Football halls, frozen pitches and fishing villages – A week in Iceland

“We’re now approaching Keflavík airport, with a temperature on the ground of -4°C and we’re currently experiencing some blizzard-like conditions on the runway.”

If you had asked me two weeks before I heard this rather ominous statement what I would be doing on Easter Monday, I would have probably told you I would be anxiously following the promotion race in the Championship, on the sofa with an Easter egg. Instead, I was braving the weather Google had assured me wouldn’t be an issue before we took off, and setting off on a pilgrimage to understand Iceland’s football culture, and how such a small country has found itself in a position where in two months time, they will kick off their maiden World Cup campaign with a game against Argentina.

DAY 1: REYKJAVÍK

I had never seen a plane land in the snow. The conditions in Keflavík would have caused any airport in the UK to shut down for several days and been national news, but our more experienced Scandinavian neighbours were well-equipped to deal with the heavy snow that was quickly settling on the runway.

The five-day excursion was the idea and year-long dream of my friend and fellow journalist Lucas Arnold. After several roles within a football analytics company, Lucas found himself analysing every game of last season’s Úrvalsdeild karla, the top flight of Icelandic football, which is colloquially known as the ‘Pepsi’. Since then, he has not only fallen in love with Iceland and their style of football, but has gained a substantial cult following on social media, which came in very handy when organising the trip.

Our 45 minute bus journey from Keflavík to Reykjavík exposed us to some of the most alien terrain we’ve ever come across and gave us a glimpse into the country we would be spending the next five days in. Vast expanses of rocky fields being buried under snow were dwarfed in the background by large, imposing mountains.

The majority of Iceland’s domestic football is focused within the southwest peninsula of the island, with Reykjavík located on the northern coast which may explain why the stubborn Arctic winds quickly forced us to seek refuge in the nearest Subway as soon as we reached the capital. However, this wasn’t before we spotted the football halls and stadia of FH, Stjarnan and Breiðablik from the windows of the bus, which only escalated our excitement, much to the confusion of our fellow passengers. These football halls are a hallmark of Icelandic football development and vital as Iceland continue to give their young players the best possible chance of reaching their potential.

We had an exciting meeting set up for our first evening, which allowed us to explore central Reykjavík for as long as the weather would allow us beforehand. Through the thick snow, we managed to spot first division side Þróttur Reykjavík’s ground and hidden just behind it, the Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national stadium. It’s impossible to compare either of these places to their English equivalents. We discovered we had been especially unlucky that we visited the national stadium on a national holiday, otherwise it’s likely that someone would have happily let us walk around and explore the ground, a situation you could never imagine happening at Wembley.

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Dinner that evening was spent with two of Iceland’s most prominent football journalists; Magnús Már Einarsson, a reporter from fotbolti.net, Iceland’s leading football website, and Tómas Þór Þórðarson, a TV and radio presenter for Channel 2 Sport. Magnús, Tómas and Lucas spent much of the evening discussing the upcoming Pepsi season, and for the first time in my life I was completely lost and out of my depth in a football conversation. Our Icelandic counterparts were happy to talk at length about the chances of Grindavík and Valur in their upcoming cup final, the fate of newly promoted sides Fylkir and Keflavík and who they backed for next season’s title. Partly to test their guest to see if he was as knowledgable in the flesh as he was behind a computer screen, but mainly because this Scandinavian league, although not yet competitive on the continental stage, is absolutely fascinating.

Lucas’ notoriety within the Icelandic football community was even a brief topic of discussion as a series of Twitter he had been running highlighting a young player from each club was brought up, with Tómas recalling that he had been deliberating the choices of ‘The English Guy’ with his colleagues days before.

One of the few discussions I was able to be fully involved in was the upcoming World Cup. Iceland’s recent international success has come from the national side being settled and able to develop as a team, rather than a group of individuals. When asked who would be in England’s starting XI for our opening game in June, Lucas and I gave very different teams. Magnús and Tómas then assured us that if you asked any football fan in Iceland which side would start their opener against Argentina, nearly all of them would pick the same eleven players, a strength they confidently maintain will see them through their group ahead of Nigeria and Croatia.

After several Icelandic pints were drunk, and a horse steak was consumed (apparently a local delicacy although I’ll admit I wasn’t brave enough to try it) we retired for the evening before our first away day outside the capital.

DAY 2: SELFOSS

Our first full day in Iceland involved a trip to the other side of the Icelandic footballing peninsula (at this point I’m not sure it would even geographically be considered a peninsula but I’m going with it) to visit a small village called Selfoss. A two-hour bus journey saw us dropped off outside a KFC in a service station where a Spanish man named Iván Martínez, a.k.a. Pachu was waiting to meet us. Hopefully this statement goes some way to explaining just how surreal this whole trip was.

Pachu is the technical director at UMF Selfoss, a side in the second tier of Icelandic football and is also the first team’s central attacking midfielder. His day job involves scouting and recommending potential signings for the club, a role he took on shortly after joining from his previous club in Norway over two years ago. Pachu invited us to visit his club, gave us a tour of the ground and the town and gave us an insight into what it’s like to come to Iceland to play football as a foreigner.

The club are attached to the local high school and children are given the option of playing football, handball and basketball and this forms part of the club’s academy. The majority of the squad are made up of Icelandic players, but Pachu is one of a number of Spanish players who have turned out in Selfoss’ burgundy strip in recent years. His fellow countryman Toni Espinosa lives in the same building, a two minute drive from the ground, and recently joined the club after a turbulent spell playing in Indonesia. Pachu made it clear that one of their key transfer policies is to find players who either have experience playing in Scandinavia previously (Espinosa had a spell at Víkingur several years previously) or may are young players struggling for game time in Norway’s second and third tiers.

