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CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten – An Update

Karpatalya v Northern Cyprus, CONIFA Final at Enfield Town FC

Hi everyone,

So I’ve had a couple of people get in touch about my forthcoming book, CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten. A few things have changed over the last few months, perhaps inevitably, so I just want to fill in anyone who might be interested on the detail, especially those of you who have kindly pre-ordered the book (which you can still do here, if you’d like, though as circumstances change – see below – I might have to stop taking those orders – I will make it clear on the page if I do so).

Thank you to all those that have helped out in any way so far, from the dozens I’ve interviewed to those who’ve financially supported this – you’ve really made it a whole, whole lot easier.

First of all, I recognize some of you might not want a big long-winded update, so here it is all summed up in a couple of paragraphs…

In short: My plan was always to self-publish this book. However, I’ve been approached by a very reputable literary agent about working with me to get hold of a publisher. Her previous work includes Rio Ferdinand’s autobiography and a couple of books by Lee Price which explore similar areas of football to CONIFA. The submission process to publishers will inevitably slow down production, so while I’m all but done with my end, I’m going to hold off on publication for now.

The agent and I have agreed that if there are no takers on the book by late November, I will go ahead with self-publishing, ideally in time for Christmas. I appreciate that I had planned to publish in late September, and some of you might have considered that a factor when you bought a copy. This is too good an opportunity to pass up for me, so while I’m sorry for the delay, I have decided to go with it regardless. With that in mind, if you pre-ordered, and would prefer a refund to waiting for a later publication date, I completely respect that. Just get in touch, and it will have your money back with you within a couple of working days. You should also have received an update email from me.

In a little more detail: To be honest, I always anticipated this being an indie book. CONIFA might be growing, and articles are now appearing around tournaments in mainstream publications, but I wasn’t convinced the market was there to go to publishers, and I’m still not, entirely. People have been incredibly open with me, though, both from within CONIFA, and in terms of producing stories around the teams for the book. I think what I have is a genuinely fascinating insight into the organization. It might be a little sports-nerdy and quite political at times, but it also has some unbelievable stories behind it all.

The latest draft is about 65,000 words in length, and has some details that have really surprised me: I’ve learned a huge, huge amount as I’ve gone along. I’m not going to spill it all here, for obvious reasons, but I thought there’s no harm in telling you a bit about what I’m covering.

The CONIFA Diaries Matchday 5: Fantastic Semis Light Up The World Football Cup

Tuvalu v Tamil Eelam at Sutton United

“To understand Panjab, you need to talk about the partition of Hindustan, and the effect it had on people of any religion other than Hindu or Muslim. We were just caught in the crossfire.”

I love the conversations that happen around this tournament, and one of today’s was an in-depth lesson on the history of Sikhism, and the consequences of the formation of India and Pakistan on the religion. Panjab is one of the few entities that represents both.

This was a real ‘up and out’ day: four games of football in a day is, let’s be honest, too much. But it was necessary:

I’ve been quietly fostering a small behind-the-scenes goal over the last five days: to see all 16 CONIFA sides in action in person. That probably doesn’t sound all that challenging, given the tournament lasts ten days, but in realit,y it required two results to go my way today. I saw Panjab and Tuvalu for the first time at Sutton United, and I needed both United Koreans In Japan and Tibet to lose today so I can catch them playing each other before the final on Saturday. I don’t want to wish defeat on anyone, especially the loveable Tibetans, but I got lucky: it happened.

Seeing Tuvalu was just excellent. They’re one of those teams who can’t defend, at all, and as the game went on they played a higher and higher line, allowing a fairly weak Tamil Eelam team – a side who hadn’t scored before this game in the entire tournament – to simply play the ball in behind them and run onto it. That said, Tuvalu were surprisingly adept going forward, and smashed in a couple of brilliant goals, including one hit at pace on the volley from 15 yards, to lead 3-1. Both sides also missed a penalty, the Tuvalu ‘keeper making a diving save to keep out the Tamil Eelam finish.

Then Tuvalu capitulated, conceding three late goals to lose 4-3, the last two goals coming in stoppage time. Probably the game of the tournament so far, though you have to feel for the (smaller)  islanders.

After a brief lesson in the history of Sikhism and the importance of the Panjabi identity, I caught the first half of the North Indian team’s win against hosts Barawa, too, which ultimately ended 5-0. They were the highest ranked team coming into the tournament (though not the favourites), and looked very decent if lacking a particularly outstanding playmaker. They’ll play for fifth place next.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 4: A Lull, A Protest, A Thrashing, and A Cracker

Sutton United entrance CONIFA World Football Cup

Every tournament, even a World Cup, has a lull: a moment when – if only for one game – you wonder if there might just be something better you could be doing with your time. Whether it’s England’s invariably turgid group games against ‘lower standard’ opposition at the World Cup, or a player dispute at CONIFA, a tournament wouldn’t feel quite real without it.

