The crowd cheers as the teams line up, ready for the national anthems. The stadium speaker crackles, then a rock song with smooth female vocals begins to play, to which the team in green-and-while stripes duly stand to attention. When their opponents’ anthem plays, a bearded man in the stands sings along loudly, those around him nervously joining in. As the teams shake hands and move into formation, a drum starts banging loudly while a second man stands on his bench and bellows ‘Come on Panjab!’ This is a World Cup football match, but not as you’ve ever known it. Instead of Russia, we’re in sunny Bracknell, Berkshire, for the CONIFA World Football Cup.
CONIFA stands for the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, an organisation representing those collective peoples that fall outside the traditional FIFA sphere of influence. While as an entity CONIFA may be only five-years-old and have no full-time paid employees, it nevertheless has 47 members spread across five continents and represents over 5,500 ethnicities covering 334 million potential football fans. From the tiny South Pacific island of Tuvalu to Ellan Vannin (also known as the Isle of Man), the Cascadia region of Oregon and Washington states to the war-torn region of Barawa in Somalia (technically the tournament hosts for 2018) and many more who didn’t qualify for this tournament – the organisation aims to enable those who feel unrepresented by their own sovereignties to be able to participate in a World Cup tournament. ‘CONIFA aims to build bridges between people, where others have built walls,’ says Sascha Düerkop, general secretary of CONIFA. ‘We aim to give a voice to the voiceless and unheard.’
In Bracknell it may only be the quarter-final of the 2018 CONIFA World Cup – the third tournament CONIFA has held to date – but it’s a significant one. The world number one side, Panjab – representing the planet’s 102 million Punjabi-speaking people – are facing the number two side, Padania, also known as the Pado Valley of Northern Italy. Panjab opened the tournament with an 8-0 thrashing of the north African region of Kabylia (a cultural region in Algeria), but defeat against Western Armenia, combined with three successive wins for Padania, saw the top two sides meet in the first knockout round.
It’s a slow start, the first shot being a long-range Punjabi effort that flies over the goal. The Padania keeper is certainly the busier of the two glove butlers. Shouts in English and Italian ring out from around the edges of the pitch, the hundred or so spectators making sure they get their voices heard. The prize of a semi-final spot has players clearly motivated, with tackles coming in hard and numerous incidents ending with players from both sides sprawled on the floor. A few sneaky shirt pulls sees the referee needing to brandish the yellow card on multiple occasions. Despite a breakaway one-on-one in which a Padania striker manages to fire straight at the approaching keeper, the whistle blows for half-time with the scores still level.
‘In my opinion, this tournament is pretty much the milestone for CONIFA,’ says Jens Jockel, CONIFA Asia president. ‘We had a great tournament two years ago, in Abkhazia [won by said home nation, a separatist region claimed by Georgia], but this one is much more independent. For the first time we have a big main sponsor [Paddy Power] which means a lot to us. It’s the biggest tournament CONIFA has ever held.’
Jason Heaton, CONIFA’s global business director, chimes in: ‘In the greatest city on Earth, might I add. I think that anyone that wants to put a World Cup on in London is expressing serious ambition.’
That ambition is not necessarily to support the independence movements of each of their members – CONIFA is a politically neutral organisation. As long as applicants satisfy the criteria of representing a linguistic and cultural minority, then they are welcome to compete against other members. ‘We don’t want to be dragged into the politics, that’s the whole point,’ says Heaton. ‘Ultimately CONIFA just wants to allow them to play football.’
‘In Abkhazia two years ago [the CONIFA 2016 World Football Cup], it was always about recognition as well as people,’ explains Jockel. ‘It meant a lot to each member. For example, after the tournament finished, the Abkhazian president got on stage and declared the next day a holiday for the whole country. So you see the importance for the people and it’s really something they can identify with.’
Back in Bracknell the crowd gets more vocal in the second half, the sound of drumming ever more dominating. They are overwhelmingly on the side of Panjab, but their players aren’t able to respond, starting to struggle as Padania piles on the pressure. A goal-line clearance on the hour mark leads to a moment of controversy as Padania claims it was courtesy of a rogue arm, but the referee waves it away. Moments later, he’s pointing to the penalty spot as yet another Padania player falls to the grass. There’s nothing the goalkeeper can do the keep the scores level, the ball flying past him low as he dives to his left.
The Padania team is confident now. While the crowd screams for an equaliser, the leaders soak up Panjab’s counter-attacks, eventually breaking away as the clock ticks to 90 minutes. With two strikers bearing down on his goal and no defenders to be seen, the Panjab keeper makes a desperate attempt to tackle them himself, only to see the ball passed to another onrushing attacker who slides it into an empty net. The final whistle blows and Panjab is out. Padania marches on, meeting Northern Cyprus in the semi-final. Karpatalya, a Hungarian minority in west Ukraine, and Székely Land, a Hungarian minority in Romania’s eastern Transylvania makes up the other semi. Whatever happens, it seems there will be Hungarian representation in the final.
From the crowd-funding financial campaigns and direct involvement of Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar to get the Matabeleland team (from west Zimbabwe) to London, to the political objections against the Tibetan team’s matches – most if not all of the CONIFA members and World Cup participants have had significant obstacles to overcome in order to logistically get themselves to the tournament, something very few FIFA World Cup players ever have to think about.
With a final to come this weekend, and the 2019 CONIFA European Championship and 2020 World Football Cup around the corner, as well as proposed humanitarian projects, the scale of CONIFA’s ambitions appears to extend far beyond just this tournament. ‘We have a vision of creating a better world – bridging divides and creating a better planet where no one is a stranger,’ says CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind. ‘Football is a tool for a higher purpose.’
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