CONIFA is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. A volunteer run organisation which takes care of all non-FIFA affiliated football associations or "those representing nations, minorities, isolated dependencies or cultural regions". And like the big boys at FIFA, they have a 'World Cup' too. And this week, they're bringing it to not only London, but our very own doorstep.
Yes, an international football tournament is coming to the People's Republic of West Sutton barely a couple of weeks before the marginally more well known one boots off in Russia. And as we well know, Russia is miles away, almost as far as Barrow on a Tuesday night in fact, so why bother with all that when you've got all the action you could need right here in the big smoke? Not only that, but Right Said Fred have done the official anthem\song. No, we've not been drinking. Check it out HERE if you don't believe us. See?
This will be the third edition of the 'World Football Cup' as CONIFA calls it, as apparently FIFA (and probably more importantly, their lawyers) don't like other people using the words 'world' and 'cup' together to describe football tournaments other than theirs and has been held every 2 years since 2014. The inaugural tournament took place in just one stadium in Ostersunds, Sweden with 12 invited teams taking part. Last time out, the de-facto independent state of Abkhazia neighbouring Georgia hosted with again 12 teams taking part, this time with 2 venues being used. London 2018 will however be the biggest yet, with 16 teams involved and 10 venues dotted around the capital hosting a total of 48 matches. This will also be the first to have a headline sponsor, in this case 'well known' betting firm Paddy Power. Thankfully though they seem to have reined in the worst of their usual "Wheeeeey bantz!" type stuff and have done a fairly decent job in promoting the comp. Their range of clips profiling the competing nations are definitely worth a watch for instance.
Naturally, being the Non-League oddballs that we are, anything a bit quirky and left field like this is always going to get our attention and set all sorts of juices flowing and having first decided to definitely take in a couple of games, we then assisted in pointing the organisers in the right direction for possible use of the world famous GGL for games and finally just got ideas way above our station, went "Sod it" and applied for official Press Accreditation. And bizarrely, we got it! No, we've no idea either. What we do know is boy is someone going to get shouted at for that one.
This does now of course mean that, not before time, we can be mentioned on equal terms with the likes of the BBC and other dead serious news type outlets. And whist your brain processes that staggering little factoid, we'll take the opportunity to shift towards introducing you to some of the venues and the teams taking part.
First up, the stadiums. Which are all, without exception, the sort of places we're very much used to as they're all from good old English Non-League stock. Our own GGL got the nod and will host 6 games in all, two of which will be Quarter Finals, plus even the Bobbins down the road have got in on the act and and have 4 matches, including both semis. Elsewhere, Bromley, Bracknell, Bedfont and Slough were selected, as well as Aveley's new facility and Fisher's new home back in Rotherhithe. Finally, Haringey's Coles Park and Enfield Town's home complete the set, with the latter hosting the final. Enfield's QE2 ground also stands out for another reason, it's the only grass surface in the competition. The rest all being artificial 3G pitches. Of course, one of the things that really appealed to us about all this was the fact that we've not been to pretty much all of those grounds. Oh yes, we're going to be in a ground ticking frenzy for the next 2 weeks!
As mentioned, this is the biggest one yet and the number of teams involved has increased from 12 to 16 this year and with the tournament being held in a huge mixed city like London, you're probably thinking "Well, they'll all just be made up of ex-pats won't they!". And whilst that's the case for sides like the hosts Barawa (yes, we said hosts, more on that later) and Panjab, there are also squads coming from as far afield as Africa (Matabeleland & Kabyila) and even the Pacific Islands (Tuvalu). So yeah, it's a proper World Cup and no mistake. So, the teams. Who's who and all that? Well, I guess we'd better run you through the four groups so you can then pick some completely random outfit to follow. Oh come on, you know you will. You can't kid us.
First, we have (unsurprisingly!) Group A. This consists of Barawa, Ellan Vannin, Tamil Elam and Cascadia. As already mentioned, Barawa are the 'hosts' of the tournament and yes, that is Barawa and not 'Barrow'. They're a London based association representing the Somali coastal town of the same name and it's surrounding areas. They qualified by being selected as hosts and this is their first full tournament after joining CONIFA in 2016. They've also got a tiny Sutton connection, having played in a small round robin comp at GGL back in 2016. As they're a new side and don't have a CONIFA ranking, no ones sure how they'll do, but their squad list includes a couple of St Albans lads and a couple of guys from QPR's U23's, so you never know. Next, we have Ellan Vannin who you and I would probably know better as the Isle of Man. Ranked 4th in the CONIFA standings, they're tournament old hands, having played in the inaugural World Cup in 2014 (finishing 4th) and then the 2015 Euro competition, finishing 3rd. EV are a separate set up from the IoM FA and will only select Manx qualified players, based on FIFA's qualification criteria no less. With a bit of pedigree, they should make the quarters I reckon.