That moment has just arrived for me. It came somewhere between A Tuesday morning mini-scandal, and a quarter-final thrashing. Both involve unfortunate hosts Barawa.

Someone observed to me today that CONIFA seems to be taking part in large part on Twitter. It is an impressive social footprint the tournament is leaving across London, a part of which I am contributing to, in my own little way. It was through that particular medium that I learnt of a dispute over the results of Group A on Tuesday morning, after the final games took place on Sunday.

Barawa’s star man Mohamed Bettamer, a former Libyan international and African Champions League player, was evidently registered after Barawa’s opening game of the tournament against Tamil Eelam on Thursday night, and went on to be a critical player in both their loss against Cascadia, and in their win against Ellan Vannin. The latter result saw the Isle of Man side knocked out. Barawa won the game 2-0, and Battamer got a goal and an assist. Ellan Vannin vociferously protested. I gather, from asking around, that Cascadia weren’t overly happy with his inclusion, either.

Some have made the fairly obvious point that Bruce Grobellaar turned out for Matabeleland on Sunday, against Tuvalu, and also wasn’t on the squad list. I’m inclined to believe that CONIFA have been universally lax with the rules on player registration, as they suggest, given the obvious difficulties with sorting squads for a tournament like this. But the pure fury reigning down on the organisation from the Ellan Vannin side – and Barawa’s radio silence on the issue ahead of their game with Northern Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon – didn’t do the tournament any favours, right or wrong.

I understand the need for a laid back process around player registration – as CONIFA’s Secretary General pointed out on Twitter, several teams wouldn’t have made the tournament without it – but I also understand frustrations at the late inclusion of a clearly very good forward. There’s a bit of me that wonders if Ellan Vannin might have been better served taking it on the chin, but then again, I understand their frustration. Perhaps quitting the tournament and heading home early, though, was a little overblown (and yes, that’s exactly what they’ve done).

As a result, the lower-tier ‘placement’ games are heavily disrupted, with Tibet turning out yesterday against a late, volunteer opposition drawn from the local Turkish community, and given a by in a game that should have been against Ellan Vannin.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 3: The Favourites Fall, and A Taste of Kabylia

Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia line up for the anthems in Enfield

“We’re Turks, not Greeks. I can’t imagine any player from Northern Cyprus would ever want to play for Cyprus, any more than he’d want to play for Greece” – it’s a quick outline from a fan, but a good summary of one of the most convincing arguments for the ascension of a non-FIFA affiliated country from its current status. Northern Cyprus have had players – like Muzzy Izzet – turn out for Turkey, but turning out for the current Cyprus team is just unthinkable.

The Turkish-Cypriots in Enfield on Sunday afternoon are passionate, and more than happy to lay out their position, as the inverted Turkish flag – red on white rather than white on red – of the Cypriot Republic sits draped all over Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II ground.

The Abkhazians were somewhat less forthcoming on their relationship with Georgia – “we don’t talk about that,” two tell me, before launching into the longest national anthem I’ve ever heard in competitive sport, delaying kick off by a couple of minutes to allow for their solemn orchestral opus.

Two years ago, CONIFA’s second ever World Cup was played out in Abkhazia, a separatist region of north-west Georgia, with the hosts taking the title in penalties, and followed fanatically. Over 5000 people attended the final.

Their bid to retain the title crashed and burnt this weekend, first against Hungarians in the Ukraine, Karpatalja, with the late replacement side who’ve risen to the occasion beating them 2-0, and then with a 2-2 draw in which they couldn’t add to a late equaliser against Northern Cyprus in a ‘must win’ encounter.

This was an odd game, perhaps best described as melodramatic. It was poorly refereed, and with the Abkhazia side a touch aggressive, and the Northern Cyprus side willing to go down at the slightest touch, things were a little farcical at times. Nevertheless, Abkhazia opened the scoring with a thunderbolt of a finish from 25 yards, though Northern Cyprus has been in charge for much of the game. The Cypriots hit back to lead 2-1, before a late penalty and lots of farcical bickering saw out the game at 2-2, enough to see Northern Cyprus through in second in the group, and holders Abkhazia out.

