Sunday 29th April 2018, CONIFA International Friendly
Non-FIFA international football has had a tumultuous start to life. From those first fraught international tournaments in the mid-2000s through to the present day, the competitions have been beset by political squabbling, meddling from heavyweights in FIFA and the Chinese government, low turnouts and the last minute patching together of increasingly tenuous geopolitical entities in order to make up the numbers (Republic of St. Pauli anyone?). A more established competition is the Island Games, played between the various hairy, rugged men that inhabit the island communities of Europe. This has been going on bi-annually since 1989 and has helped the Faroe Islands and Gibraltar obtain FIFA membership.
Since the dissolution of the New Federations Board in 2013, CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) have been the big boys of non-FIFA and are about to embark on their fifth major tournament in the form of next month’s CONIFA World Cup which will be taking place in various grounds in and around London (despite ostensibly being hosted by Barawa). Daz and I will be travelling to the capital to take in some of these games so with little else on offer in the West Midlands, we decided to go check out a pre-tourney friendly between to of the better teams in the confederation.
Ellan Vannin are the national team of the Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish Sea where football has to compete with a very popular annual motorcycle race and something named Cammag, which looks a bit confusing. Ellan Vannin is not to be confused with the Isle of Man Official Football Team which is made up of players from Isle of Man Football League players regardless of nationality because it accepts only those with familial ties to the island. They currently sit 4th in the rankings.
Panjab represent the Punjab diaspora in the UK. They were formed in 2014 and made it to the final of their first World Cup back in 2016, losing 6-5 on penalties to Abkhazia. They are managed by former Oldham Athletic defender Reuben Hazell and sit at the top of the CONIFA rankings at the time of writing, despite once losing against something called Hashtag United. The team tends to play all over the West Midlands and today it was Sandbach United’s turn to taste some of that international glamour.
Sandbach United’s ground is about as basic as you can get but then again they were only formed in 2004 and started out in the Staffordshire County League, so I think we can forgive it for being a little sparse. It can however boast a tiny metal seated stand with four rows of covered seating, weirdly positioned by a corner flag. Amazingly for something of it’s size, the minuscule stand has clear perspex windbreaks and is named the Colin Oakes Stand. It always amazes me that so many of these very similar looking stands thrown up at non-league grounds across the country are named after someone. I can only dream of one day there being a lump of corrugated iron bearing the name The Tom Meadowcroft Stand down at The Creek. Aside from this there are two bits of literal patio furniture which serve as covered standing sections behind the goal. Clearly where all of Sandbach’s money and effort has gone is the whacking great stone brick clubhouse with a tidy bar and lots of community space. It’s not exactly a cherished traditional ground but it does the job and that’s what you should expect from such a young club. The only hint of ramshackle was a humongous pile of discarded seats in the far corner of the ground.
|Best seat in the house|
Despite this being ostensibly Sandbach’s first ever international fixture, the locals weren’t enthused. A headcount revealed the afternoon’s attendance to be c. 18. It just makes you question your life decisions when it’s like this. Undeterred, we made our pre-match predictions: 3-1 Panjab for me and 2-2 Daz. Once again I’d like to stress, Panjab were at this point the top rated CONIFA team.
To their credit, Panjab seem nippy and skilful but the Manx are... large. Very large. None more so than their number 10. Who nearly nodded in a cross at 15 mins but for the safe hands of the Panjab goalkeeper. It was quickly established that Ellan Vannin’s sheer girth and physicality is going to dictate the terms of this feisty friendly. There are two yellows in the first 15 minutes: one clothesline and one possibly dislodged bollock.
On 23 minutes the Manx open the scoring. A fairly pedestrian effort hits the back of the net after several dazzling failed chances but they all count. Panjab follow this up by tinging the bottom of the post soon after wrestling the ball off a Manx goliath just outside the box. Panjab are a good footballing side but whenever they get to the final third they tend to pass it sideways and can't get that through ball. The Manx also love an interception and Panjab seem to love being intercepted. Our meaty island chums deliver a number of spectacular near misses from distance as the last action of the first half which ends 1-0 to Ellan Vannin.
As previously mentioned the club has some very modern clubhouse facilities, to the point where the overall vibe was National Trust cafe. I’d also like to posit an open question to the world as to what the hell is going on in this club’s crest:
Both teams sub about 6 people at 50 mins which takes a bit out of the game for a while, although during this period Manx have a goal contentiously called offside. Shortly after this the energy reenters the game with a thwack as a Manx defender is on the receiving end of a kick straight to the dick. It’s been a remarkably genital-unfriendly friendly so far. Weirdly, during a corner, the linesman started giving the Panjab players advice. "You're playing too deep lads!" he chirped as the corner came to naught. I know it’s not unheard of for a member of either team’s coaching staff to run the line in a pinch at this level but I know that this wasn’t the case here as the chap was wearing the very striking CONIFA World Cup 2018 Officials kit™. Perhaps he just fancies himself a manager. I personally would’ve told him to do one.
Ellan Vannin manage a second goal in the 72nd minute. Another simple but well played shot, this one on the edge of the box. As Panjab throw everything at a consolation goal, Daz is called upon to return a wayward ball. Somewhat ironically this had ‘FIFA quality’ written on it. I imagined a FIFA executive turning up and demanding an immediate halt to this unauthorised imitation and popping the ball with his fountain pen.
Panjab get their consolation goal in injury time. It’s the nicest goal of the lot, a volley from the centre of the pitch just past the edge of the D that sails past the stunner and into the net. It’s too little to late though and they fall to defeat in this particular warm-up game. There’s still over a month to go though and I look forward to seeing what these two sides serve up in London.