Tamil Eelam are the next bunch. As you can probably guess from the name, they represent the Tamil region in the north of Sri Lanka which was of course in the news for many years thanks to the ongoing conflict\civil war there. Sitting 9th in the CONIFA rankings, they didn't qualify for the last World Cup, but did have some success at the Unity Cup at GGL, beating the Chagos Islands 5-1 in the final. Their squad is a mix of amateur players playing as far afield as Switzerland, France and Germany. They even have a keeper who turns out for Epsom Athletic! Rounding out the group is Cascadia. They're currently not ranked by CONIFA and are in the tournament as a wild card entry, having yet to even play a game! Hailing from the Pacific Northwest of North America, the squad is a mix of US based lads and some English Non-League players from the likes of Corinthian Casuals and Banbury. How will they do? Dunno. I doubt even they're too sure!
One game from this group will be played at GGL, with Ellan Vannin taking on Cascadia on Thursday 31st May. Kick off 12:00
Obviously, Group B is next with Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Karpatalya and Tibet competing, mostly at Enfield Town's Queen Elizabeth II stadium with 5 of the 6 group games taking place there. First up are the hosts of the last World Cup and indeed the holders, Abkhazia who in true international tournament fashion went and won the one they hosted beating Panjab on penalties in the final. This was an improvement on their debut in 2014 when they came in 8th overall. They hail from the eastern shores of the Black Sea and won de-facto independence from Georgia in 1993 after a 13 month conflict between the two sides. They're only ranked 8th by CONIFA, but being holders and one of the few teams to have any kinds of state backing they should be ones to watch. The squad is drawn mostly from their own league with a couple of lads plying their trade in the Russian 3rd tier involved. Northern Cyprus is probably one of the more familiar names taking part in London, they're another de-facto independent state representing the Turkish northern half of the island of Cyprus. Despite the squad being entirely drawn from their own league, they're 3rd in the CONIFA rankings and finished 3rd last time out in 2016. Their involvement has drawn some attention, with Greek Cypriots in North London unhappy that they're playing games on their doorstep at Enfield.
Now, I'm not what you'd call totally thick. I can find most places on a map, unlike Mr X with his geography degree but even I had to do some digging on the next team, Karpatalya. They're not ranked by CONIFA but are in London as a wild card after original qualifiers Felvidek scratched from the tournament. Hailing from the Western side of the Ukraine, Karpatalya represents the Hungarian minority in that region. Despite being unranked, they do have some tournament experience finishing 5th in the 2016 Euro competition in Cyprus. Given their heritage, most of the squad unsurprisingly hails from the 2nd\3rd tiers of the Hungarian leagues. Finally we have Tibet, who thanks to that nice smiley spiritual leader chap you've probably seen on the news, the Dalai Lama, should really need no introduction. Another wild card entry, they're sat in 13th place in the CONIFA rankings, but being Buddhists, that probably doesn't bother them in the same 'unlucky for some' manner it would the likes of us one bit. Their playing strength is hard to quantify given that all their players are listed as 'unattached', however that may simply be to stop them getting bother due to the fact that China doesn't really like anything Tibet related showing up at events like this. One thing we do know however is that their kit is certainly world class and could possibly be one of, if not the best in the tournament. And that's what's really important.
Oddly, we find Group C following on from Group B. Who'd have thunk it? Welcome to Padania, Székely Land, Tuvalu & Matabeleland. First on the block are Padania, representing the Po Valley region in northern Italy. They've got a fair bit of football heritage this lot as you'd expect given their home nation and were 3 times winners of the VIVA World Cup, the forerunner to CONIFA. They're currently ranked 2nd, came in 4th in 2016 and also won the 2015 Euro competition. Mario Balotelli's brother has also played for them! With a squad mainly drawn from Italian Serie D sides, they'll definitely be ones to watch. Székely Land is admittedly another place I had to look up. Turns out that they represent the ethnic Hungarians who now live in several regions in central Romania. They joined the Federation in 2014 and have featured in a couple of tournaments since, most notably finishing 3rd in the 2017 European Cup. Last time out in Abkhazia, they finished 9th. Drawing their strength from mostly Romanian 3rd tier sides and FC Csikszereda Miercur in particular, they could be one to watch.