After an initial ground tour, Pachu left us to get some lunch before picking us up again for a pre-match coffee.

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Before his pre-match routine began, Pachu told us about his own struggles playing in Iceland, where even though he has been settled in Scandinavia for several years, he worries about his own mental health during the winter months where experiencing 24 hours of darkness is not uncommon.

“When you wake up every morning and it’s dark outside, and you know it isn’t going to get lighter, it’s difficult to motivate yourself.”

He told us of a foreign player who joined Selfoss, and one day midway through his first season, walked into the main office and said, ‘If I don’t leave the club today, I’m going to kill myself.’ He said that the rest of the squad had noticed that he didn’t always look happy at training, but when any of his teammates asked he was, he always insisted he was fine. To Pachu, this highlighted the importance of bringing players into the club who are not just good enough to play at this level, but mentally are capable of living in a small, isolated town in an environment which is likely to be very different from anything they’ve ever experienced before.

Pachu dropped us at the ground leaving his car outside the main office unlocked. “There’s no crime here, when I first joined the club my teammates asked me why I locked my car, and I told them it was what I was used to. Soon I learned that you can leave your keys in the car and no one will ever steal it. When I go back to Spain, I have to be careful as this is a dangerous habit to get into outside of Iceland”. Selfoss were playing Þróttur Vogum that evening, a club in the tier below them from Vogar, another small settlement on the south-west Icelandic peninsula.

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The game itself played out as many friendlies do, both sides looking to put into practice what they had been developed in training, improve their fitness, and ultimately win the game. Toni Espinosa’s 35-yard free-kick was the best goal of the game in a 3-1 win for Selfoss, but the highlight was new striker Gilles Ondo – brought in from Andorran side Engordany – nearly punching a man’s head off his shoulder after he accused the defender of trying to break his legs in what was a poorly-timed but not malicious challenge. The thing I will remember most from this match will be just how cold it was. The few other spectators who had braved the wind chill told us it was -12°C, and the Selfoss staff kept imploring us to drink more coffee to stay warm. To this day, I’m not sure whether I will fully regain the feeling in my toes.

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Pachu was kind enough to drop us off at the KFC again to catch the first of our two buses back to the capital and thanked us for visiting his little corner of Iceland. I had no idea what to expect going into this trip, but meeting Pachu and spending the day with him in one of the most surreal places I will probably ever visit was the highlight for me.

DAY 3: REYKJAVÍK

When planning what I was going to write for this piece, I had Day 3 earmarked for doing the things that tourists normally do when they travel to Iceland, such as visiting the famous Hallgrímskirkja church, buying the most expensive pints of my life in view of said church (£23 for 2 if you’re interested) or walking down the impressive coastline that borders Reykjavík to the south. Unfortunately, there was Champions League football that day, and it would have been rude for us to not to have soaked up the local atmosphere in the creatively named ‘The English Pub’ as Liverpool played Manchester City at Anfield.

There’s a recent tradition of Scandinavian football fans supporting Liverpool, which is excellently explained in this article on The Set Pieces, but it meant that the atmosphere inside this particular drinking establishment was better than anything I had experienced in London in the past year. A fan wearing one of Liverpool’s newest bright orange away shirts told us that the prevalence of his adopted side’s appearances on Icelandic television in the 80s and 90s lead to the upsurge of fans in the country and he and his friends were split between supporting the red half of Liverpool or the red half of Manchester.

Two lonely Barcelona fans were placed in the corner of the pub, forced to watch their game against Roma on a solitary screen while the rest of the establishment broadcast the all-English quarter-final, much to the delight of the majority of that evening’s patrons. Lucas explained to the Icelander we had befriended why we were here and after a quick prompt the man recognised him via his cartoon Twitter API and bought us a round of local IPAs.

He told us that he played in the 4. deild, three tiers below Selfoss who we had visited the day before, and said it was locally known as the ‘Passion Leagues’ because it allowed anyone to come along and play football. The thought of an equivalent team in England being four promotions away from the top flight of domestic football is remarkable, although still incredibly unlikely. The full-time whistle blew and before we could reciprocate the round of drinks he bought for us, he told us he was already half-an-hour late for a business meeting and had to go, but not before joining in with a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone which started playing out over the speaker systems.

DAY 4: REYKJAVÍK, GRINDAVÍK AND KÓPAVOGUR

The final day of our trip was another busy affair, although not until the later in the day. This gave us time to take one final trip to a Reykjavík-based club, the home of the champions; Valur. Based in the east of Reykjavík, Valur were the unlikely winners of last year’s Pepsi, as the favourites FH stuttered throughout the campaign.

Lucas assures me that their side has only improved over the winter break, and they are in pole position to retain their title this year. They made a marquee signing in the form of right-back Birkir Már Sævarsson from Hammarby, who is an anomaly in Iceland in that he has returned to his homeland while still being an active member of the national team set-up.

As we arrived at their facilities, we noticed a side gate open with kids cycling through it, presumably the youth team arriving to train after they had finished school. We had been assured that wherever we went in the football community, people were likely to be friendly and welcoming, and despite the first team being in the USA during our visit, a youth team coach let us wonder around the grounds unattended. He told us that the site around the stadium was being developed, with a new indoor facility and stand currently under construction. The club came into some money recently which is being wisely invested in infrastructure rather than short-term squad investments, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Valur become the first Icelandic side ever to quality for the main draw of a European club competition.

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The evening before we left was to be the busiest part of our itinerary, with a training session followed by a friendly planned before catching a bus back to our hotel to try and get some sleep before our early flight home. Our first stop was the small fishing village of Grindavík, located next to the famous Blue Lagoon, which is quite literally one of Iceland’s hottest tourist destinations. Due to the rather inconsistent public transport schedule in Iceland, for a time we weren’t sure if we would be able to get there, but luckily midfielder and former Manchester United player Sam Hewson kindly stepped in and provided a much needed lift to the Icelandic outpost he currently turns out for.

