In the Summer of 2018, a small football tournament hosted around non-league grounds in London attracted disproportionate levels of passion and some high-level scorn.
The Ukrainian government alleged winners Karpatalya – a Hungarian ethnic minority grouping from within the Ukraine – were engaging in an act of separatism and banned their players from competing in the Ukraine again (as well as Hungarian national colours, they also wore the colours of the Ukraine during the tournament).
The Sri Lankan embassy formally objected to a Tamil team, as did the Greek government in relation to Northern Cyprus. Numerous sponsors pulled out over the inclusion of Tibet, likely following Chinese interference.
CONIFA – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations – is both slightly amateur and, seemingly, extremely influential. It’s an umbrella organisation running football tournaments for teams who sit on the boundaries of ‘international’ football.
Some are actually countries (like Tuvalu, Kiribati and Monaco), and others represent minorities (Matabeleland), regions (Cascadia), or disputed states (Northern Cyprus and Tibet). Tournaments like the summer ‘World Football Cup’ in London are designed to give the sides a competitive outlet, and encourage the expression of their identities, if not their politics.
Older Irish fans will know a thing or two about footballing identity issues: Northern Ireland continued to play some games under the name ‘Ireland’ until the 80s, and the constant battle for players with mixed Irish/ English roots is bringing the issue to a head again today.
I came across CONIFA through a love of grass roots football, and, in particular, through a roughshod network of fans of German second-tier club St Pauli. I like games where you can smell the turf, feel the passion, and stand in rugged stands with hardy, slightly nutty fans, far from the corporate boxes, and CONIFA tick all those boxes.
My book, ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten’, is partly about the London tournament: I get my shoelaces burnt off by Hungarian ultras, sit with the informal president of Algerian separatist region Kabylia, and watch Bruce Grobbelaar turn out for his home region of Zimbabwe. There’s quality, too, in ex-Sampdoria and Sevilla players, a FIFA World Cup midfielder, and a man who was sent off in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid in the Champions League all competing.
More than that, though, I delve into the roots of all the sides. I learn of coaches being arrested for their participation. I get a pitchside lesson in Sikh representation in English football, and learn about how a Latvia-based coach dragged a Zimbabwean team playing with a single ball to a 16-team international tournament on another continent. I explore Turkish Cypriot passion, and talk to hosts Barawa about playing football in the face of stadium bombings and territorial disputes in their Somali hometown. One team even meet for the first time the day before the tournament.
There’s never been another book about CONIFA, its teams, and their struggles. Based on more than 50 interviews, 1500 hours of live football, some very open discussions with organisers, and some odd interactions with half-cut Hungarians, I hope I’ve done the tournament justice.
Visit www.hendicottwriting.com to grab a copy of ‘CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten’, Price: €10 inc postage.