Forget Brazil 2014: The Alternative World Cup
While most of the footballing world turns its eyes toward Brazil, Östersund, in the north of Sweden, is taking a breath after a frenzied week spent hosting a very different event: the first ever ConIFA World Football Cup.
ConIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, is not yet a year old, but its goal, to provide support and competition for “states, minorities, stateless peoples and regions unaffiliated with FIFA”, is not a new one. In fact, the World Football Cup is merely following in the footsteps of the Viva Cup, a biennial event organized since 2006 by the Nouvelle Fédération-Board. When the NF-Board elected not to plan an event for 2014, ConIFA stepped in, inviting former Viva participants, including three-time champions Padania, a federation based on Italy’s Po Valley, to Sweden and a new event.
Alongside Padania, which, in Mario Balotelli’s younger brother Enoch Barwuah, featured the tournament’s only ‘big’ name, were 11 other teams, including participants from Darfur (made up entirely of players from refugee camps), Iraqi Kurdistan, South Ossetia, Occitania, The Isle of Man, The County of Nice, and the host federation, Sápmi. While some of the participants were supported by well-established federations, others, like the Isle of Man and the County of Nice, were brand new to international football. Countea de Nissa, in fact, didn’t intend to launch as a football entity until September 2014, but the timetable was amended in mid-April when Quebec was forced to pull out of the World Football Cup, and desperation set in at ConIFA offices.
Pulled together with blinding speed, the team from Nice was selected and coached by Frédéric Gioria and Jean-Philippe Mattio, both members of Claude Puel’s staff at OGC Nice, and was made up entirely of players born in the historical County of Nice, a small area which includes the modern city and its immediate surroundings. Though loudly and publicly supported by Nice natives Hugo Lloris and Alexy Bosetti, both of whom participated in the launch of the team, all of the players selected by Gioria and Mattio were amateurs (most playing in the CFA or CFA2), including OGC Nice youth players Jordy Sanches Silva and Hichem Ferreri, or retired, like former Nice, Monaco, and Nantes defender Eric Cubilier. Like most of the teams at the ConIFA event, Nice’s players were a mix of old and young, from 39-year-old reserve goalkeeper Arnaud Martinez to youngsters like Silva and 19-year-old Nîmes Olympique player Jacques Onda, who played virtually every minute of every match.
The full Nice team was announced only three days before the start of the tournament and, as they set off for Sweden with fewer than a handful of practice sessions under their belts, it was hard to imagine that their time on the international stage would be anything other than very, very brief. And, when they went down to 10 men before halftime and lost their debut match 2-4 to fellow newcomers the Isle of Man, it appeared that things were going pretty much as expected. But then, something remarkable happened – La Selecioun began to figure things out. Playing every day, often with fewer than 20 hours between matches, this motley crew came together. They learned to replaced frenzied, blind passes and rash, ill-advised tackles with confident decisions, and belief in their teammates. Mind you, each match still featured a fair helping of underhit passes and moments of panic but, before our very eyes, a team was taking shape. They began to trust one another, to stand up for one another (Cubilier managed to get sent off from the bench – where he was serving a suspension – and didn’t play at all after the opening match), and to fight through the exhaustion together.
That exhaustion was very real, for every team in the tournament but particularly for Nice. After winning their second group match and earning a place in the quarterfinals, the team had to turn around and play tournament favorites Padania 13 hours later, their third match in three days. When the confident Padania scored in first half injury time to level the score, and with both teams clearly running on fumes, it looked like the end to Countea de Nissa’s great adventure was looming. Instead, in the 85th minute during a rare break from the Padania pressure, Nice-born USL Dunkerque striker Malik Tchokounte received a pass on the edge of the box, touched it inside, and ripped an unstoppable shot into the top corner. The team from Nice survived the final five minutes of intense pressure and, as a reward for reaching the semifinals, earned a full day off before facing South Ossetia.
Seemingly rejuvenated by actual rest, Countea de Nissa came storming out of the traps in the semifinal, going up 1-0 in the third minute with another goal from Tchokounte, who added to his total in the second half and would finish the tournament with four of the team’s total eight goals. Youngster Kevin Puyoo chipped in with a goal of his own as the match drew to a close and, just like that, a team that hadn’t even existed two months before was into the final of the World Football Cup.
After yet another day off, Nice faced off against new nemesis the Isle of Man, hoping to avenge that dreadful international debut. For their part Ellan Vannin, as the team is known in the Manx language, were flying high on the back of immense support from home, where media attention was particularly focused on the opening odds against the team lifting the Cup: 250-1. In Nice, meanwhile, OGC Nice ultras had set off flares and sung songs of support outside the seaside kiosk in which the semifinal match was streamed, and the final was to be projected on a big screen inside a local concert venue.
Both teams were clearly exhausted and nervous, and the first half was ragged, as one might expect from two teams playing their fifth match in seven days, particularly with so much at stake. In the second half, though, the players relaxed, and there were moments of real quality from both sides. For Nice, whose attack suffered badly when Tchokounte’s body finally let him down and he was forced off early in the match, 21-year-old Ferreri had easily his best match of the tournament, marauding down the right and creating chance after chance in the second half, showing sharpness and understanding that had been totally absent just a week before. Neither team was able to break through, however, and the match went directly to penalty kicks.
Countea de Nissa were flawless from the spot in the first four and, after Chris Bass shot wide with Ellan Vannin’s third attempt, young Ferreri stepped up to take the fifth poised to secure the County of Nice the win. And, when his shot went in, there was bedlam, not only on the pitch in Östersund, but in the Palais Nikaia in Nice as well, where proud fans shouted and sang their hearts out: Nice were world champions.
It was a remarkable week, notable not only for the unexpected winner and the presence in the final of two new federations, the success of which clearly had an impact on their home regions, but also for the impact on the players who took part. In an act reflecting the broader significance of the World Football Cup, when Ellan Vannin accepted their runner-up medals, many of them did so wearing Darfur United tshirts. Not only were members of the two teams friends, but the Isle of Man players had helped to raise the funds that allowed the team from Darfur to travel to Sweden. In footballing terms, the ConIFA event pales in comparison to the FIFA one. On a human level, however, it’s a big ask to expect the World Cup to surpass the impact of the 2014 World Football Cup.