I can’t remember the first time I heard about CONIFA and this summer’s World Football Cup. It’s a subject that’s had the groundhopping and non-league community talking for a while. My initial reaction, however, was one of confusion. How, who why? It was research time. My confusion of what CONIFA is may be symptomatic of living in an era where we are obsessed with borders. The premise seems to be that CONIFA is about identity rather than lines on a map.
Many of the member associations have stories of being persecuted communities in a particular country, some are groups of people that have settled in distant lands, and some just want to play football alongside their neighbours. Either way, I decided straight away I wanted to be a part of an international football tournament being held in my home city.
Tickets for the competition went on sale months before I pushed through the turnstile at Sutton United, and the event had garnered significant buzz as the kick-off date approached. The only real downside was that many of the games would take place during the week, with kick-off times that meant I’d have to take some time off work - what a shame. I just needed a team to support.
I had plenty of time to plan for the tournament with tickets going on sale so early. The key stage of this planning was to pick a team to follow. I researched the competitors meticulously looking for any connections I could find. Barawa and Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man) were potential options as the hosts of the tournament and the only home nations representatives, respectively.
I came across Matabeleland, however, early on in my research. In what was to be a sign of things to come they were already proactively crowdfunding just to ensure they could make the journey to the UK. In a genius bit of marketing, they’d managed to secure sponsorship to have a special kit designed for the tournament and were auctioning off replicas to help pay for their flights.
I got one of course. As the World Football Cup began to loom on the horizon I was pushing my new found team on everyone I knew, including a couple of friends from my old amateur club - Old Thorntonians FC. We discussed if we could send a team to Matabeleland, in Zimbabwe, for a tour or if we could offer OTFC as a warm-up game for the guys to get accustomed to London.
This is the point where we first met Justin Walley, the English manager of Matabeleland. Unfortunately, the players were only due to fly into London two days before the cup started and they couldn’t risk a friendly against some middle-aged, overweight amateur players. What they really needed, however, was a place to train the day before.
Justin had a very specific set of requirements. They guys had never played on a 3G surface before, and the budget wouldn’t stretch to traveling around London on 30 Oyster cards. The venue needed to be walking distance from their accommodation in Colindale, it needed to be a full-size pitch and it had to be 3G. I set about, with my knowledge of non-league clubs in North London, finding a training venue for them.
After several days of head scratching, and despair at the prices of 3G pitches in London. I remembered Hendon. They play on 3G and having written a couple of blogs on them previously I knew they were a pretty responsive bunch. I fired off an email and heard back immediately. They were happy to host the team for a training session, and for a considerably better deal than most 3G hire pitches, I’d looked at.
Finally, on a cold Wednesday morning, the CONIFA World Football Cup had arrived. The day before the tournament started in earnest I headed down the North Circular to Hendon. Silver Jubilee Park was quiet as I arrived, and for once I could get into the Car Park. I was cheerfully greeted by the guys from Hendon who informed me that they arranged some taxis to get the players from their digs in Colindale.
I didn’t want to make any promises to Justin about Hendon’s willingness to help out the team when we spoke, but I suspected the club would be keen to get involved and lend a hand. They later agreed to let Matabeleland train at the ground for free for the rest of the tournament. It was a fantastic gesture from a club that has already had an eventful off-season, having been moved from the Isthmian League to the Southern League and losing their long-serving manager.
The Matabeleland players gradually arrived in their taxis, and I was finally able to meet Justin in person. He was clearly keen to get started and promised me Bruce (Grobbelaar) would be along soon. I caught up on some emails and warmed up with some Hendon tea as the team got to grips with the 3G surface.
The quiet North London backdrop seemed an odd place for the tournament to start and a few of the players looked a little cold. Some stopped on occasions to take in the views and adjust their eyes to the gloomy conditions. Justin put the side through their paces while stopping occasionally to update us on their adventures getting VISAS and the players excitement at finally making it to London for their first CONIFA tournament.
The squad adapted quickly to the alien surface as Bruce had the goalkeepers diving around at one end of the ground. I said a quick goodbye to Justin before heading off and he sounded confident about their chances for the tournament, before being briefly distracted by an attacking drill and Bruce being through on goal. He reminded me that the crowdfunding campaign was still ongoing and released the exclusive that Bruce would be available for selection for the tournament, as the former Liverpool keeper blazed the ball high and wide.
To be continued...