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I had never met anyone from Tibet before, never heard of Abkhazia or Karpatalya, but the CONIFA World Football Cup can open your eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of a very different football perspective.
It started with the arrival of the 16 teams in London when young players from Matabeleland and Tibet were unloading their equipment and trying to navigate the student accommodation block where they are living for the next week or so. Among the Matabeleland hopefuls was a familiar face, albeit one that looks somewhat older than when he performed a wobbly-leg dance in Rome – Bruce Grobbelaar, the former Liverpool goalkeeper, who has been helping the team prepare for London.
The following day was a very timely reminder that football is still a great common language and something of an emollient, an expression of benign nationalism and an object of fascination. Its simplicity means it can be played on dusty plains, table-top mountains, sand-covered pitches and jungle clearings – not to mention down-trodden urban settlements. If “man”, as a species, has a creation that can be easily interpreted, it is surely the game of football. It embraces the rich, the poor, the young and old.
CONIFA is, effectively, international football’s own “non-league”, the nations and states that sit outside the huge global umbrella that is FIFA. It also provides reassuring evidence that while the great and the good (and not so good) will be gathering in Russia for the World Cup, a combine harvester of a competition that sweeps-up money and commercial opportunism, there is another gentler, more earnest side to international football.
Most neutrals attending the two games I witnessed at Enfield Town’s art-deco masterpiece, the Queen Elizabeth II stadium, probably hadn’t a clue where most of the 16 teams slugging it out for the prestigious trophy come from. If nothing else, the list of participants sent you heading for an atlas to find out exactly where teams like Padania, Szekely Land and Tuvalu come from. CONIFA as geography lesson.
Without doubt, these games also enabled the locals to mingle with people from far-flung corners of the world. Tibet’s fans, colourful flags and shirts, incredibly harmonious singing from their younger followers, were simply thoroughly pleasant folk, and a joy to see. Before the game, somebody was tying Tibetan flags to the top deck of the Enfield Town stand. I asked him if he was from Tibet and he replied, “Goodness no, Bristol, I want them to feel they are welcome in Britain.” And why not?
You sensed there was a hint of political sympathy in his reply, but CONIFA is adamant this is not what their competition is all about. During the game, however, there was a little protest from a women who was shouting in Russian at the Abkhazia officials, apparently about human rights. Even at this level, football can be political.
Abkhazia were champions in 2016 and they were clearly too strong for a Tibet side that kept running for 90 minutes. Abkhazia’s squad included players who have appeared for Torpedo Moscow and Arsenal Tula, while Tibet’s line-up was mostly unattached. They made headlines before the tournament by being blessed by none other than the Dalai Lama.
Abkhazia ran out 3-0 winners, sending a very clear message that they are out to regain their title. Tibet, who looked quite skilful and energetic, couldn’t match the physique of the team from the Black Sea coast.
By the time the game ended, dozens of Northern Cyprus supporters were arriving, donning huge flags that decorated the main stand. They were confident of victory against Karpatayla, who represented the ethnic Hungarian minority in the far west of Ukraine.
Northern Cyprus opened well but it was a scruffy goal that gave them the lead. To their enormous credit, Karpatayla came back well and early in the second half, they equalised. Northern Cyprus were clearly frustrated by their inability to take control of the game and if anything, the ethnic Hungarians were more likely winners. In the closing minutes, Northern Cyprus had a man sent off, but it didn’t spoil what was an engaging contest.
It had been an interesting day, something of a challenge, but one that underlined the words of Sascha Düerkop, the general secretary of CONIFA, who said that his organistion, “aims to build bridges between people, where others have built walls. We aim to give a voice to the voiceless and unheard. We want to make international football and grassroots support a natural fit – not a contradiction.” And so say all of us.
To see more from CONIFA, including match reports, click here