It is possible you have not heard of the CONIFA World Football Cup, and that is OK (I hadn’t, before we got in a two-hour Uber full of camera equipment out to Carshalton to watch the first game). Have you heard of Tuvalu? You have not. Have you heard of Karpatalya, or Kabyla, or Matabaleland? You have not. You have heard of Tibet, maybe, and you can figure out the gist of Northern Cyprus. But Padania? Székely Land? Tamil Eelam? Come on. Don’t pretend. Don’t look me in the eye and lie to me. Unroll the map and point to me where Abkhazia is. You can't, and they are now the world champions.
The whole point is you have never heard of them, and that’s what the tournament is about. It’s making you hear about them, by rounding the goalkeeper and lifting it past a defender, and absolutely nailing their name into the bottom-left corner of the goal. It’s about turning to a stand of true neutrals, and non-neutrals, and real ale fans, and people who have flown 1,500 miles to be here, and holding your arms aloft even though you’re getting beaten 6–1.
The FIFA World Cup is currently being held in Russia, and you know about this. Neymar and that. The FIFA World Cup is a billion dollars climbing on top of another billion dollars, and Robbie Williams’ curtain lifter being slowly applauded by Putin. The FIFA World Cup is amazing, undoubtedly, because it is history creaking open directly in front of you: these moments will be replayed again and again on a loop every four years, becoming more saturated in colour and vibrant in energy as each degree separates us from it, this precise moment in time will one day feel long gone to us, this lightning bolt of a summer one day just a dusky memory.
One day, Kylian Mbappe will retire, his hamstrings finally tightening beneath him as he hits 33, and we will look back at that time he devastated Argentina and go: fuck me what a player he was. We will all share that memory of the backheel that led to nothing against Belgium this week and marvel at who he was then, who he became, who he could have been. It might be played against a backdrop of corruption, commercialism, McDonald’s and death, but the FIFA World Cup is still the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth. It's just, sometimes it feels like you're watching a news story, rather than a tournament you are on the sidelines of. Like looking at a perfect diamond through the eye of a telescope: wonderful, yes, undoubtably marvellous, but so untouchable it is more of a concept than a sporting event.
At the CONIFA World Cup – and, by the way, I didn’t, but I want to demonstrate how possible it was – I could have thrown a pint of beer at the Matabeleland goalkeeper, should I have wanted to. I wouldn’t have dared (Matabeleland, a tribe of 1.5 million from Zimbabwe, had three goalkeepers on their books: 27-year-old Bruce Sithole, 30-year-old Notice N Dube and 60-year-old former European champion Bruce Grobbelaar, who is still exceptionally trim and unfuckwithable, and could undoubtedly beat me in a fight should I pint one of his understudies), but I want to demonstrate the touching distance of this tournament: held in seven non- and lower-league grounds around London, the tournament felt like a celebration by the players and the crowd at the same time, as if they had all come together to sing the same hymn. CONIFA wasn’t about installing placards and advertising hoardings to distance the audience from the pitch: it was about cramming everyone in together, as close as they could go, and setting a flare off in the middle of it.
At its core, CONIFA is a football tournament for nations, de facto nations, ethnic minorities and language speakers who can’t, or don’t, qualify for FIFA membership. Example: a team representing Yorkshire competed in the qualifying rounds. Example: Panjab, a team representing 100 million Punjabi speakers across the planet, who don’t fit into a specified geographical location to play under one flag, still made it through to this year’s quarter-finals. Example: Tuvalu, the fourth-smallest nation in the world, who fundamentally can’t afford the paperwork and bureaucracy that getting into FIFA takes up. Example: Barawa, the Somalian port town which acted as this year's hosts, who have a bigger ex-pat community in London than they do at home, and who – due to years of civil unrest, including being seized in 2009 by militant group al-Shabaab – are unable to host international football games themselves (on at least two occasions in the past four years, bombs have exploded at Barawanese football games, killing civilians watching on).
These are the narratives that commentators like to wheel out during the pre-match crackle of every game at the FIFA World Cup – footballers who came from poverty, countries in a political lurch, The Unlikelihood Of Them Making It Here Today – writ even larger and more astonishing than you can previously imagine. Matabeleland, the absolute lads of the entire tournament, had to crowdfund their trip here. Go to any match during the CONIFA weeks and you’ll see rows of football hipsters in tribal-designed kits, pre-ordered from Kickstarter to help get a Matabele midfielder on the plane. Tuvalu is unlikely to exist in a couple of hundred years: the island nation’s highest point is just four metres above sea level, and lives on the precipice of being destroyed by global warming. But right now they make most of their money by licensing out the .tv domain names to global television channels.
The stories might make CONIFA feel worthwhile, but it’s not what the teams there want to dwell on. During filming we spent time with Barawa, Matabeleland, spoke to Tuvalu, got in with the Northern Cyprus lads. And while everyone wants to say: thanks for asking, here’s our story, they also very crucially don’t want to be defined by what keeps them out of FIFA and playing for their country at a non-league ground near Sutton. They came to play. You have heard of Messi, and Neymar, and Pogba, the same way you have heard of Argentina, Brazil and France. But you might not have heard of Shylock Ndlovu, or Billy Mehmet, or Andrea Rota. You haven’t heard of Matabeleland’s poverty, or Northern Cyprus’s embargo, or Padania’s independence movement. At CONIFA, everyone gets the chance to play, and bang a drum, and put eight past a goalkeeper exhausted from Ramadan, and wear their kit and sing their song. That’s worth a trip down to Carshalton for.
Watch VICE's new documentary about the CONIFA World Football Cup below: