It was only six months ago I first heard of CONIFA, indirectly, through a beautiful book on fringe soccer called ‘Up Pohnpei’. Paul Watson, the author, is the Global Commercial Director of CONIFA, a link which seems extremely fitting given the difficulties he faced in trying to guide the tiny South Pacific island of Pohnpei back to the international stage. Something he did, essentially, just for the hell of it.
About two months later, I became an individual CONIFA member, and sent off what felt like an outlandishly optimistic request to have a chat with Per-Anders Blind about what was going on in the build-up to the 2018 Paddy Power World Football Cup tournament in London. As a journalist, Blind’s back story stood out by a mile as something of quirky yet universal interest.
As you might know, Per-Anders is the President of CONIFA, yet incredibly open in giving time to the likes of me. I first spoke to him on a shaky Skype line, with me sat in the early-Spring sunshine outside Dublin Castle on a cheeky morning break from my day job, and Per-Anders avoiding the post-winter melt from the warmth of his study in Northern Sweden. He started by describing a little about how his team, Sapmi – who didn’t qualify for this 2018 World Football cup tournament – had come into being.
As he unveiled another footballing world to me, Per-Anders laid out how the early CONIFA Executive had put his mind, heart and soul into creating a tournament for the unrepresented, facing financial uncertainty, last-minute visa scares, difficulties securing host locations for tournaments; and remaining apolitical throughout. It sounded hard work, but also like the best – if unpredictable – fun imaginable. I am quite sure he was not aware of the impact CONIFA’s story was beginning to have on me, and what it would lead to in my life.
The ethos stood out, as did the passion and unparalleled hard work. I asked him what prompted it all; he told me, quite simply, that after refereeing an earlier tournament for non-FIFA nations, he’d been asked to do it. So he did. That same organisation now hosts teams that represent tens of millions of people.
I’ve always loved the unheralded pastures of football. I’m a lifelong Aston Villa fan and I’ve often wondered if some of my growing disillusionment with the money men and the powerhouses of football in recent years has come in part from my club’s relative failings. So I’ve been flitting towards alternative routes to channel my love for the beautiful game, and enjoy even more of less conventional football: periods of mild fixation with St Pauli and Altona ‘93, FC United of Manchester and Sassuolo. Back home in Ireland, it’s been about trips to Crumlin United and Tralee Dynamos as well as Cork City and Shamrock Rovers.
The best games I’ve ever been to have been played on bobbling pitches by people taking time out from their day jobs. I still regularly, randomly, bring up a Leinster Senior League (Irish third tier) game I was lucky enough to attend on the final day of the 2015/2016 season between Tolka Rovers and Glebe North. This is why: Glebe North – who’d won the reverse fixture an astonishing 9-0 earlier in the season – nevertheless needed a win from the final game away at their only relegation rivals to stay up. With Glebe having led 3-1 right into the closing minutes, Tolka smashed in two goals – the latter a 60-yard hit and hope right on full time – to stay up and condemn Glebe.
There were no more than 50 spectators in the stand, but it was emotionally shattering. In all likelihood, not one player on that pitch will be remembered outside of his own club in 50 years. Hell, Tolka went down the following year anyway (they’ve just been relegated again, actually). But in terms of pure, unbridled passion, I’ve never seen a better game. Every man on that pitch would have given anything for their club that day.
Passion for a shirt – true representation – is what football is really all about. Passion in playing your heart out, and representing something that really matters to you, whether it’s in front of 50 or 50,000.
That same almost-tangible passion is what has made me decide to dedicate my summer to CONIFA; in attending, and then writing in detail about, events during the World Football Cup in London. I felt that passion and drive for creating something the moment I connected with Per-Anders, and CONIFA. It oozes from every pore.
Since that initial chat with the current CONIFA President, I’ve spoken to most of the rest of the organisers of the 2018 tournament. I’ve also talked to various team managers about their preparations, the challenges they face, and the incredible stories that have led them – in some cases through unimaginably difficult journeys – to play in London.
I’ve heard about ample hopes and, of course, some fears; it’s a big feat for an army of volunteers to pull off such a big tournament in such a big city. I’ve heard from a lot of people who are doing a lot, for a little, just because they want to; just because they care.
I’ll be at every game I can make between May 31 and June 9 – my best guess is around 15 out of the 48 scheduled matches – and talking to everyone I can about CONIFA, and what it all means, to get it all down on paper. I already know enough to know the first international football tournament of the summer will live up to the hype!
James’ book on the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten is now available to pre-order via his website, including perks and discounts for ordering up front.
He’d love to talk to anyone and everyone connected with the tournament and CONIFA’s teams, and can be contacted here.