I Went to an International Football Match Between Two Non-Countries
It's Sealand vs the Chagos Islands – and it's LIVE (in Surrey)!
There's not a lot to suggest that the Brazil World Cup will be the coming-of-age for a developing nation that its organisers have hyped it as. Stories of families being forcibly removed from their homes and bits of crumbling stadium killing workers sounds more like an ancient Egyptian worksite than a newly industrialised country cementing its place on the global stage. If you've been following the anti-tournament protests, it'll come as no surprise that, three months from kick-off, only 52 percent of Brazilians are actually in favour of hosting the thing.
Not that this will stop most people from being any less obsessed with the Greatest Show on Earth by the time it rolls around, of course. But for those who have finally had enough of FIFA, with their aggressive land grabbing, their perverted love of Qatar and extortionate ticket prices that are set to completely price out locals, there is an alternative.
The Non-FIFA (NF) board is a football federation for teams representing dependencies, autonomous countries and stateless nations that aren't recognised as full FIFA members. It also tends to have less corruption and bribery scandals, and – to the internet's knowledge and unlike its flashier counterpart – has never been investigated for being racist.
Speaking to Edward Stubbs, founder and editor of the Non-FIFA Football blog – and also head coach of the Sealand national team – he told me that the NF Board is "a hugely important platform for so many teams, as you can imagine, from Tamil Eelam to Tibet". He then invited us to watch his team play a pretty unorthodox international friendly on a cold Sunday in February at the home of Godalming Town FC in Surrey.
The Principality of Sealand has a history that sounds more like an abandoned Richard Curtis script than anything resembling real life: a former pirate radio DJ settles on an abandoned Second World War fortress in the North Sea and claims it as an independent sovereign state, making his family princesses and princes in the process.
But then you probably already know this, given the huge amount of media coverage Sealand has had. However, their opponents – the Chagos Islands – haven't enjoyed quite the same amount of press attention.
Some of the Chagos Islands squad
The Chagos team is made up entirely of members of the Chagossian diaspora, whose parents and grandparents were forcibly exiled from their idyllic island home by the British and American governments in 1968. Their Indian Ocean homeland is now part of a sprawling military facility, and thanks to the creation of the world's largest – and most conveniently placed – marine reserve, the islanders have no hope of returning. As a UK cable released by WikiLeaks in 2010 pointed out: "Former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve."
The crooked circumstances in which Chagos lost their ancestral home naturally drew me to them; a story of neocolonial oppression that made them the perfect underdogs.
Chagos fans in the car park
When we entered the ground, some of the younger Chagos crowd were huddled together, smoking fags in the car park. Behind them, a couple of local families were trundling towards the gate with their children pulling at their arms and their dogs at their heels. I wasn't expecting much of a crowd, but I also hadn't anticipated the ground to look like the last half hour of a village fete.
And here are the line-ups, filing out for their national anthems. For all the talk of geopolitical injustice, it was hard not to be distracted by the grown man dressed as a seal.
The stands were small, but the Chagos fans were putting on a good show, singing, chanting and banging a large drum while a few of the others beat empty whiskey bottles and Pringles cans.
The match started evenly enough, with Sealand in red and Chagos in the blue and maroon stripes. But every time Chagos won possession, their attempted back-heeled passes and flick-through balls let them down. It was a team of Joseph Yobos trying to pass themselves off as a bunch of Baggios and Rivaldos.
Looking at their play, it seemed inevitable that they would fall behind soon enough. When it came, it was thanks to a half-volley from Sealand’s number 16 that found its way into the top right corner. But the drums didn’t stop, and the beat and creole chant quickly pushed Chagos up into the opposing area. However, even when they made it to the Sealand box they didn't properly commit, and when they did press the ball they did so with all the urgency and grace of a man trying to get off a trampoline with a full pint in his hand.
It was from a fortunate ricochet that Chagos eventually equalised, their number 7 collecting the second ball and blasting a daisy cutter past oncoming defenders.
Chagos supporters in the stands
As the match went on I couldn't help but admire the Chagossian support. Sealand had scored again, twice, making it 3-1 before the half-time whistle. But that didn't really seem to faze them; there they were, standing in freezing cold winds on a shitty Sunday morning in the leafy purgatory of the Surrey heartlands to chant for a team that were destined to lose from the outset. It managed to make all those armchair tacticians stocking up on craft beer for the Zenit vs Borussia midweek seem even worse than usual.
At half-time we wandered into the makeshift clubhouse. The actual clubhouse had flooded, so we had to make do sipping ales in a mobile bar.
It would be pretty hard to pass this off as being better than your average Wembley half-time, but the mascot necking Budweiser and the petite oak furnishings at least made for a surreal half-time experience. We chatted to a few locals who had heard about the game and wanted to come down to check out the kind of football on offer from "displaced nations".
As is tradition with the kind of lower league football we were being treated to, the second half was full of frustration and, subsequently, cards. At one point, the Chagos number 9 arrived so late for a tackle that the free kick had been awarded before he even lunged in. Reacting to that piece of injustice as anyone would, he grabbed the ball and hurled it over a fence. The ref gave him a yellow card for his trouble.
It quickly became apparent that the second half would very closely resemble the first; Sealand scored again, while Chagos showcased the kind of crossing I hadn't seen since Bebe last wore a Man United shirt.
It’s in games like these, though, that you get to witness those pure footballing moments – when luck and ability combine to produce a defence-splitting pass that leaves you one-on-one with the keeper. The stand's stomach collectively dropped as the Chagossian hero of the first half touched the ball slightly too far ahead of him, only at the last minute to divert the ball just out of the keeper's reach and into an empty net. The crowd rejoiced; the fight was back on. But as soon as it started, it was over; the final whistle blew and locked down Sealand's 4-2 bulldozing of the opposition.
Afterwards, the locals – who had seemingly turned up out of the same curiosity that attracts people to car boot sales – all trudged off to put their roasts on and stream Premier League matches on Kazakh pirate websites.
The Chagos Islands squad with some of their supporters
I'd expected some dejection from the travelling Chagos support, but I got the exact opposite: a jubilant photo-op with their team. I guess the Chagossians have had to put up with far greater amounts of bullshit than simply being thrashed into the mud.