Hewson is about to start his eighth campaign in Iceland with his third different Pepsi club. Originally signed from Altrincham by Fram, he spent several years at the Reykjavík-based club before joining FH where he won two league titles. He’s about to start his second season at Grindavík who have aspirations to once again challenge for European qualification after being the surprise package last year and narrowly missing out on a Europa League place. When Hewson came to Iceland, he admitted he wasn’t entirely convinced by the prospect of playing in the Pepsi. “When I first came to play here, I thought to myself it’s an opportunity, but if I don’t enjoy it, I know I can go and play somewhere else in six months”. Those doubts have been firmly casted aside now as Hewson has just had his first child with his Icelandic partner, and apologised when picking us up that he was very sleep deprived.

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Hewson admits that having a group of four British players in the Fram squad when he first came to Iceland was a key factor in helping him settle, and they’re a group he still now keeps in contact with. Similar to when we spoke to Pachu who reiterated the point in his recruitment strategy, having the correct mindset and a good coping mechanism is vital for a player coming to Iceland to play football. Although the majority of people speak English, the culture and lifestyle is alien to anything these players are experiencing elsewhere in Europe.

We arrive in Grindavík and immediately it’s clear why Hewson has chosen to stay in the capital and commute to training. It’s very much an outpost in an already sparse country and within two minutes of arriving we’ve driven through most of the town to arrive at the football ground. We’re welcomed into the Yellow Hut which acts as the meeting room and offices for the Grindavík staff and are introduced to manager Óli Stefán Flóventsson. Óli Stefán (it’s more common in Icelandic football culture to refer to people by their first names rather than their last names due to the number of shared surnames) is one of the most exciting coaches in Iceland, and he’s widely tipped to one of the next managers to be poached by a club in one of Scandinavia’s bigger leagues in the near future. He invited us to watch his side’s 90 minute training session as they prepare for the pre-season cup final against Valur.

After some warning-up and keep ball drills, he begins to develop the session. After exploring the area outside the football hall, Lucas and I return to see him organising what looks like a very complex shooting drill that tests players composure, movement in the box and ability to make the correct decision with their final pass. It’s intense, requires players to be constantly switched on and trains several different skills and makes it clear to us that a lot of preparation has gone into making the most out of the short period of time Óli Stefán has with his squad. Finally, they end with a seven-a-side game. Hewson tells us afterwards that the intensity is so high in these games because every player scores a point each time they’re on the winning side, and the player with the most points at the end of each month takes home a prize that the rest of the squad have contributed to.

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Óli Stefán told us “We’ve played well in pre-season so far, but before we play Valur I wanted to improve our shooting. We know they are going to be the stronger team, so I want to make sure my players are able to put away their chances when they come. I’m confident that if we stick to the plan we have in place, and the make the most of our attacks when we go forward that we have a chance.”

The training session ends and a large part of the squad come over to say hello and shake our hands. The majority of them have no idea who we are, but are interested as to why two English guys have suddenly turned up to watch one of their midweek training sessions. One of the most impressive players that evening was Marinó Axel Helgason, a bright young winger who looked like he always had time on the ball despite the game being played on a half-sized pitch. Marinó Axel has been in and around the Iceland U21s squad, and it’s understandable why given his impressive close control and acceleration.

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After training Hewson gave up a lift to Kópavogur, a town midway between Grindavík and Reykjavík and home of second-tier club HK who were the hosts of the most anticipated friendly of pre-season, as FH played Stjarnan. We arrived midway through the first half, walked through the main entrance, another set of double doors and then sat down in the hall without paying a penny, a scenario you could never imagine happening if trying to attend a match between two Premier League or even Championship sides. Stjarnan beat FH 2-1 on the night, with a 30-yard volley from a young Stjarnan startlet the highlight of the game.

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The culture allowing people to simply walk in and watch professional teams play football was much more fascinating to me than the game itself and summed up why I loved the way football is enjoyed in Iceland so much. Tómas was also present taking in the game as a fan but also to keep his Twitter followers informed of the goings-on at one of the most hotly anticipated games of the #30daysoffriendlies feature he had been running, and he and Lucas assessed the individuals they had become used to watching while I intermittently interjected with any analysis I was able to offer.

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The full-time whistle blew and Lucas and I both felt a pang of sadness as we realised this was the end of our experience in Scandinavia. Tómas had dashed off several minutes before the end, possibly because he had already seen enough from each of the team’s to form an opinion for the start of the upcoming season, but I suspect it was also to beat the traffic out the stadium. As we waited for our bus home, we reflected on what had been an incredible experience, and one I will always be thankful for. If you ever get the chance to visit Iceland, make sure you find a cheap place to buy alcohol and get yourself to a match because I can promise you it will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.

Is this the year English clubs return to the top of continental football?

At the close of play on Wednesday evening, you’d be hard-pressed not to say that Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham are now the favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals, with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola already  confidently able to turn their attention to their next European opponents.

Liverpool’s domination of FC Porto at the Estádio do Dragão on Wednesday was one of the most dominant away performances by an English club in a Champions League knockout game for some time, and yet in terms of the quality of the football being played, it could only be considered an improvement on that played by Man City and Spurs due to the more impressive scoreline.

 

So, the question is, why does 2018 look like the year English clubs will once again by challenging for the Champions League crown? Firstly, you have to go back to last May, when Jose Mourinho lead Manchester United to the Europa League title, allowing England to enter five teams in this year’s contest. This numerical advantage means statistically England has a better chance of producing a champion this season than any other nation, but there’s more to it than that.

