a Slavic migration to Germany 1,400 years ago.

Sixty-thousand people live along the River Spree in Upper and Lower Lusatia, and more than 16,000 of them watched Europeada 2012, which was a celebration of Sorb culture.

Jan Rehor, editor of Sorb newspaper Serbske Nowiny, said: "We saw full stadiums. We had an unforgettable atmosphere and a lot of guests from all areas in Europe."

This year’s hosts, Sudtirol, who won the first two tournaments and have made the quarter-finals this year, are German-speaking Italians from South Tyrol. The other entrants are a diverse range of unknown European minorities, such as the Turkish-speaking people of Western Thrace in Greece and a side representing the German minority in Denmark.

The tournament has had some famous backers. Romanian footballing legend Gheorghe Hagi once helped to bankroll the appearance of the Aromanian team.

The Hungarian Roma side also had a celebrity backer when it was first put together more than two decades ago: Hungarian footballing immortal Ferenc Puskas.

The Roma were managed by Istvan Mezei, who runs the Hungarian Football Federation’s Bozsik programme, aimed at finding young talent.

"[The team] is not language-based," said Andras Vag, a member of the Roma management team. "What matters is talent and willingness to cooperate. [The players] come from underprivileged regions of the country."

The team representing Occitania is also not completely language-based, although that was the criterion when the side started out in 2004.

Occitania covers southern France, Monaco and parts of Italy and Spain and was a country before being invaded by the French in the 13th century.

The Occitan language survived, and there are an estimated 500,000 fluent speakers. There are bilingual schools in southern France, and Occitan is still spoken in Val d’Aran in Catalonia—where it was made an official language in 2006—and some valleys in Italy.

The team was formed to help keep the language alive, and its players have come from all those areas. But in 2008, sporting ambition took over. The Associacion Occitana de Fotbol changed the criteria.

"The playing level was very low and there wasn't enough players due to the lack of Occitan speakers in the 20-40 age group," said team captain Boris Massare, who made his debut in 2009.

He added that a decision was made to open up the team to semi-pro players who are prepared to learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture. Lessons are provided for those who fit the bill.

"The coach and the board had interviews with them to see if they are sharing the same values as the Occitania Football Association, which are fair play, humility, solidarity, persistence, pleasure," Massare added. 

The Occitania captain played professionally in France with AS Beziers and RCO Agde and the Danish second division with Kjellerup and Brabrand.

"Our players can be considered as semi-pro because they play from the third tier to the seventh tier of the French league system and earn a bit of money thanks to their activity," Massare concluded.

The first Europeada was open to semi-professionals, but at the second event in 2012, the organisers decided only amateur players could take part.

That frustrated Occitania and teams such as the Isle of Man’s representatives, who play as Ellan Vannin—the Manx name for the island in the Irish Sea.

Team organiser Malcolm Blackburn has previously called on Liam Doyle of USL outfit Harrisburg City Islanders and Seamus Sharkey, who plays in the League of Ireland for Limerick.

Blackburn said Danny Hattersley of Halifax Town and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney had shown interest in participating. But he has had to rely on amateurs—and even then not the best ones.

"We’ve not brought our strongest squad as we’ve lost most of our players from St George’s FC due to a big wedding," said Blackburn, who has been scanning squad lists from his rivals for evidence of any professionals.

Ellan Vannin’s group opponents were hosts and holders Sudtirol, FC DFK Oberschlesien, who represent the German minority in Poland, and the North Frisians from the German island of Heligoland.

"[The organisers] are being very stroppy about players not having any form of semi-professional contract," said Blackburn.

However, some of the Roma side play in the Hungarian second tier. 

"The Hungarian Gypsy team, like most of the gypsies, is quite poor and not able to pay all of the costs of this tournament," said Vag. "We asked some support from Europeada to cover the accommodation costs."

A cultural celebration at Europeada 2012.
A cultural celebration at Europeada 2012.Europeada

The organisers had a team representing speakers of the Turkic Karachay-Balkar dialect withdraw.

In their place, a team representing Serbs still living in Croatia after the ethnic wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 2001 has featured.

With a side representing the 50,000-odd Croats left in Serbia also taking part, the tournament has the potential for friction, but the most politically charged side to enter is from Crimea.

The peninsula was controversially annexed from Ukraine by Russia two years ago. In April 2016, the Crimean Football Union (CFU) said they were looking for a game.

"We are fighting for only one thing—who can we play against?” CFU President Yuri Vetokha told news agency TASS (h/t Reuters' Dmitriy Rogovitskiy).

Seemingly, they found some opponents. In South Tyrol, the Crimeans played under the name Adalet, which translates as "justice."

Vetokha also told TASS he would be "delighted" if Crimea could play Russia. That might seem unlikely, but other teams in the Europeada 2016 tournament have bigger ambitions than simply keeping an endangered language or culture alive.

Blackburn is behind plans for the Isle of Man to emulate Gibraltar and join UEFA. In a nod to the successful Team 54 social media campaign that helped make the British Overseas Territory the 54th member of UEFA in 2013, Blackburn's campaign is called Campaign 55.

Kosovo beat him to it after being accepted as UEFA’s 55th member in May 2016.

For every competitor in South Tyrol, playing football is as much about keeping alive their identity and a culture as much as trying to deny the hosts a third successive title.

For all the latest results from Europeada, visit the official website

All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.