Football’s peace and love competition

THE FINAL of  CONIFA’s World Football Cup may have been something of a damp squib (literally), settled in the unsatisfactory manner of the penalty shoot-out, but the occasion underlined the very warm feeling the tournament created among the many people who watched the games in and around London.

There were glitches, notably the clumsy exit of the Isle of Man’s team from the competition, a protest over their opponents, Barawa, fielding a player who was not listed when the squads were initially named.  CONIFA is a body made up of states that are either unrecognised or misplaced, most have legitimate issues, such as Tibet, while Cascadia is a so-called “bio-region”, which is scarcely comparable.  All have had some form of struggle, so they know how to hold their ground – hence, Ellan Vannin made a stand and withdrew. People were divided about whether this was right or wrong, but it didn’t upset the flow of the competition.

The final day, June 9, was a colourful affair, with all 16 (well, 15) teams travelling to Enfield Town FC to bring the curtain down on a successful tournament that started on May 31 and ended 10 days later. In that time, just under 50 games were played – that’s an astonishing number for what was, essentially, a volunteer-run event.

Matabeleland coach Justin Walley

The Matabeleland team was one of the most popular among fans. Financially challenged to raise enough cash to get to London, and managed by Brit Justin Walley, their attitude won the hearts of fans everywhere. “I want to shake your hand,” said one fan to a track-suited player. “I’ve bloody enjoyed watching you boys.” Walley, meanwhile, said his team had loved being in the UK and had improved game-by-game. “We were in a tough group,” the added. “But I am proud of what the team has achieved. It has been a great experience.”

Walley later admitted that the emotion of the competition prompted him to burst into tears as he was leaving London. There were a few tears at the end of the final from Northern Cyprus fans, who had been confident of victory . “I cannot believe we have lost,” said one woman who had been present at all of the team’s games, largely because her son was in the squad. “We wasted chance after chance. I am absolutely speechless. I’m choking.” It was true, Northern Cyprus had been extremely generous to their opponents in most games, their powerful play creating a plethora of opportunities for the front runners.

The 3/4 play-off between Padania and Székely Land also went to pens.

Even Enfield Town must have been surprised at the size of the attendance that turned up to see Northern Cyprus take on Karpatalya. It wasn’t just standing room only, it was standing room outside the perimeter of the stadium, the grass banks that are out of bounds on regular matchdays. The ethnic Hungarians, Karpatalya – a late replacement for a team that couldn’t make the trip – had a huge contingent of “ultras”, with red and green smoke billowing across the pitch. Just to make it completely authentic, there was near-the-mark chanting that was somewhat out of character with the CONIFA ethos.

The game was typically tense for a final, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, everyone was happy to be at the climax of a competition that captured the imagination of the public. Tibet were the people’s favourites without a doubt, for a number of reasons. Notwithstanding the politics, the gentle, giving Tibetans (there were rumours of food being handed out to supporters) won many friends, even if they were outmuscled on the pitch.

A trophy for everyone – because, “We are all winners”.

As for the quality of the football, it was something of a surprise, gravitating between step three and four non-league. It was a competition that certainly appealed to non-league fans, from the younger, bearded community to the obsessive groundhoppers. Across all demographics, there was a spirit of discovery, something which used to apply to FIFA World Cups.  And it was good value for money, too – how often can you say that?

And so, the trophies were handed out – every team got one – and Karpatalya rejoiced at their penalty shoot-out win. Teams hugged, congratulated each other and the thousands of people who attended went home with just a little more knowledge on places like Panjab, Western Armenia and, of course, plucky Tibet. It is doubtful there has ever been a football competition quite like this in modern Britain. If the 2018 World Cup can generate half as much goodwill, it will have done a very good job.

To see the report on the final, by Olaf Jensen, click here







CONIFA comes to town

I HAD never met anyone from Tibet before, never heard of Abkhazia or Karpatalya, but the CONIFA World Football Cup can open your eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of a very different football perspective.

It started with the arrival of the 16 teams in London when young players from Matabeleland and Tibet were unloading their equipment and trying to navigate the student accommodation block where they are living for the next week or so. Among the Matabeleland hopefuls was a familiar face, albeit one that looks somewhat older than when he performed a wobbly-leg dance in Rome – Bruce Grobbelaar, the former Liverpool goalkeeper, who has been helping the team prepare for London.

The following day was a very timely reminder that football is still a great common language and something of an emollient, an expression of benign nationalism and an object of fascination. Its simplicity means it can be played on dusty plains, table-top mountains, sand-covered pitches and jungle clearings – not to mention down-trodden urban settlements. If “man”, as a species, has a creation that can be easily interpreted, it is surely the game of football. It embraces the rich, the poor, the young and old.

CONIFA is, effectively, international football’s own “non-league”, the nations and states that sit outside the huge global umbrella that is FIFA. It also provides reassuring evidence that while the great and the good (and not so good) will be gathering in Russia for the World Cup, a combine harvester of a competition that sweeps-up money and commercial opportunism, there is another gentler, more earnest side to international football.

Most neutrals attending the two games I witnessed at Enfield Town’s art-deco masterpiece, the Queen Elizabeth II stadium, probably hadn’t a clue where most of the 16 teams slugging it out for the prestigious trophy come from. If nothing else, the list of particiapants sent you heading for an atlas to find out exactly where teams like Padania, Szekely Land and Tuvalu come from. CONIFA as geography lesson.

Without doubt, these games also enabled the locals to mingle with people from far-flung corners of the world. Tibet’s fans, colourful flags and shirts, incredibly harmonious singing from their younger followers, were simply thoroughly pleasant folk, and a joy to see. Before the game, somebody was tying Tibetan flags to the top deck of the Enfield Town stand. I asked him if he was from Tibet and he replied, “Goodness no, Bristol, I want them to feel they are welcome in Britain.” And why not?

You sensed there was a hint of political sympathy in his reply, but CONIFA is adamant this is not what their competition is all about. During the game, however, there was a little protest from a women who was shouting in Russian at the Abkhazia officials, apparently about human rights. Even at this level, football can be political.

Abkhazia were champions in 2016 and they were clearly too strong for a Tibet side that kept running for 90 minutes. Abkhazia’s squad included players who have appeared for Torpedo Moscow and Arsenal Tula, while Tibet’s line-up was mostly unattached. They made headlines before the tournament by being blessed by none other than the Dalai Lama.

Abkhazia ran out 3-0 winners, sending a very clear message that they are out to regain their title. Tibet, who looked quite skilful and energetic, couldn’t match the physique of the team from the Black Sea coast.

By the time the game ended, dozens of Northern Cyprus supporters were arriving, donning huge flags that decorated the main stand. They were confident of victory against Karpatayla, who represented the ethnic Hungarian minority in the far west of Ukraine.

Northern Cyprus opened well but it was a scruffy goal that gave them the lead. To their enormous credit, Karpatayla came back well and early in the second half, they equalised. Northern Cyprus were clearly frustrated by their inability to take control of the game and if anything, the ethnic Hungarians were more likely winners. In the closing minutes, Northern Cyprus had a man sent off, but it didn’t spoil what was an engaging contest.

It had been an interesting day, something of a challenge, but one that underlined the words of Sascha Düerkop, the general secretary of CONIFA, who said that his organistion, “aims to build bridges between people, where others have built walls. We aim to give a voice to the voiceless and unheard. We want to make international football and grassroots support a natural fit – not a contradiction.” And so say all of us.

To see more from CONIFA, including match reports, click here