Firstly, Manchester City’s dominance of the Premier League this season makes them a clear favourite, and with a manager who has won Europe’s elite competition several times in his career already and a favourable draw up to this point, the smart money is on the Sky Blues. The manner in which City have won their games is what’s so impressive, having failed to come up against any formation or tactic that seems to negate their patient, short-passing style. Guardiola has set his team up to play with a similar tempo to his infamous Barcelona side, but with more dynamic wingers in Sane and Sterling, who are given more creative freedom than the likes of Pedro at Barcelona, whose role was to provide Messi with the best opportunity to influence the game. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva are his Iniesta and Xavi, with the former playing the best football of his career.

Aside from the obvious contenders, the strength in depth of the Premier League means that even if Manchester City were to succumb to their next opponents (an incredible comeback from Basel is probably off-the-cards at this point) there are still four other sides playing very different types of football for the rest of Europe to compete with. There are few sides in Europe with a more devastating front line than Liverpool right now, with PSG the only team currently able to boast more away goals than them this season, and their place in the quarter-finals is in serious doubt after their defeat to Real Madrid (more on that later).

Spurs are the in-form team in the league, with a striker who’s shoot-on-sight mantra able to bale out his side when the more creative players are drawing a blank, which happens less and less often as Mousa Dembele’s imperious form allows the likes of Eriksen, Son and Alli to play more creative roles. We have yet to see how Messrs Mourinho and Conte will fair in the opening leg of their ties against Sevilla and Barcelona respectively, however you can expect both of their sides to set up more defensively than their English counterparts.

The fact is, it’s very difficult to imagine a team, except for Manchester City, that have the ability to set up a team to beat three of these English sides, which is potentially what any other side would have to do to win the Champions League.

Finally, the knockout draw couldn’t have been much kinder to the English teams, with three of the five sides going into their ties as clear favourites, while Spurs are now also in a good position to overturn Juventus. Chelsea are the outliers in this scenario, although this is partly down to their inability to win their group, but also their recent form has been inconsistent and Conte’s cup pedigree has been called into question. Spurs’ group stage form has boosted the chances of their English counterparts too, forcing Real Madrid and PSG to face off earlier in the tournament than either would have liked to. Bayern Munich are the team that have gone under the radar this year in Europe in the UK, having managed to avoid playing any of the domestic clubs up to this point, and shouldn’t have too much trouble defeating Besiktas in their opening knockout tie. However, the Bavarians have plateaued over the last few years, and face the same challenge as PSG do in France with domestic motivation already dwindling as they wrap up their respective league titles with relative ease in the coming weeks.

Luck has certainly been on the side of the English club’s so far this season, but don’t look past how well these sides have played so far in Europe, and at this point, it would be impossible to rule out another all-English final, a feat that hasn’t been seen since John Terry’s infamous penalty slip in Russia.

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The CONIFA World Football Cup: What we know so far

Football is coming home this summer, but not in the way you might expect. Sixteen teams from across the globe are travelling to London at the end of May to take part in the third World Football Cup. These teams represent nations, ethnic groups or diasporas which aren’t recognised by FIFA but instead are encouraged to play football through an organisation called CONIFA. CONIFA (or the Confederation of Independent Football Associations) is “a global acting non-profit organisation that supports representatives of international football teams from nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories” and for two weeks will bring together teams representing five continents, to find a new World Football Champion.

Who’s competing?

The sixteen teams contesting the World Football Cup this summer are:

Europe:

Abkhazia – An autonomous region of Georgia recognised by Russia and several other states. They were the winners and hosts of the previous World Football Cup in 2016 and automatically qualified for this year’s tournament due to their achievements two years ago.

Felvidék – One of two sides at this summer’s tournament representing a Hungarian minority, Felvidék are appearing at their first World Football Cup having won the Hungarian Heritage Cup in August 2016. They finished 7th at last summer’s European Football Cup.

Padania – Padania represent eight of the northern regions of Italy and are considered one of the strongest sides in CONIFA having first been recognised as a footballing state in 2008. They won the first three VIVA World Cups (the predecessor of the CONIFA WFC) and are the reigning European Football Cup champions.

Northern Cyprus – A region of Cyprus with a largely Turkish population, Northern Cyprus are another strong competitor outside of FIFA organised competitions. A third-place finish in Abkhazia and runners-up to Padania when they hosted the European Football Cup last year, expected the Northern Cypriots to challenge for the title again in London.

Székely Land – Székely Land are the second Hungarian diaspora to qualify for the WFC, and the team that heralds from central Romania qualified for this summer’s tournament with more qualification points than any other European side. Certainly one of the rising stars of CONIFA competition who will be looking to improve on their performance in their debut WFC in Abkhazia in 2016.

Ellan Vannin – Better known as the Isle of Man, Ellan Vannin were awarded a wild card to appear in London this summer, with the highlight of their qualification campaign coming in a 6-0 victory over Greenland. They recently played Yorkshire in a friendly in their debut match – which you can read all about here – and as one of the more local sides to London, they’re sure to receive a lot of support from fans.

Asia:

Tamil Eelam – Tamil Eelam represent the Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka, although their players are based all over the world in the UK, Canada and Switzerland. This will be their second appearance at the WFC, and victory in the CONIFA Challenger Cup against the Romani people secured their spot in London.

Western Armenia – Western Armenia are infamous in the non-FIFA community for being involved in one of the most prestigious matches against a non-CONIFA side, when they narrowly lost to Olympique de Marseille’s reserve side 3-2. Another strong side with substantial tournament experience, the Western Armenian’s were granted a wild card to qualify for the 2018 version of the tournament.

