CONIFA: Make us dream
Words by Cassie Whittell, Photo Credit Brad Merrett
Ten days volunteering at the CONIFA 2018 World Football Cup in London was life-changing – and reaffirmed how powerful our favourite sport can be‘Got a teamsheet?’ I was asked this a hundred times a day, at every CONIFA match I worked at. And it was always by older men, ‘groundhoppers’, those blokes ‘doing the 93’. I’d smile, hand them a teamsheet, wonder why they wanted them.
After all, the teams they were studying weren’t non-league or lower league outfits. They probably hadn’t ever heard of Tibet’s Tenzin Samdup, or Northern Cyprus’ Billy Osman Mehmet. But these guys wanted to know who they were watching. And the conversation would inevitably turn to why. Why have the Tuvalu team travelled thousands of miles from their home island in the Pacific to London to play in a tournament few people have heard of? Who are Barawa and why are they the hosts of the tournament – and not England, if all the matches are being played in London? How come Matabeleland had to crowdfund to get to the World Football Cup at all? The stories behind that list of names on a simple team sheet took some beating. And all of them deserved to be heard.
Hang on, I hear you say. The World Cup was in Russia in 2018, not London. Who the hell are Tuvalu and Barawa? In fact, where exactly ARE Tuvalu and Barawa? What on earth is CONIFA?
Football for the forgotten
CONIFA – the Confederation of Independent Footballing Associations – is based in Sweden, run entirely by dedicated volunteers, and devoted to bringing stateless nations, displaced peoples and those who don’t identify with traditional footballing bodies into its fold. Members include those who don’t want to be part of a traditional FIFA affiliation (Parishes of Jersey, Padania in Italy); those who are displaced from their lands or homes (Barawa, Rohingya); and those who are outside of the parameters of FIFA for whatever reason (Tibet, Tuvalu, Northern Cyprus).
CONIFA is non-political (a tricky line is walked by the membership committee, who have to remain neutral even in the face of clear persecution of member peoples, or governmental opposition to teams) and simply welcomes members with open arms, encouraging them to play for their pride, their people, their lost lands, their desire to be seen as a group who share the same aims and ideals – even if that is just for 90 minutes.
CONIFA aim to host a World Football Cup (note the distinction, FIFA don’t like this to be confused with their spectacle) every two years. This was the third time the WFC had taken place and was the largest tournament organised so far, with 16 teams taking part, playing in various non-league grounds across London.
I’d signed up as a volunteer media assistant for the 2018 World Football Cup, thinking I’d be writing a few tweets, proofing some match reports, maybe helping out at press events. Instead, I became part of a footballing family that has very little money or funding, relies on the goodwill of its volunteers, and aims to support and promote the teams who have travelled thousands of miles – sometimes from regions full of unimaginable horrors – to play football.
We are family
My branch of the CONIFA footballing family – the media team – was as diverse as you could make it. Me, and 10 other people who’d also volunteered, ranging in age from 18 to 60+, from Canada, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy via Abkhazia, Spain, Australia… we quickly came together as a group, our shared love of football overcoming language barriers and differences in cultures and styles. The feeling was, we were all part of something much bigger than ourselves, and so it proved.
Friendships were quickly formed, all of us determined to showcase this ‘tournament of the forgotten’ to the world. We didn’t have much experience, but we made up for it in enthusiasm, pride and hard work. Whether it was handing out teamsheets at matches, proofing reports, choosing pictures from our volunteer army of photographers, dealing with media requests, or writing up social media posts, the team pulled together and made it happen. Sometimes people were rude to us. Sometimes we got things wrong. But when you saw the happiness on the faces of the Tibet fans, as they watched their team take to the field, or revelled in the delight of the Tamil Eelam drummers as they cheered on their boys in red, it made it all worthwhile.
I could feel the spirit and the camaraderie of our team taking hold. I hugged girls from Abkhazia as they cried, missing their homeland. I danced Irish jigs in the pub on a rare night off. We ate greasy burgers at rainy grounds and stole wifi from each other, and cheered each other on when we took a great photo or wrote a brilliant match report. We got drunk on cheap wine and when we had to say goodbye to each other at the end of 10 wonderful days, we didn’t want to let each other go.
Let’s hear it for the girls
My first sight of the passionate, strong willed and dedicated female fans that became such a symbol of the WFC were at Bromley FC for the opening ceremony. Beautifully dressed Tibetan women were out in force, cheering on their squad. One sang a song of welcome to all the other teams. Matabeleland and Tamil Eelam’s fans sang, danced, banged drums, gave non-stop support to their teams. National dress and traditions were in evidence. Tibet fans fed those sat around them with home-made snacks at a placement match at Aveley FC. Northern Cyprus’ female fans roared their team on in the final. It didn’t matter to these women that their team might be losing 3-0 or that it was raining or that they’d travelled hundreds of miles just to be there. What mattered was they were supporting the team that – they felt – represented them, who they were, what they believed in. Pride and passion is a term bandied around aplenty in our modern footballing era – but these women had just that. And it was fierce and bone deep, because when you’ve lost your country, when you can’t play there because of war, or persecution, then football becomes a symbol for so much more than just 90 minutes of on-the-pitch action.
My favourite supporters were the ‘Little Gas’, two girls with their dad up from Bristol, who had My Little Pony on their supporter’s flag and who went to every Tibet match they could. No one was saying to these two, you shouldn’t like football. This isn’t for you. The terraces were their playground. They ran up and down the steps at Bromley, having fun with every minute of it. Their dad shrugged and laughed. ‘They love it as much as I do,’ he said with a grin.
CONIFA is taking its first steps into women’s football – the first international CONIFA women’s match was played in Northern Cyprus in November 2018, which Sapmi Women won – and there’s a search on for a volunteer director of women’s football, too. Darfur United has just founded a women’s team and opportunities are slowly opening up for more female teams to be formed via CONIFA’s networks.
The final word
My last task as CONIFA’s tournament media manager was to proof the final’s match report, sat hunched over my laptop with Olaf, our designated journalist, in a chilly room at Enfield Town. Olaf banged out the words, his fingers flying, his dad Neil (also one of our media volunteers) standing at his shoulder, offering up turns of phrase, praise and encouragement. Ola, our social media lead, was on standby to promote the article. Liam, who’d been our on-the-spot reporter was sending us images from his phone, and Con, our pro photographer, was on the other side of the room, downloading images from the final and sending them to me. It was a team in perfect harmony, all of us entirely focused on that happy moment when the article winged its way to the CONIFA CMS and the wonderful words ‘It’s live’ were relayed back to us from Noah, our webmaster (based over in California). It was bittersweet; the tournament was over. We were all going back to our real lives.
One of the things that has remained with me from the CONIFA 2018 World Football Cup is that football can be such a powerful force for change. Football is ‘only’ sport at the end of the day – but it’s a sport that can choose to be a tool for ending oppression, bringing people together, making us see someone else’s point of view. When the Tibetan team handed the United Koreans in Japan team white blessing scarves before their match (fiercely fought and exhausting, going to penalties to decide the winner), it was a moment where you felt that this is what football should be. A game of honour and humility, with both teams going bollocks for leather to win. This football tournament changed me.
CONIFA might – one day – change the world. You can find out more about CONIFA here.