The road to the CONIFA World Cup, wherever it may be...
The New Year is almost upon us! Time for resolutions that will be immediately broken, fleeting sentiments of goodwill to all and bickering aplenty about what the recently passed decade is officially called (the tens? The tenties?).
One thing football fans may not be aware of as 2020 rolls around, is that it’s World Cup year! No, I’ve not finally succumbed to brainworms. I’m well aware that the real festival of football doesn’t kick off until 2022. But there’s another football competition for teams from across the globe who battle it out for the title of world champion; the CONIFA World Cup. Established for states and regions unable to gain recognition from FIFA. There’ll be no famous names like Brazil or Germany involved. Instead, the likes of Cascadia and Barawa will battle it out.
What’s it all about then and why should I care?
The fourth instalment of the tournament will kick off in June 2020. Where it’ll be held and who will be playing isn’t yet known. CONIFA initially opted to emulate FIFA in choosing a wildly inappropriate host nation, opting to hold the tournament in Somaliland. But that decision was reversed when cup organisers realised hosting the competition in a war-torn region, a place the UK Foreign Office advises against travelling to, was a terrible idea. Where the tournament does take place isn’t yet known, though Kernow, more commonly known as Cornwall, seems a likely replacement.
To the casual observer, this competition may seem like a gimmick, another meaningless distraction from real football. Pub-league players will kick lumps out of each other on a muddy field somewhere and call it international football. While the CONIFA version of the World Cup doesn’t quite live up to the standards of its better-known FIFA counterpart, the tournament is still played at a good level with squads largely comprised of professionals and semi-professionals. Some of the better-known names include former LA Galaxy player James Riley, ex-Roma striker Panushanth Kulenthiran, one-time St. Mirren striker Billy Mehmet and legendary Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar. All of those were supplemented by perhaps lesser known, but no less able, pros from middling European and lower English leagues.
Perhaps more importantly, the CONIFA World Cup generates some fascinating stories. Ignored by the mainstream media perhaps, but no less interesting because of that.
No laughing matter
One of these stories is already taking shape, centring around the Chagos Islands. The tiny network of atolls is the subject of an international dispute. The UK has been ordered by the UN to relinquish control of the islands but is standing with their fingers in their ears saying, "ner, ner, ner, I can't hear you,". The islands are now uninhabited, save for personnel on a US military base, after the original inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 1960s and 70s by the UK; a country which had definitely given up on imperialism. Perhaps abstaining from aggressive land-grabbing and dehumanising of local populations was only another resolution, swiftly broken in the cold light of January 2nd? At any rate, the remains of the displaced Chagossian community now resides largely near Crawley and are sending a team to compete in next year's World Cup.
Funding to compete in an international tournament is hard to come by, not least for an amateur football team representing a now uninhabited island. The sum of £5,000 was required to cover basic expenses, and without a big-name sponsor or wealthy benefactor, it looked as if the Chagos team may struggle to equip themselves properly. Into the breach stepped comedian Mark Thomas, who put forward the winnings from a bet placed on Jeremy Corbyn’s continuing leadership of the Labour Party.
That’s the beauty of the CONIFA World Cup. As well as being a half-decent competition played in front of enthusiastic four-figure crowds, it’s the perfect place for the stateless, the forgotten and the marginalised to make their voices heard. They do it through the medium of football just like any other team in the world, only without the billions poured in from dubious oil companies and human rights-abusing princes. Instead, they are funded by fans, friends and philanthropists.
Very likely, the Chagos Islands will be beaten roundly in their World Cup campaign. Their small pool of players simply cannot compete with their largely professionalised opponents. But they’ll succeed if they can play, preserving the memory of their stolen islands, as well as the hope that they may someday return. FIFA’s got nothing on this.
You can support the Chagos islands’ football team by buying a replica shirt.