Tibet – The other Asian side awarded a wild card was Tibet, despite not taking part in a single qualifying match. Tibet will be an unknown quantity for many of the sides they come up against, but London 2018 offers them the perfect opportunity to gain some valuable experience.

Panjab – Panjab were initially set up to represent the British Punjabi diaspora but since their conception in 2014 have spread further afield. The side have come on a long way since their 8-1 defeat against Ellan Vannin in their second ever international, taking Abkhazia to penalties in the previous WFC final and losing 4-3 to Leicester City’s International Academy. Another team to keep a very close eye on as the competition progresses.

United Koreans of Japan – The name of this side is pretty self-explanatory. UKFAJ are affiliated with club side FC Korea in Japan and play in the fifth tier of Japanese football. The majority of their players come from the club side although anyone from the Zainichi region is eligible to turn out the UKFAJ.

Africa:

Barawa – Barawa are the official hosts of this year’s World Football Cup, despite Barawaland being a coastal region of Somalia. The diaspora are London-based and have been competing in friendly over the past two years despite automatically qualifying. They finished bottom of their group at the World Unity Cup in August 2016 competing against Tamil Eelam and the Chagos Islands who failed to qualify this summer.

Matabeleland – Matabeleland is made up of three regions in western Zimbabwe and will be competing in their maiden international tournament this summer. The side qualified as one of the strongest teams from the African region and manager Justin Walley is also the head of the African section of CONIFA.

Kabylie – Kabylie represent the cultural region of Kabylie in Northern Algeria, which is primarily found in the Atlas Mountains region on the coast of the Mediterranean. The region has a population of over 7,500,000 people and will also be appearing in their first World Football Cup.

North America:

Cascadia – The only team representing North America, Cascadia encompasses Washington and Oregon state in the USA and British Columbia in Canada. Cascadia is a bioregion, and they’re recognised by CONIFA due to the unique ecosystem in the area.

Oceania:

Kiribati – No team will travel further to reach London this summer than Kiribati, and although the island nation are technically eligible to play within FIFA. They are a member of the OFC, and have played ten internationals in their history, although all of these have been away from home due to the lack of grass pitches in the archipelago.

Where are they playing?

So far three venues have been announced to host games this summer, with several others to be revealed over the course of the next few weeks. Tickets will cost £5 for children and £10 for adults with an extra pound going towards a team of your choice.

Sutton United – Ganders Green Lane

The first venue to be announced was Ganders Green Lane, home of National League side Sutton United. The 5,014 capacity ground will host two group games, two quarter-finals, and two placement games including two matches on the opening day between Ellan Vannin and Cascadia, and Padania and Matabeleland.

Bromley – Hayes Lane

The next ground fans will be able to experience is Hayes Lane, also home to a National League side in rapidly improving Bromley. Like Ganders Green Lane, Hayes Lane is an artificial pitch meaning it will have no issue with hosting four matches over the course of a week. Bromley will welcome a plate match and a quarter-final on June 5th, and two plate semi-finals two days later.

Enfield – Queen Elizabeth II Stadium

The iconic art-deco pavilion makes Enfield Town’s home ground instantly recognisable, and having been chosen to host ten matches, it’s essential for fans to make their way out to Middlesex at some point during the tournament. The QU2 stadium will host all-but-one of Group B’s matches, alongside Western Armenia v Kabylie, before hosting a quarter-final and three placement matches on the final weekend of competition.

What’s the format?

Sixteen teams are split into four seeded groups, with no more than two teams from each continent allowed to be drawn together.

The top two sides from each group go into the quarter-finals, and the rest of the tournament follows the traditional knockout format.

To make sure all the travelling teams get the maximum game time, teams that don’t progress through their groups will play three placement matches, meaning all sixteen teams will be ranked from first to 16th by June 10th.

If you enjoyed this and want to see more CONIFA content before the tournament starts, make sure to give @FTHalfwayLine a follow on Twitter.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Wenger’s final roll of the dice

So here we are, just a matter of hours to go until the transfer window closes once again and at the time of writing, Arsenal have secured a deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang is currently flying to London to complete his deal (via Sky Sports). Exciting times, but do these moves signal an even bigger one on the horizon? Could it mean that Wenger is to leave at the end of his current contract? I think it does, and I’ll get onto that. But first it’s worth looking at how the Gabon striker will fit in at Arsenal.

Straight up, it’s a peculiar one. A player for Aubameyang’s quality is too good to turn down, to use a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason – Arsenal will only be better for having the Dortmund man in their squad. He won the Bundesliga Player of the Year at the end of the 2015-16 season, an award also won by one Kevin De Bruyne, and Aubameyang will walk into Arsenal as the highest paid player and with the same level of expectations at Mesut Özil. But will he walk in the starting XI? That’s the question worth asking.


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Yes, Aubameyang will walk into the side but it won’t be in the left-wing position that a lot of journalists are so conveniently choosing in order to get the clicks for their new ‘Arsenal XI’ articles. He hasn’t played there for years and certainly won’t for Arsenal as his ego would confirm. It leaves Arsenal with an issue, it’s fair to say Lacazette won’t be dropped and Arsenal don’t use any formations with a two-striker variant. Will Wenger revert back to his 4-4-2 days of the Invincibles? I doubt it personally, I think there’s much more possibility of a 3-5-2 formation being utilised with Özil in behind Aubameyang and Lacazette, but this again leaves out their other new signing Mkhitaryan – you can see Wenger’s new issue. To use another cliche, it’s a good problem to have, and it is, but Arsenal are already having issues with good players being left out, Olivier Giroud is already struggling for game time and Lacazette isn’t happy even being brought off 20 minutes before the end of each game, so there’s a serious issue that needs solving. 

