Cascadia: America’s answer to World Cup heartbreak

On October 10th 2017, referee Marlon Mejia blew the final whistle at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva. An own goal from Omar Gonzalez and a right-footed long-range effort from Alfie Jones saw Trinidad & Tobago shock North American football. The USA discovered that results had gone against them in Panama and Honduras and they would not be heading to Russia the following summer for the FIFA World Cup. In fact, they wouldn’t even have the opportunity to redeem themselves through a play-off. For the first time since 1986, the United States would not be representing North America on the world stage, leaving American football fans without a team to support this summer. Or does it?

Enter Cascadia.

On May 31st, a region from the Pacific Northwest called Cascadia will take on Ellan Vannin (known more popularly as the Isle of Man) at Gander Green Lane, in their opening World Football Cup fixture. However, there are a significant number of hurdles the Cascadian team has to overcome before they step on the field in three months time, including finding people to play for them.

“We do not currently have any players signed up. Players can be anyone who has a family or residence connection to Cascadia.” Aaron Johnsen, President of CAFF – or the Cascadia Association Football Federation – told me when I asked him about the side. In fact, Cascadia have yet to play a single game and have no friendlies currently planned in the lead-up to their maiden tournament.

“Cascadia qualified by being the only organisation of our kind in good standing with CONIFA. Our expectations going into the tournament are to put together a team that can compete and hopefully win.”

This is the crux of the problem for Cascadia and many teams like them within CONIFA. If you don’t have any local counterparts, then it becomes incredibly difficult to organise fixtures for your side. Cascadia are the only qualifiers from North America for this summer’s tournament, and currently Quebec are the only other team on the same continent as Cascadia who also have CONIFA membership, and the two sides couldn’t be further apart while existing on the same continent.

There has always been a lot of interests in the project, yet we have failed to attract the talent required to actually start a team.”

The aim of the side is to have a roster of players to choose from by April 1st according to their Facebook page, although it’s unlikely the likes of DeAndre Yedlin of Newcastle United and Freddy Montero of Sporting CP will be selected, even though both players are eligible to represent Cascadia.  Yedlin was born in Seattle and Montero has played for the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Welcome to the Epicenter of North American Football

This is the statement that greets you when you visit the official Cascadia website. The history of football in the region stretches back to the beginnings of professional football in the United States at the start of the 1970s, with the three major cities within Cascadia – Seattle, Portland and Vancouver – being awarded NASL sides within a year of each other. As well as admission to the NASL, the three teams created the Cascadia Cup, awarded to the best performing side in the region and was won by the Portland Timbers in 2017 for the first time in five seasons.

When the MLS began in 1996, Seattle were only denied a franchise due to the lack of a dedicated stadium. Vancouver were the first non-US based side to join the competition in 2011, the same year as the Timbers, who have already won the MLS Cup.

Unlike many of the sides at the World Football Cup, people are less likely to be aware of where Cascadia is or how they qualify under CONIFA’s rules to join the federation.

“We put together a bid that included showing were we are, the unique culture of bioregionalism and soccer.”

Cascadia’s mission statement describes themselves as a distinct cultural identity and isolated bioregion, made up of parts of Oregon and Washington state in the US, and the western region of British Columbia in Canada.

cascadia region
The green section represents ‘Core Cascadia’ while the dark outline contains ‘Bioregional Cascadia’

As the term suggests, a ‘bioregion’ is an area with similar natural characteristics such as native plants and wildlife, the climate and a continuous geographic terrain. But the term also takes the local population into consideration and the football culture in the Pacific Northwestern was another key component of Cascadia being granted CONIFA membership. The trifecta of the Sounders, the Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers are key contributors to this culture, with all three sides boasted a 96% capacity or higher last season. Compare this to the likes of the New York and Los Angeles clubs who average around 80% and you can see just how popular football is in the area.

Like all the teams wishing to compete in London this summer, Cascadia need the support of the general public to support the side in their goal of representing their region. You can visit Cascadia’s official site and sponsor the side, any support will be greatly appreciated. Alternatively, Cascadia are still looking for players and coaches, and if you think you’ve got what it takes to play in a World Cup this summer, you can enquire about joining the side here.

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.

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.

Flags

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).

FlagsKickOff.JPG

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.

flare.jpg
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.