The third side in the third group are the ones travelling furthest to get to London, Tuvalu. Who have to flog it just the 9,361 miles to make it here. So, the sort of trip that makes us going to Halifax midweek look like a trip to the off licence for a pint of milk. The Pacific Islanders didn't originally qualify for the competition, instead they stepped in when near neighbours Kiribati (just the 1000 miles away!) scratched. The former UK protectorate known as the Ellice Islands isn't ranked by CONIFA, but they are members of the Oceania Football Confederation and had attempted to join FIFA as recently as 2014. The squad is entirely Tuvalu based, so it's hard to say how they'll fare but having come all that way, I doubt they'll be just here to make up the numbers. Last but not least in Group C we come to Matabeleland. Hailing from the Western half of Zimbabwe, like Cascadia they're another wild card entry aiming to help spread the reach of the tournament. Sadly, there's no squad info been released for them, so it's difficult to make any kind of comment on how they'll fare, but judging by their social media a reasonably sized squad has travelled and they should be fairly well prepared as their English Coach Justin Walley visited some of their match venues, including GGL, early this year. Their kit should also be right up there in the "Phwoar!" stakes if the designs we've seen are owt to go by!
This group will also be providing GGL with some action, with Padania playing Matabeleland on 31st May, kick off at 3:00pm.
Finally, we come to the last group. Group D. This contains Panjab, United Koreans in Japan, Western Armenia & Kabylia and will mostly be played out at Slough & Bracknell, with 4 of the 6 games either at Arbour Park or Larges Lane. Panjab are probably the favourites for the group, if not for the tournament itself. They're ranked number 1 by the Federation and were beaten finalists on penalties in 2016. Representing the Punjabi diaspora from parts of eastern Pakistan and northern India, they'll no doubt attract decent support from the large Asian communities based on the western side of London. Next is the United Koreans of Japan, are the first international side we've heard of that mentions two countries! As the name suggests, they're the representatives of the Korean diaspora in Japan known as the 'Zainichi Koreans'. Holding the 6th spot in the CONIFA rankings, they finished 7th in 2016 and their squad is mostly drawn from the lower leagues in Japan, however they do have one secret weapon in their ranks in player-manager An Yong-Hak who played at mostly 1st & 2nd division level in Japan and made 37 appearances for North Korea, including being a member of their 2010 FIFA World Cup squad.
Western Armenia will be in London representing the Armenian diaspora of the region of Eastern Turkey which was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. In Abkhazia in 2016, they started well with a 12-0 tonking of the Chagos Islands, they lost their next 2 but still made the quarters before bowing out and claiming 6th place overall. Ranked 10th, they're another relatively new member, joining CONIFA in 2015 and will be bringing an interestingly mixed squad, with players plying their trade in the top divisions in Armenia itself, Kazakhstan and Slovakia. This leaves us with just the one team to go, Kabyila! Hailing from the coastal region of Algeria, they represent the Berber ethnic group and their region was one of the last strongholds against French colonisation in the 19th century. They're not ranked currently by CONIFA and it seems info is thin on the ground about the team. There's not even a squad list been released as apparently in the past this has caused players to be detained by the Algerian authorities to disrupt their match activities. However, with Algerian players being usually decent technically and no doubt a couple of their lads plying their trade in France, they'll be worth keeping an eye on to see how they do.
Right boys and girls, that's your runners and riders then. If you want to know more about the tournament, check out the CONIFA site for all the details and more importantly how to bag tickets for matches. Also, give them a follow on Twitter to keep you up to date with what's going on during the event. However, if you're a lazy sod and can't be bothered to go chasing all over town to see some action, there's of course a number of games taking place at our own GGL as well as at Colston Avenue. Details below.
Right, I think that's it. Well, apart from the 'green cards' thing and the fact Mark Clattenburg is reffing a few games that is, but hey, I've got to keep something back for later! And besides, I need to go and find a nice trilby to stick my press pass into the band of so I look the part when it all kicks off.
DAY 1 (Taz) | DAY 1 (Totts) | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6
31/5 12:00 Ellan Vannin v Cascadia (Group A - GGL)
31/5 12:00 Utd Koreans in Japan v Western Armenia (Group D - Carshalton)
31/5 15:00 Padania v Matabeleland (Group C - GGL)
2/6 17:00 Ellan Vannin v Tamil Eelam (Group A - Carshalton)
2/6 14:00 Barawa v Cascadia (Group A - Carshalton)
5/6 15:00 Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B (Quarter Finals - GGL)
5/6 18:00 Winner Group B v Runner-up Group A (Quarter Finals - GGL)
7/6 12:00 Placement Rd 2 Match (GGL)
7/6 15:00 Placement Rd 2 Match (GGL)
7/6 17:00 Semi Finals (Carshalton)
7/6 20:00 Semi Finals (Carshalton)