MONTREAL -- Quebec has found a place to play soccer on the international stage, but it is not in a World Cup or any other event with national teams.
A group of 18 players patched together and coached by former Montreal Impact player Patrick Leduc will begin play Sunday in the International Tournament of Peoples and Cultures in Marseille, France.
The week-long event has teams from provinces and regions that are not independent --although some wish to be -- but feel unique enough to have their own teams.
The other squads are from Tibet, Iraqi Kurdistan, Aram in Syria, Western Sahara, the northern Indian regions of Ladahk and Nagaland and the host French region of Provence.
"It's the first time that a senior male team (from Quebec) will play at the international level," said Yannick Saint-Germain, president of the team that calls itself Les Quebecois. "We have under-14 or under-16 teams that have played against France or Mexico, but as seniors, it's the first time.
"It's an historical moment for us, and I hope it won't be the last tournament for us."
Leduc scrambled to find players whose clubs were willing to release them in mid-season and ended up with some decent talent in former Impact players Reda Agourram, Alex Suprenant and Kevin Cossette, former FC Edmonton member Fabrice Lassonde and others.
Sovereigntists in Quebec have pushed for a "national" hockey team to play against Canada and other countries, but it has never come close to happening.
Saint-Germain turned to soccer, where there is an international body called the Non-Federated Board overseeing soccer among cultures and regions that are not members of the sport's world governing body FIFA.
He attended the Viva World Cup, or non-FIFA world cup, last year in Kurdistan. Now he hopes to enter the Quebec team in next year's tournament in Lapland.
"I'm not the only one who has dreamed of having a national team in hockey or soccer or any sport," said St-Germain. "Many people think about it.
"I wanted to see if it was feasible. I Googled to see if there were other non-independent states with national teams and I discovered there's a lot."
Zanzibar, and island off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, for example. Or North Cyprus, which lost to Kurdistan in last year's non-FIFA World Cup final.
Saint-Germain and Leduc said the team's mission is cultural rather than political, but Quebec's independence movement is solidly behind it.
The team is partly funded by the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois government and has backing from the ultra-nationalist St-Jean-Baptiste Society.
The schedule includes a game against Tibet on June 24, Quebec's national holiday.
"There are a lot of non-independent nations that play internationally in their confederations, like Puerto Rico, for example," said Saint-Germain. "As I say, football independence has nothing to do with political independence.
"It's two different things. Of course people who are for the independence of Quebec are very happy about this project, and I understand that, but there's no relation. You can be a province and play. Ontario or New Brunswick could play, why not?"
Leduc said the team has not taken a political position.
"We didn't base our selection on whether you vote for the Parti Quebecois or the Liberals," he said. "I have francophones, anglophones, allophones, but I only wanted to know if they were forward, midfielder or defender.
"I've realized also that whether they vote blue or red, it doesn't matter. They're proud to represent Quebec. A 25-year-old player is really happy to be part of a select team and to play at the elite level once again in his career."
It was a proud moment to put on the blue and white shirt with the fleur-de-lys on the front for Cossette, who plays semipro in Quebec City.
"At 16, I played for Quebec in a Canadian championship, but to represent it at the senior level and to play with the best in Quebec is a source of pride," he said. "I'm completely a Quebecer.
"I have no other nationality."
Tommy Lucas, the bilingual former captain of the McGill Redmen, has no problem with it.
"It's my home and it's always been my home," he said. "My parents are from England but I was born here.
"Especially Montreal, this is where I belong. I'm excited to represent Quebec. I feel a strong sense of pride and that's definitely going to help me perform during the tournament."
The team is not sanctioned by the Quebec Soccer Federation, which was in the spotlight last week for its controversial decision to ban turbans and other religious headgear, only to rescind the order when FIFA clarified its rules. The QSF is affiliated with FIFA through the Canadian Soccer Association.
Leduc said they approached the federation for support and found them "ambivalent.
"In future, maybe long term, we'd like to be sanctioned by the federation and play official games, whether it be against teams like Catalonia or other regions, or official games. Haiti is coming here this summer, so why not have a Quebec team play them?"
The players gathered for one last fundraiser Tuesday night at a bistro called Massila, the ancient name for Marseille, which was designated by the European Union as European Capital of Culture for 2013. They held their first practice later that night.
They won't have much of a budget. The trip will cost about $40,000, with the team staying in a university dorm and getting around on public transit.
But they hope to do well on the pitch, even if they have no idea of the level of play of most opponents.
"I expect varying levels," said Leduc. "I expect Provence will be a tough game.
"Kurdistan I know will be a really tough team, but I don't know how strong Tibet will be. It's fun that they're participating."
It will be a grind. Quebec opens with games on consecutive days against Western Sahara, Tibet and Provence. The semifinals are on June 27 with the final the following day. There are consolation games for those that don't make the semis.
They are entering the unknown, but Agourram was adamant it is not vacation and they will give their best on the pitch.
"We know nothing about the teams we're going to play against, but I think we have a good team and I'm confident we'll have good results," he said.