Review: CONIFA Football for the Forgotten
The football writing genre is in a renaissance. Spurred on by the tiring and deplorable clickbait journalism that virulently spread across social media over the past decade, long-form is vogue again.
Whilst the online football world engrosses itself in the creative and narrative over the mundane and dated 'he said she said,' authors such as Michael Calvin and James Montague flourish in print. The two of them have thrived on football's fringes. Calvin's writing has varied from the nomadic life of the football scout in his 2013 debut book The Nowhere Men, to No Hunger in Paradise, a firm critique of the academy system; and Montague charted war, religion, and football in his 2008 release When Friday Comes, and then the journey of international football's minnows in their qualification campaigns for the World Cup 2014 in Thirty One Nil. James Hendicott's CONIFA - Football for the Forgotten has the potential to be just as impactful in its nicheness and appeal.
As Hendicott's subtitle succinctly phrases it, his book is 'the untold story of football's alternative world cup.' In the same summer as England's fourth-place finish in Russia, London played host to another world cup: one for unrecognised nations, ethnic minorities, and countries not affiliated with football's main governing body FIFA.
Its very existence is irksome enough for some, but for members such as Tuvalu and Kiribati - two UN-recognised countries that have so far been unsuccessful in applying for FIFA membership - it is their home, and for others like previous winners Abkhazia and East Africa's Matabeleland, it is their only option for representation. Hendicott devoutly captures the stories and journeys 2018's participants have been on, from their very existence, to qualification and participation in the tournament. The result is a passionately portrayed defence of CONIFA's survival by its General Secretary, a dramatic competition that pulled together members that may otherwise have been at odds, and all the romance and fandom that international football inspires.
With the level of press freedom dwarfing that at more conventional levels, Hendicott is able to bring the reader into dramatic scenes that would otherwise go unnoticed or would simply be out of reach. From hearing accusations of questionably motivated payments from UEFA to the Crimean FA, to exploring claims of Russian state influence over CONIFA, he delicately balances the scales of impartiality as all accomplished journalists should. Chronicling the difficulties of Tibet, North Cyprus, and Karpatalya - to name a few - in just being there, an entirely unrelatable lens is cast over the complexities of the CONIFA World Football Cup to show the political, geopolitical and even religious obstacles that would seem incomprehensible without Hendicott's guiding hand.
There are familiar faces at the tournament, with Bruce Grobbelaar coming out of retirement for 30 minutes and Mark Clattenburg officiating in the later stages, but this is a book about football you don't know and footballers you probably shouldn't. If you do, well this book is definitely for you, but there is inherent and unparalleled beauty in opening a book as a football fan and it feeling like you're learning the sport for the first time all over again. I flicked through the pages, buying into the individual stories of players, like I did a sticker book when I was an 8-year old. Had I heard of goalkeeper Bela Fejer before this book? No. But do I now care that at just 23 he was willing to risk any safe future in Ukraine by simply accepting a call-up to represent Karpatalya? Absolutely - and you will too.
A wondrous feeling was evoked on reading that Panjab, a pre-tournament favourite, played Liverpool U23s and the England C team in their warm-up games, unexpectedly seeing two worlds overlap, and entire disillusion was felt when learning that there are Football Associations so disenfranchised with FIFA that they have applied to join CONIFA instead. There was a novelty to the fact that midweek games were hindered by players' day-to-day work and family life, and a hope that tournament innovation the ‘Green Card,’ could find its way into the wider football world.
“I know who I am, but I don't know where I fit in," Hendicott reveals in one of his moments of introspection that speckles the book throughout. He admits the feeling has its roots in a fluid homelife in his youth and the realisation of England's empirical past. "The end result, truthfully, is a feeling of disconnection and frustration.”
They say to travel is to discover yourself, and Hendicott is well-travelled. Born in Salisbury, and living in Dublin with his wife he met whilst living in Seoul, he has also been to North Korea, Italy, India, Zanzibar, Germany, Turkey, EI Salvador, Kenya, Tanzania and Nepal, among, I suspect, many other countries. However, he managed to travel the world in ten days without leaving London. It was Enfield, Sutton, Bromley and Carshalton where he scratched what seems to be his perpetual itch for connectedness and relieve his frustration.
How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America, by Andres Neuman, is a fantastically fast-paced travelogue of an entire continent. Hendicott's offering could well have been titled ‘How to Travel Without Moving: Dispatches from the World.’
He - like CONIFA - fervently avows that his pursuit was apolitical, but this book would be as comfortable in the Politics section of a bookstore, as it would Travel, or where it will naturally find itself - Football. It is full of the sport - of course it is - but it serves as the bed salad for the real meat of the issue. There were teams who came with the blessing of the Dalai Lama and the consternation of the Cypriot Deputy High Commissioner, and others that returned home to threats from the Ukrainian Sports Minister and insecure residency status. Football provided the physical representation that CONIFA's members valued, craved, and deserved, regardless of its reception.
Hendicott has now provided that representation on paper. Whether Cascadia exists or not, you support Kabylian independence or don't, or are for or against a Free Tibet, they all competed in this tournament for the forgotten and their participation has been immortalised in words. The summer of 2018 played host to two incredible World Cups. Remember them both; you're missing out otherwise.
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