I think the Arsenal’s January business has created an unbalanced squad. It looks to be a great window, but an opportunistic one, not one well planned. As an Arsenal fan I’ll be the first to say that another caveat of this, Giroud leaving on loan to Chelsea (via The Telegraph), would be soul-destroying, heartbreak on the level of Fabregas leaving to Barcelona. Giroud is the sweetheart of Arsenal, and while replacing him with a mercenary type striker in Aubameyang is what most Arsenal fans want, there are some sad repercussions to our hap-hazard spending. One of those repercussions, as I mentioned, is the unbalanced squad and Arsenal are in need of a right winger. We currently only have Iwobi in that position and if we continue to use the 4-3-3 which Wenger seems to prefer, that’s a pretty bleak situation. Young Reiss Nelson is an incredible talent but it’s too soon for him right now.

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But the title of the piece, and the one I’m pondering most, is this Wenger’s final roll of the dice? With Mkhitaryan (28), Aubameyang (28) and potentially Jonny Evans (30) (via The Times) looking like signing (sorry for not mentioning you Jonny) it looks like it’s a buck of the trend, perhaps one aided by Mislintat, but it’s buying players in their prime with little regard for sell-on value, something I don’t think Wenger has considered before. But turning down Malcom (via Sky Sports) and signing these three shows that Wenger is finally thinking of ‘now’ again, and I think that is very possibly because this is his last contract with Arsenal. It’s his last era, next season will probably be his curtain call, and these January recruits show Wenger wants to attack on all fronts and have one last go at the Champions League.

By Lucas Arnold (@LucasArnold93)

Yorkshire v Isle of Man: The Domestic International

To the average reader, this headline looks wrong. And you’d be right, but not for the reason you might think. Yorkshire and the Isle of Man did take part in an international football fixture that was recognised by an international football body. The incorrect part of the headline is the Isle of Man don’t play under that name, instead, they compete under the title ‘Ellan Vannin’ which is their Manx moniker.

I imagine this still raises a lot of questions, the main one being: ‘Yorkshire aren’t a country, so how can they play an international football match?’ and this is where an organisation called CONIFA come into play.

CONIFA, or the Confederation of Independent Football Associations are a governing body designed to give non-FIFA affiliated teams an opportunity to play on the international stage. CONIFA was founded in 2013 to take over from N.F.-Board (New Football Federations-Board) and have since hosted two World Football Cups, with the third taking place this summer in London, which will be hosted by the Barawa Football Association which represents the Somali diaspora in England.

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The Vikings – the Yorkshire International Football Association’s (or YIFA’s) official nickname – were set up on 16th July 2017 by chairman Phil Hegarty and last October applied for CONIFA membership. He said: “The reason we’ve set this up because, like a lot of people around the region, we’ve been talking about a Yorkshire football team for years.”

“It just got to the point where we said ‘let’s see what happens’ and so far, the reaction has been amazing. It’s also a kind of a reflection of Yorkshire’s strong leaning towards devolution at the moment; a way of bringing the feeling of the debate to the man or woman on the street. Giving them an outlet for their pride in Yorkshire.”

Yorkshire were accepted as members of CONIFA in January at their annual conference in Northern Cyprus at the same time as the draw for this summer’s tournament took place, and although they won’t be taking part, their opponent Ellan Vannin will be. The Douglas-based side have been drawn in a group with the hosts Barawa, Tamil Eelam (a team made up of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Canada, the UK and Switzerland) and Cascadia (drawing their players from Oregon and Washington in the USA and British Columbia in Canada).

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Yorkshire’s identity within the United Kingdom is unique, self-titled as ‘God’s Own County’, their sporting influence on the rest of the British Isles can’t be ignored, with the prime example of this coming during the London Olympics in 2012, where if Yorkshire had competed as their own entity, they would have finished twelve in the medal table. Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee and boxer Nicola Adams are just a few of Yorkshire’s finest that propelled Great Britain to third place with 29 gold medals, their best haul since hosting the 1908 event. It’s difficult to think of many other British counties that would even consider attempting something as extravagant as setting up their own national football team.

Before the game, speaking to CONIFA Vice-President Kristóf Wenczel, he said “In our constitution, it’s [admission to CONIFA] quite flexible even if you are one of the 5,000 nationalities listed by the UN, or if you are a linguistic minority or an autonomous region then you can be a member of CONIFA.” Anyone aware of Yorkshire’s distinctive dialect will understand that this is one of the main reasons the county were unanimously voted into the organisation.

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A single flare created a thin blue haze across the top of the pitch at the start of both halves.

The game took place at Hemsworth Miners Welfare Football Club in Fitzwilliam, a small village twenty minutes from Doncaster. Fittingly, they play at the Yorkshire NuBuilds stadium which has a capacity of 1,000, however it was just over two-thirds full for this historic occasion. Their modest but modern clubhouse was adorned with signed shirts from many of the heavyweights of club football in the area; Barnsley, Hull, Sheffield Wednesday, Darlington, Doncaster and Middlesbrough to name a few. Spectators wore brand-new Yorkshire football shirts and were draped in blue flags with the famous white rose pinned to the centre.

As expected, it hasn’t been plain sailing to reach this point from YIFA conception. Threats from the FA leading up to the fixture regarding semi-professional players participating in non-affiliated fixtures briefly put the game in doubt before the match was clarified. YIFA Chairman Phil Hegarty said regarding the squad selected: “The squad is better than I thought and that’s a lot to do with our coaches, they’ve got a really good standard of semi-professional on board and they’re really happy with them.

“They’d have been happy with twelve lads in their forties who play Sunday League football if that’s what we could have got but Ryan [Farrell] and Micky [Long] have put a really good squad together.”

