A cry for independence? How Yorkshire is to appear in footballing world cup for stateless people and de facto nations

‘Anyone who says the region doesn’t have its own culture and identity doesn’t understand the place. Which is probably half the problem at Westminster’

Colin Drury
Saturday 05 January 2019 16:33
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Yorkshire international football team play Panjab

It has been hailed, by some, as a first symbolic step towards England’s biggest region acquiring autonomy. Others have dismissed it as Yorkshire parochialism gone rogue.

The county known – by its own residents at least – as “god’s own” sparked minor headlines earlier this year when it created its own “national” football team.

Now, an idea first dreamed up in a Halifax pub has, it seems, gained global traction.

The Yorkshire International Football Association (YIFA) – currently five games and three wins into its life – has been invited to enter the 2020 world cup for displaced peoples, stateless nations, de facto countries and disputed territories.

Quite which one of those Yorkshire actually is has not been specified.

But, in taking part, it will compete against team such as Tibet, Darfur, Greenland and the Mariya team of indigenous Australians. Past winners of the biennial tournament include Karpatalja, a minority nation of Hungarians in Ukraine, and Abkhazia, a breakaway republic generally recognised as being part of Georgia.

“No one is claiming Yorkshire is like those places or people,” says Phil Hegarty, the warehouse cooperative worker who thought up the YIFA. “But anyone who says this region doesn’t have its own culture and identity doesn’t understand the place. Which is probably half the problem at Westminster.”

Since he’s mentioned it, this isn’t, the 46-year-old insists, a politically inspired project. Yet, its success in attracting support may well offer a bellwether of how people in regions across the UK – not just Yorkshire – are feeling.

“This is purely about grassroots football,” the father-of-three tells The Independent. “But there’s no doubt that part of the reason we’ve generated so much enthusiasm is because people here don’t feel the UK – or rather its government – is treating them fairly. They don’t feel listened to by London and they feel cheated by lack of investment in education, transport, you name it. So, you combine that with this historic identity, and you get this growing call for greater self-determination here. Perhaps we’re an expression of that.”

Indeed, if the initial idea was first thought up during a boozy discussion about which players would make a fantasy Yorkshire 11, the support shown since has been very much real.

When Phil first set out his vision on social media at the end of 2017, he was inundated with volunteers wanting to help. Business came forward to sponsor the not-for-profit project. An advert for the first open training session, meanwhile, resulted in 400 players applying. Good ones too: semi-pros mainly, playing with clubs in England’s sixth, seventh and eighth tiers.

“We were expecting two or three dozen to get in touch,” says Phil, of Halifax. “When those numbers started emailing in, that’s when I thought we might have something special. Most of these lads hold down jobs, play semi-professionally, and have all the usual commitments. But they still wanted to give their time, on a cold December night, to try and represent Yorkshire.”

Perhaps just as significantly, when the light blue kit – based on the colour of the region’s flag – went on sale, it flew out.

“We’ve sent them all over the world,” says Ian Smith, an events worker from Hull who has become supporters’ liaison officer. “New Zealand, South Africa, Spain. We packed a full box off to Los Angeles the other day. We sent a couple to Southampton too. There’s a branch of the supporters’ club down there. I think there’s three lads in it.”

Attendance at the five matches has averaged out at about 700 a game so far.

“But the atmosphere is as good as any match I’ve ever been to,” says Ian, 34, who has a season ticket with Hull City. ““When I first heard about it on the radio I thought it was a crazy idea. My brother and I got in the car and drove to the first match just to see what it was about, and we both loved it. It’s proper football. Internationals minus the greed and the corruption of Fifa.”

That first match – held at the home ground of village club Hemsworth Miners Welfare FC – was against Ellan Vannin. That’s the Isle Of Man – another notional national team – in Manx. It was a 1-1 draw.

“Not bad to say we’d only had 20 minutes training together at that point,” says assistant coach Micky Long. “We’d had to call a couple of sessions off because of the weather. That’s a Yorkshire winter for you.”

Since then YIFA has been officially accepted into Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa), the not-for-profit body, based in Sweden, which regulates and runs tournaments between its more than 60 quasi-nation members. Yorkshire was approved, largely, on the strength of the county’s regional identity and the fact that a 2014 academic study found an estimated 55 per cent of its 5.3 million people identify with the region ahead of identifying with being English. “On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at” was named as the official national anthem.

Yorkshire in action against Panjab (Kim O’Brien Jones)

On the pitch, meanwhile, the team has lodged friendly wins over London-based sides Panjab, the Chagos Islands and Barawa.

That last game had particular resonance. Hours before kick-off, five people died when a bomb ripped through a stadium in the troubled want-away Somali district.

“That saying that football is more important than life and death – it isn’t, and a lot of Conifa members know that first hand,” says Micky, a 44-year-old solicitor and one-time Ossett Town semi-pro. “But that’s part of the reason this exists. To help raise attention to these plights around the world. And, if we can help with that by playing football, that sounds worthwhile to me.”

Yorkshire’s top scorer Jordan Coduri agrees.

The 26-year-old, a joiner by trade who plays part time with Penistone Church FC in Barnsley, has knocked in four goals in five games so far.

“It’s brilliant to be part of,” he says. “You meet players and people from different parts of the world which, otherwise, you’d never get a chance to. And it’s a good quality. We have a really good side.”

He thinks for a minute. “I think most of the lads are hoping for an away fixture in the Chagos Islands at some point,” he says.

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The side’s first overseas game was somewhere a little less exotic: Jersey. Some 200 fans travelled to the island parish for the game. Most, as it turned out, arrived before the players.

“Our lads all had Saturday matches with their league clubs,” explains Phil again. “So, most of them had to catch a plane which landed 50 minutes before kick off on Sunday. Not ideal preparation but it just shows the commitment of everyone involved.”

They lost 2-1. “But the players stayed over Sunday night and, let's sat, enjoyed the island’s hospitality,” he says. “Some of them enjoyed it until about 4am. So, it was a good learning curve and bonding exercise.”

Which brings us full circle back to the current main goal of competing at the 2020 Conifa world cup.

Previous tournaments – each featuring 16 teams – have been held in Östersund in Sweden (2014), Abkhazia (2016), and London (2018). The next edition has been mooted for America, the home of Cascadia, a team which represents a proposed country straddling the US-Canadian border.

“The aim is not just to be there but to have a good run in it,” says Phil. “That will take a lot of work on the pitch but also off it, in terms of raising the funds and getting the logistics in place. But there’s no reason it can’t be done if we can harness the passion that’s here.”

How would it feel, I ask, to see Yorkshire at such a tournament?

“Just incredible,” he says. “Brilliant, surreal, emotional. It would be a dream come true.”

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