With all eyes on Artsakh over the coming week, CONIFA’s efforts to take football around the world will again be hitting the headlines.
Eight teams will be participating in this year’s CONIFA Sportbet.io European Football Cup 2019, the latest tournament for CONIFA’s member nations to stake their claim for silverware.
The competition in Artsakh follows the massively successful World Football Cup in London last year – and Dublin-based journalist James Hendicott took inspiration from the events in the UK to write his book CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten.
The book takes a detailed look at CONIFA’s journey to date, speaking to those behind the formation of the constantly growing organisation. Member nations also get the chance to tell their story, in a compelling page-turner for those football fans fascinated about CONIFA’s role in the global game.
James tells us all about his publication and how it all came together…
Firstly, can you tell us why you decided you wanted to write this book?
“I only discovered CONIFA a few months before the London tournament, and it happened to coincide with a lot of question marks about identity and representation, as well as disillusionment with football, that I have in my own life.
“CONIFA has this kind of rustic, thrown-together charm to it that I really love, and teams with absolutely wonderful stories behind them. Back in early 2018, I spent a couple of days reading about plans for London, checked if anyone had beaten me to a book, and set about planning 10 days in London to cover the tournament. To be honest, I felt a bit like a cat that had stumbled across the sporting cream. When you’re passionate about writing, the chance to write about the people behind entities like Kabylia (whose staff were arrested in the build-up to CONIFA 2018), Matabeleland (who came through the end of Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, somehow pulling together the money for London along the way), and Cascadia (who met for the first time the day before it all kicked off) is just too good to turn down.”
What did you enjoy the most whilst putting the book together?
“I think the openness of everyone around CONIFA was probably the best thing about it all. I love the stories I came across, and working my way around the language barrier to get tales from various competing sides was really quite interesting.
“Because of this, the book is a far deeper dive than I really thought might be possible ahead of time. At times I was amazed to be given such access, and I think it’s a real credit to the organisation that in a fairly ‘tell-all’ style book, they still come out of things fairly well. I do wonder if some of the people involved would talk to me so openly again, in hindsight (I hope so!), but I’m grateful for it.”
The book is a fantastic introduction to the question of ‘Who or what is CONIFA?’ Was that a key starting point for you when putting the book together?
“It was certainly important. At the beginning, I really was learning what CONIFA is myself, and naturally, that made it somewhat easier to try and explain the organisation to someone who didn’t know it very well – similarly, I didn’t know a great deal until I started a long, long series of interviews.
“I think the roots of CONIFA are fascinating. The development of the organisation from the far looser NF-Board, and how much Per-Anders Blind, in particular, was willing to put on the line to get things underway (he very nearly bankrupted himself) is fascinating. I wanted to tell the story of a Sapmi reindeer-herding businessman (Per-Anders) and a German football shirt collector (Sascha Duerköp) founding a multi-continental organisation running massive events, and to do so in their own words.
“As well as the story of CONIFA itself, though, it was important to me to touch on the stories of a few of the teams involved, and those run pretty deep, too. I felt quite emotional hearing those stories at some games. CONIFA’s broader story is incredibly wide in its scope – the recent addition of the first South American team to the organisation, completing the continental line up, really shows that.”
Which of the CONIFA member nations’ stories were you most fascinated by, and why?
I don’t think I’d be alone in having a fascination with Tibet, and having been to Dharamsala, the Tibetan enclave of India, they held an instant allure for me. They play this really freestyle, relaxed type of football that it’s easy to love. As much as it’s massively cliched, I’d almost call it ‘zen football’. I have some loose links to the United Koreans, too, having lived in South Korea for a couple of years, so I felt connected to their culture.
“I think Kabylia probably won out, overall, though, because their story is just incredible. They represent a region of Algeria that has long campaigned for independence and the football team’s existence is extremely politically sensitive over there, so much so that all their players in London were drawn from European-based emigrants from Kabylia, for their own safety. I met people in the stands in London wearing their yellow shirts who spent half the game in tears as they watched the team.”
What do you think are the biggest opportunities and challenges for CONIFA in the coming years?
“I think CONIFA’s expansion since the 2018 tournament speaks for itself; things are looking very positive, though there are a few specific risks that stand out to me. The finances are an obvious one and while I don’t speak for CONIFA, I’d encourage anyone with an interest in them to sign up as an individual member. You get a say in direction, and will help them survive.
“I think CONIFA does a great job of navigating the political sensitivities of what they do, too, but there’s definitely potential for issues there, too. I think CONIFA has done well to keep their noses out of the politics in general, and their success in doing so is quite an achievement.
“There are challenges, in other words, but nothing insurmountable in my view. CONIFA also seems to have a big role to play in drawing communities together and fostering positive relationships between people who might be broadly politically opposed most of the time.”
What has been the reaction to the book so far, and have you heard much from the member nations themselves about their coverage?
“I’ve had some fantastic coverage from the media that normally covers relatively fringe football in several countries, as well as going on podcasts and radio, and generally, the feedback from readers has been extremely positive, which is really great, and I’m very grateful. I think what CONIFA does is so outside of the average football fan’s awareness and experience, and the stories behind the teams tend to excite people.
“I’ve heard from plenty from the CONIFA executive and quite a few teams, however. They almost universally love the book in general, and almost universally have some part of it they don’t love so much!”
Sum up CONIFA in three words!
“Ambitious. Storied. Memorable.”
James’ book is available for purchase from his website or, if you’re heading out to Artsakh, limited numbers will be available to purchase through CONIFA at this summer’s tournament!