Fans make their way to a match. Nigel French

The Rebellion against Modern Football: Conifa, unrecognised nations and celebrating the grassroots

The42 speaks to James Hendicott, author of CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten, about his new book.

THE ARGUMENT LEVELLED against what is largely referred to as ‘Modern Football’ is that teams at the top of the foodchain are entirely unrelatable.

The astronomical sums of money that are swirling around the game name would make your head spin – from the mammoth TV rights deal carved up among the 20 Premier League clubs in England to sides across Europe with external financial backing that could support a small nation.

We’re seeing perhaps the best version of football that’s ever been played. The skill level is heightened, the players are fitter and the constant stream of content coming from certain football rights holders that this season is better than all the rest.

What we are witnessing is Peak Football.

But many fans, particularly across the water, are reverting to the supporting their local clubs.

Most see better value in watching a game that they can relate to, that they have grown up with and that they can pass down to the next generation.

From creaking grounds to ‘the strange allure of the half-time raffle at football matches‘ – Harry Pearson’s ode to never winning a traditional ‘meat packet’ – grassroots football is making a return.

This, on the other hand, is Pure Football.

French Cup Final Rennes Vs PSG at Stade de France Qatari-backed PSG are often held up as the finest example of 'modern football'. ABACA / PA Images ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

James Hendicott’s debut book exhibits exactly that. CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten charts last year’s Conifa World Football Cup in London, where teams of lesser stature come together and celebrate the game in its purest form.

“Conifa tries to be apolitical,” he tells The42. “They try enforce that in the stadium – you can only fly the flag of the team, you can’t fly political messages.

From the barriers, fans are only supposed to sing their assigned anthem. If you turned up with a Free Tibet sign, you’d be thrown out for that the same way you would for a Russian separatist one.

“It can be hard to separate the sport from the politics. But teams enter the tournament with the feeling of celebrating culture. It has to be like that.”

Last year’s finals in the English capital saw 16 teams descend on London under the organisations banner – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations.

The charity have been helping smaller, non-traditional nations to play on somewhat of a global stage.

From Ellan Vannin to Tibet, territories without an established football association are recognised and represented.

Conifa introduced criteria for what qualifies you to play – which is essentially an identity of some sort.

“They’re quite loose about what that is – ‘a distinct identity’ as they call it.”

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Their criteria, Hendicott explains, helps to prevent issues faced by Conifa’s predecessor N.F Board – a federation of football associations established on in 2003, but has since been defunct.

“One of [N.F Board's] teams was Sealand. It’s basically an oil rig in the sea somewhere off Britain.

Obviously, 11 people didn’t live there but so they couldn’t put in a team. They just said people did and treated it as a pay-to-play.

“It was sort of comical.”

The author insists that while Conifa is far from conventional, they do take their representation “relatively seriously”.

“Bringing these teams together is an insane achievement. There are probably three teams in the tournament that have next to no exposure of what we would consider as modern football.

Tibet, for example, play on pitch during their training where cows have right of way, so every time cattle come onto the field play stops.”

Due to the stature of last year’s competition, games were held midweek and in the middle of the day.

The lower attendances at some of these games were below 100. When it came to the final, the attendance was 3,500-4,000 people.

“It’s amazing at how consistent some of the support at these games are. You walk around the streets you see Manchester United shirts or Liverpool shirts.

You walk around games like this, you see the colours of St Pauli, Dulwich Hamlet, FC United of Manchester.

“I’m an Aston Villa fan which may explain the disillusionment of modern football.

“I think there is something to be said for these games that there are people attending who care about it and others who don’t have a clue what’s going on and are still supporting it.”

Information Gathering

In a process that took the guts of nine months and the stumbling block of a publisher backing out, Hendicott decided to go and his own way and publish the book himself.

“It’s a very niche subject, I’ll admit. But I would have regretted it a lot more had I not published it.”

And while the nations involved are well represented by their fans and travelling support, much of the information around them is not widely available.

Weeks upon weeks of research and interviews produced a book that tracks each game of the tournament and each of the 16 teams.

I would say there are about 50 interviews in the book, while only about 20 are quoted.

“But for background information, there was about 50 people – varying from two or three people who actually run CONIFA and  tell the story of how it started, to people connected to every team and quite a few fans.”

And as an Englishman now living and working in Ireland, the theme of identity was one that he says he felt he could relate to throughout the book-writing process.

In a sense, from living in different places and having different experiences, you can feel disconnected from any nationality.

“Especially what’s going at the moment in England with Brexit and my own confusion. I guess I know who I am, but I don’t really know where I fit in – like some of these nations I spent so long writing about.”

You can purchase a copy of CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten by clicking here.

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