Imagine if football was about 22 people running around a field, kicking a ball, and didn’t have any context. Nobody would care. People wouldn’t watch it, they wouldn’t buy replica shirts, they wouldn’t pay exorbitant amounts of money just to see it played out in front of them.
That’s because football, at its core, is about stories. It’s about the triumph of mind over matter, that one chance in a hundred that your team could defy the odds and do something special.
The opening match of the CONIFA Sportsbet.io European Football Cup 2019 saw 2016 World Football Cup winners Abkhazia go into half time 1-0 down to rank tournament outsiders Chameria in Askeran, shaking up the order of the competition from its outset. They rallied to win, but just as a reminder...
The World Football Cup 2018 was CONIFA’s biggest tournament ever – 16 teams, all piling into London for a week and a half of football around the capital. But not all 16 of those teams were the ones who were meant to be there.
In May – four weeks before the tournament started – Karpatalja were called up to replace Felvidék in London. It was their first ever World Football Cup, having previously played in a European Football Cup (where they were knocked out in the groups).
In a group with 2016 world champions Abkhazia and 2016 bronze medalists Northern Cyprus, Karpatalja...started winning. They topped the group of death unbeaten. They breezed through the quarters, and their semi-final. Then, in the rain in Enfield, they beat Northern Cyprus on penalties to beat the odds and lift the World Football Cup at their first attempt.
On the other hand...not all surprises are good ones. Abkhazia came into 2018’s tournament right in the reckoning, arriving in London to defend the title they won on home soil two years before. It started well, a 3-0 win over Tibet on the opening day put them into the lead of the group.
Zsolt Gajdos and István Sándor scored a goal apiece for Karpatalja in their game against the reigning champions the next day, and things started to break down. A 2-2 draw with Northern Cyprus in their final group game was dramatic, but not enough – the champions out at the first stage.
Chagos Islands 2016
Of course, not all stories of defying the odds are about on-pitch endeavours. Especially not in CONIFA. The people of the Chagos Islands were displaced from their home in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Islands were leased out to the United States, for use as a military base.
Many were deported to nearby Mauritius, but a number made it to the United Kingdom. Mostly to London – where they’ve kept up a campaign to reclaim their home to this day. The Chagos Islands football team was made to keep that sense of coherent community alive, to keep the fight visible.
So when they went to the World Football Cup in 2016, competing on the biggest stage allowed to them for the first time, it didn’t really matter that they crashed out at the group stage with 9-0 and 12-0 defeats. They were there.
For more about the Chagos Islands and a number of other stories within CONIFA, 90min’s Chris Deeley (that’s me) has written a book – Forgotten Nations – put out by Pitch Publishing on the 3rd June this year.
Every new tournament is a new story. The CONIFA Sportsbet.io European Football Cup 2019 is a new chance for a new team to come out of nowhere. It could be the Sapmi team, nomads from the north, the great reindeer herders of modern-day Scandinavia.
It could be Artsakh, creating history on their own soil against teams including a Western Armenia side who some of their population hope will – someday – be united with them as one country. It might not even be a team. It could be anyone. There’s only one way to find out.
The Matabeleland team would never have made it to the world football stage without the internet. They were helped – and coached, in part – by Liverpool goalkeeping legend Bruce Grobbelaar, thanks to team coach Justin Walley’s off-the-cuff email.
Walley himself would never have ended up coaching the team. The team needed to raise the money for a full squad to come over from Zimbabwe, and somehow obtain visas. They needed a kit. They needed everything – and an online crowdfunding campaign made sure they had it, just in time.
That crowdfunding campaign was the reason that almost every ground which played host to a CONIFA match that summer had at least one Matabeleland jersey in it. It’s how they caught the hearts and minds of the local public. It’s why, when they scored three times to win their final group game, having previously lost to Padania and Szekely Land, the roar was as great as any in the tournament.