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.
Kitted out in black shirts with garish patterns across the front, the Zimbabwean side had a loud following, bringing loads of colour and a few traditional outfits into the crowd, and with Bruce Grobbelaar as their goalkeeping coach, drew plenty of attention. Padania, though, were clearly the more technically adept and kept much of the ball through the earlier stages. Matabeleland had an almost Brazilian approach to the game, a touch naive in the circumstances, trying to play the ball out of the back when perhaps they should just have been launching it out. With tricks and flicks a standard part of their game, though, they were awesome to watch.
Padania won 6-1, with Matabeleland seriously out of sorts in the first half and going on 4-0 down ahead of the break. They got to grips with it all into the second half, and scored one themselves after a period of pressure at 6-0 down, to the biggest cheer of the day. They won’t win the tournament, but they might yet get out of the group.
And then, a battle with London’s public transport system, and onwards to Bromley for the tournament’s formal launch and the Barawa game. Before it all kicked off, every team strolled around the pitch in their colours, joking and playing. Some of them sang, A tibetan act performed on the centre line, and CONIFA President Per-Anders Blind gave a passionate welcome speech.
Barawa, made up mainly of local London amateur players, outgunned their opponents with sharp attacking play, Mark Clattenburg awarding them two penalties along the way in a 4-0 win. Some of the team were on the pitch until the floodlights turned off enjoying the moment.
With CONIFA quite a condensed tournament, there’s lots going on at the same time right now, so I saw three games and missed five. But it’s been a spectacular day of football. Just like that, the first round of the group stage is over.
Today, I talked about bombings in Barawa, independence movements in North America, and the difficulties in running a national team in the Isle of Man. I had a pint with the man who took a team once down to a single training ball to an international football tournament, explored Dulwich Hamlet’s ground problems with a man in the coolest home shirt in London, and learned how much Bruce Grobbelaar still cares for his region of Zimbabwe.
These posts, the CONIFA diaries, are not about all that. They’re a very basic overview of the tournament through my eyes, written after each match day. I have hours and hours of interviews, background and stories around each team recorded, ready to go in my book, ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten’, which is detailed and available for pre-order here. For obvious reasons, I won’t be telling them all in blog posts. To get the inside track, buy the book!
The Opening Group Game Results (games I attended in blue):
Ellan Vannin 4 – 1 Cascadia
Barawa 4 – 0 Tamil Eelam
Abkhazia 3 – 0 Tibet
Northern Cyprus 1 – 1 Karpatalja
Szekely Land 4 – 0 Tuvalu
Padania 6 – 1 Matabeleland
United Koreans In Japan 0 – 0 Western Armenia
Panjab 8 – 0 Kabylia