The players assembled came from a range of different levels, with goalkeeper and man of the match Ed Hall playing in the National League North with Bradford Park Avenue, while several members of the squad played five steps below him with Beeston St. Anthony and Dinnington Town.

Malcolm Blackburn, the visiting President of Ellan Vannin reiterated that they gave Yorkshire all the help they could when they heard about their application and were honoured to be asked to be The Vikings first opponents. “I’ve been speaking to Phil [Hegarty] for quite a while now and he’s used quite a bit of the information that we used as Ellan Vannin to help him get through it with Yorkshire. When he said ‘Would you like to come and play the first game?’ it was a no-brainer for us, we were straight on the plane, getting organised.”

A blustery 3:30pm kick-off came and went and within five seconds the first football had disappeared over a garden fence (see video above), a miscue from centre back James Hurtley saw his effort fly into a neighbouring garden via the top of the away dugout. The first fifteen minutes were fast-paced, the nervous energy from both teams palpable from the sidelines, and Yorkshire nearly made took advantage of this by winning a penalty which was well saved by Ellan Vannin’s debutant ‘keeper Dean Kearns. Kearns is likely to remember this game not only for his penalty save, but also the chants coming from behind his goal courtesy of the Yorkshire faithful after switching sides for the second-half, which culminated in a pitch invader assisting him by taking the final goal-kick of the match.

It’s unusual for a set of fans to begin supporting a completely new team. There were no familiar songs to be sung, and no traditions to be upheld. Unsurprisingly, chants about Lancashire sporadically started during the warm-up and the early stages of the game, but it wasn’t long before: ‘You’re just a small town in England’ and ‘We’ve only played one game, we’re better than you’ were ringing around the ground.

The goalkeepers on both sides were tested before the break, but neither team was able to open the scoring. Yorkshire were trying to move the ball quickly into the final third aerially, but Ellan Vannin’s height advantage meant this was ineffective, and allowed the visitors to build attacks from the back when winning possession from Yorkshire’s forwards. They worked the ball out to the right hand side well where full-back Sam Caine and winger Alex Holden impressed, and played very much how Malcolm Blackburn said they would before the game, soaking up pressure and then trying to play on the break.

Half-time substitute Furo Davies scored the first goal five minutes into the second half for Ellan Vannin putting the home side behind, however it wasn’t long before they were back on level terms, with Jordan Coduri controlling a pinpoint chip from Pat Maguire and hitting the ball on the turn low to the goalkeepers left. Yorkshire were on the front foot for much of the match after this, and Ellan Vannin’s Mike Williams did well not to turn a dangerous cross into his own net. The visitors burst into life in the final moments however and could have taken a victory back to their home in the Irish Sea if goalkeeper Ed Hall hadn’t been on hand to stop Davies and Joey Quayle’s efforts.

On the balance of play the result was a fair one and earned both sides valuable qualification points for next summer’s European Football Cup. Logistically, it’s not easy to organise scheduled competitions between multiple CONIFA teams, and so any friendly that they take part in usually has qualification points attached to it in order to help determine which sides progress to the next major tournament.

Ellan Vannin will continue their preparation for this summer’s World Football Cup with a ‘secret’ fixture next Sunday, the details of which will be revealed next month. For Yorkshire though, it’s time to reflect on how far they’ve come in the last six months before looking forward to a friendly with Strathclyde in March and then taking their first step on the path to international sporting glory under their own name for the very first time.

 

Shani Tarashaj – Everton’s forgotten attacker

On 7 January 2016, Everton announced the signing of an exciting 21-year-old Kosovan-born Swiss forward from Grasshoppers called Shani Tarashaj. He had appeared in all eighteen of his side’s league games that season, contributing eight goals and an assist as a shadow striker playing in behind Israeli Munas Dabbur. He would return to Switzerland on loan for the rest of the season where he added another three goals to his tally helping guide Grasshoppers to a fourth place finish and a Europa League spot for the following campaign. He performed so well domestically that Vladimir Petković took him to France for that summer’s European Championships. He made a single substitute appearance against Romania as he saw his adopted nation eliminated by Poland on penalties.

And then his career just stopped.

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His time at Frankfurt wasn’t perfect, but it only got worse from there.

Tarashaj joined Eintracht Frankfurt on loan in the summer of 2016 after Everton signed Yannick Bolasie and Dominic Calvert-Lewin who were capable of playing in a similar role, but the alarm bells would have been ringing when Ronald Koeman decided he needed to bring in Enner Valencia on loan from West Ham on deadline day. Tarashaj struggled in Germany, making thirteen appearances all season in the league, with all but one coming from the bench. A 3-0 win over Hamburg was the only match in which he played more than 45 minutes. It was a game atypical of his time in Germany; it was the only time that season where he contributed either a goal or an assist, and it was the only game where he started on the left-wing, a position he’d never played in while at Grasshoppers.

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Tarashaj was one of Grasshoppers best youth prospects for a generation, helping his side reach Europe in the season he impressed Everton’s scouts.

Petković decided to leave Tarashaj out of his first squad after EURO 2016, instead giving him the opportunity to join up with the Under-21s squad, before promoting him to the bench for the World Cup qualifier against Andorra. Tarashaj hasn’t been involved in the national team set-up since and with the emergence of other young talents such as Breel Embolo and players such as Haris Seferović, Josip Drmić and Admir Mehmedi impressing at club level, Tarashaj is now some way down the pecking order.

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If 2016/17 was a step backwards for Shani Tarashaj, then this season has seen his career come to a complete standstill. A meniscus tear at the end of the season in Germany slowed his progress and made him an unappealing prospect for any potential summers in the summer. However, Everton then went on to sign Davy Klaassen, Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Sandro Ramirez, promoted Tom Davies from the Under-23s while he was away and this month brought in Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott too. It’s safe to say that Sam Allardyce’s most recent transfer activity does not bode well for Kosovan-born refugee.