Ellan Vannin, another side I had pegged as a potential winner, crashed out elsewhere as Cascadia got more than the five-goal goal win they needed against Tamil Eelam to overturn the Isle of Man side on goal difference, and see themselves through alongside hosts Barawa, who shocked Vannin.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 2: Mad Hungarians, Upsets, and A Trip Down Wembley Way

Szekely Land fans in Haringey Borough, for the game against Matabeleland

In the baking heat in Haringey, I’m trying to talk to a Hungarian about his side, Szekely Land. “We are Hungarian,” the half-cut fan and his mates yell repeatedly at a largely empty stadium half an hour before kick-off, pausing to whisper that they have a bag full of flares, and plan to whip them out as soon as the players appear.

He looks at the opposition and promises an easy win, dipping into the supremacy of Hungarians over Romanians, while his mate attempts to burn the lace off my shoe to use to tie his flag. He thinks he’s being subtle – I copped it straight away, but figured the cost of the shoelace is worth the madness of the ‘interview’ – and soon three inches of string carefully burnt from my rugged old pair of Sondicos is being used to attach a red, green and white flag with some dubious looking lettering to the pitchside railing.

Szekely Land are playing Zimbabwean rural underdogs Matabeleland in the blistering heat, and despite the advantage that might seem to afford the African side, Matabeleland are on a road to sad self-destruction. The men in tribal white and orange start strongly, pressing the Szekely Land side back and making several solid chances.

They implode shortly afterwards, their goalkeeper shown a straight red card only twenty minutes in for flying out of his goal and clattering a forward clear through on goal – the first decent Szekely Land chance. From then on, it was only a question of ‘how many?’ The answer was five, and with Padania and Sekely Land both two wins from two against Tuvalu and Matabeleland, Group C is over with a game to spare. It’s hard not to love the naive flare of Matabeleland, but in a stadium surprisingly dense in nutty Hungarians intent on ‘trolling’, maybe some things are for the best.

There’s always some fun to be had with Matabeleland, though. This time it came through the ‘keeper’s new way of firing the ball out: an incredible flat kick out of his hands that flew 70 yards at extreme pace, at no more than head height, and caught out Szekely Land several times. It was odd enough to have caught out almost anyone. No Bruce Grobbelaar this time for the Zimbabweans, but he’ll likely be playing tomorrow.

The results from around the ground started trickling in from CONIFA, and a couple stood out. Holders Abkhazia, beaten by this tournament’s Denmark (circa 1992), Karpatalya, another Hungarian ethnic minority, this time in the Ukraine. Western Armenia turned over CONIFA’s number one ranked team Panjab, and Cascadia got their act together to beat hosts Barawa, who looked excellent in their opener (full results below).

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 1: Clattenburg, Sportsmanship and the Matabeleland Party

Padania and Matabeleland walk out at Gander Green Lane, Sutton ahead of their Group A game at the CONIFA World Football Cup

Tamil Eelam are on the back foot, the men in white forced back by the Somalian hosts, Barawa, under the Thursday night Hayes Lane floodlights. The hosts are swift and aggressive, a fluid attacking team that play into space and exploit static backlines.

The killer punch is coming: a rapid through ball pinged out to the right of midfield towards star man Gianni Crichlow. The former QPR man skins his marker, looks up, spots Tamil goalie Umaesh Sundaralingam about five yards off his line, and pings a spectacular lob over his head into the Tamil goal. His teammates shine his shoes in front of the fans: Barawa have arrived.

It’s day one of CONIFA in London, and it’s following the unwritten rule of any kind of travel based writing: when you’re on a very specific schedule, there will always be delays. Thank you, Ryanair.

So my CONIFA experience started with a mad rush down to Sutton United’s Gander Green, where I arrived just in time for halftime in the Ellan Vannin and Cascadia game.

Ellan Vannin -from the Isle of Man – are considered one of the early favourites for the tournament. Their fans tell me that the recent rejection of Jersey’s UEFA application has hit them hard, their chances of recognition diminished by another entity in a similar situation being emphatically rejected in February despite intense lobbying. But they’re passionate, aggressive and organised.

Their opponents, Cascadia, arguably have more obvious technical ability, but are fairly incoherent as a team. The North Americans have been brought together in recent weeks, with a couple of real superstar players, in particular, former MLS mainstay James Riley, who’s come out of retirement to captain the side.

Ellan Vannin won out 4-1, controlling chunks of the game, though a lot of the margin could be put down to disorganization on the part of their opponents, who also looked more than a little jetlagged, and will almost certainly improve.

Things came to life for game two at Gander Green, Matabeleland v Padania. Like Ellan Vannin, Padania – a North Italian separatist state – are amongst the early favourites for the whole tournament, with most of their players drawn from the Italian fourth tier. Matabeleland – representing relatively rural southern Zimbabwe – are almost all out of the country for the first time, and immediately charmed almost everyone.