To underline just how forgotten Tarashaj is, Wikipedia haven’t even updated his playing stats to include this season, Everton haven’t even given him a squad number this season, even though 46 other players at some point this season have been awarded one at some point during the campaign, and the last article to mention him when you search for his name was written in March 2017. (UPDATE: Liverpool Echo published a story 45 minutes before this went live, talk about good timing.)

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Tarashaj scored five goals in seven Under-21 appearances to earn a call-up to the first team, but a repeat of that feat looks a long way off right now.

While training with Switzerland in the lead up to EURO 2016, Tarashaj must have thought that the World Cup in Russia would be coming at the perfect time for him and a young, improving Swiss side. Instead, Tarashaj will very much be a spectator this summer, with his move to the Premier League being one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory.

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Has Andy Robertson solved Liverpool’s left-back problem?

Liverpool were 4-1 up after 75 minutes against champions-elect Manchester City when Andy Robertson received a cheer from the crowd so loud, that anyone outside the stadium would have thought they’d scored a fifth.

In fact, Robertson had just taken the word ‘gegenpressing’ and given it a whole new meaning. Before giving away a free-kick on the left-hand side of Man City’s box for a foul on Nicolas Otamendi, Robertson had closed down Bernardo Silva on the halfway line, Kyle Walker at right-back, John Stones on the edge of the box, Ederson by the penalty spot and then the Argentinian centre-half.

If Robertson’s performances over the past month hadn’t impressed the Anfield faithful before then, he was certain to have convinced the home supporters after that.

It’s amazing to think that Robertson is only 23-years-old but has already earned 20 international caps for Scotland and made 214 career appearances since his debut for Queen’s Park in the Scottish Challenge Cup against Berwick at 18. That debut came on July 28, 2012, only a few weeks before Robertson was due to start university and potentially miss out on the opportunity to play professional football.

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Andy Robertson started out at Scottish Third Division side Queen’s Park, who lived up to every Scottish stereotype by being sponsored by Irn-Bru

Robertson spent two seasons with Queen’s Park in the Scottish Third Division before being signed by Jackie McNamara at Dundee United. He was only in the Scottish Premiership for a year before Steve Bruce brought him to Hull where he earned his first international call-up and helped the Tigers reach the Premier League. That joy was short lived though, as Robertson stood out in a Hull team that were relegated the following season. 36 appearances in all competitions was trumped only by Sam Clucas and both players secured moves that kept them in the Premier League in the summer.

It was Robertson’s attacking endeavour, especially during the early parts of that season, that attracted interest from bigger clubs. An injury picked up in a match against Bournemouth at the end of October disrupted his run in the side, and although he returned to the starting line-up as soon as he was fit again Hull were already in a downward spiral.

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By far his best performance in a Liverpool shirt, Robertson will be hoping to cement his place in the side for the remainder of the season.

At Liverpool, Robertson is playing in a side with higher expectations than he’s ever experienced before. This may be one of the reasons for Klopp taking his time introducing Robertson into the side. He only started two Premier League games before December, against Frank de Boer’s Crystal Palace and at home to Burnley, but since his appearance in Liverpool’s 5-1 win at Brighton, Robertson has started all but one of Liverpool’s games. Incidentally, Liverpool have gone unbeaten since Robertson replaced Alberto Moreno and his only defeat in a Liverpool shirt was in the Carabao Cup against Leicester.

James Milner, Alberto Moreno, Brad Smith, Jose Enrique, Aly Cissokho, Fábio Aurélio, Emiliano Insúa, Andrea Dossena.

These are the players that have played at left-back for Liverpool in the last ten seasons. They all attempted to replace John Arne Riise, who monopolised the position for seven seasons playing an important part in Liverpool’s Champions League win in 2005, (although he played in a more advanced position in this game ahead of Djimi Traore) their FA Cup triumph the following season, and won the League Cup several years beforehand. Replacing a player like Riise was never going to be easy, but when a versatile midfield player in James Milner is the man stepping into the role for an entire season, then there’s been a serious failure in recruitment.

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The most recent left-back to leave a legacy at Anfield, Riise went on to play in Italy, Cyprus and India before returning to Norway

Robertson is not yet the player that Riise was, and it will be several seasons before we can even make this comparison properly, but he does have several key attributes that will help him emulate the Norwegian full-back.

Riise’s work-rate was what made him so vital in Liverpool’s team. He was able to join in with attacks and provide an extra option on the left, something that Robertson is already well-known for. The way Robertson was able to harass Raheem Sterling whenever he received the ball and take part in Liverpool’s attacks shows he’s able to match the best wingers in the Premier League on his day.

However, one obvious difference between the two is that Riise was aware that if he was caught out of position, he’d be protected by the likes of Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypiä and Daniel Agger, and although the Reds have just brought in Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, it’s unlikely Robertson will have that same confidence in his colleagues just yet.

Riise’s impressive dead ball technique and long range shooting ability used to steal the headlines and made the Norwegian stand out amongst his peers. Robertson is unlikely to ever compete on this front, but given the amount of attacking firepower playing in front of the young Scot right now, Liverpool aren’t going to struggle if he doesn’t start chipping in with goals.

To conclude, Robertson hasn’t solved Liverpool’s problem at left-back, and further analysis suggests that their defensive problems are more deeply rooted than simply bringing in a new full-back, but Robertson is at the right stage in his career to spend several seasons growing into the role. If Liverpool are able to bring in a new ‘keeper and potentially a partner for van Dijk in the near future, then there’s no reason why Klopp’s side shouldn’t be looking to compete for the Premier League title when these issues are solved.