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The rebel World Cup. The grass roots World Cup. The World Cup for teams and de facto nations that play football where FIFA does not exist. The tournament for areas all over the world that class themselves as nations but are not officially nations.

There’s lots of different ways of describing what the CONIFA World Football Cup is to someone that has never heard of it. This answer though is probably the best one I’ve heard.

“It’s a World Cup about people not borders.”

Meet Jason Heaton. Father of four, runs his own business and, since 2018, the chairman of the Kernow Football Alliance.

To say Jason Heaton is a busy man would be a severe understatement. But from late May onwards, things are only going to get even busier for him as he stands at the forefront of a team that will participate in one of the most unique sports tournaments you can possibly find.

From May 30th till June 7th, teams that the vast majority of people will have never have heard of before will compete in North Macedonia in the CONIFA World Football Cup. Participants such as the Chagos Islands, Tamil Eelam and Matabeleland are hardly household names and this is not a tournament that will be advertised to death by broadcasting megapowers such as the BBC, Sky or BT Sport. Try telling the players and people that belong to these de facto nations though, that this tournament isn’t important and that nobody is bothered about it.

When I looked at the list of teams that had qualified for this year’s tournament, one team really stood out. Kernow. The Cornish for Cornwall. It got me thinking. How did Cornwall end up in this? How easy has it been to introduce Cornwall to international football? Do people even care that Cornwall are in a World Cup? As I soon found out from Jason Heaton, Kernow does care. Very, very much so.

“I started following the CONIFA European Championships during its 2017 tournament. I was the only person commenting on CONIFA’s Twitter updates for it. That’s how much interest there was at the time. The idea of a Kernow football team was first brought up three years ago last month. Someone I know very well, Andrew Bragg, contacted me to ask about forming a Kernow national side and said that the CONIFA World Cup is something that Kernow should seriously think about getting involved in. The time wasn’t quite right for me then. I was very busy running a freestyle football event at the time but later on in the year I began to check how viable it was to start this. Tom Howe, someone I’ve known for ten years, really loved the idea and was on board with it. The 2018 World Cup tournament though is where things started to come into place.”

The 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup was officially hosted by the de facto nation of Barawa. Barawa is a port town in the officially recognised country of Somalia and its team represents the Somali diaspora in England. Due to its links with England, the actual location of the tournament ended up being in London. With his experience organising freestyle football events, it was Jason Heaton himself who was asked to practically organise this tournament from scratch.

“I spent four months speaking to every single football club in London sorting out all the venues. It was a huge job and it was extremely busy. I’ve got kids, I’ve still got my own business to run but if you can’t get excited about organising an actual World Cup tournament in London, then honestly, why even bother! Getting everything sorted took a lot of hard work. PaddyPower were on the fence for a while about getting involved with the marketing and advertising of it but they came through in the end.”

The 2018 tournament was hailed as a big success and was easily the most watched version of the tournament so far whether it be from actual crowd figures at the games or from live stream viewership on the PaddyPower website. Heaton was able to take advantage of the massive amount of non-league sides within London and managed to persuade enough clubs including the likes of Sutton United, Bromley and Carshalton Athletic to agree to host games for this tournament. Notable referees including even Mark Clattenburg agreed to referee some of the games and the appeal of the tournament was further boosted by promotion from popular football podcasts such as the Totally Football Show. Genuine legends of the game even ended up playing. Former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar made an appearance for Matabeleland (the name for the western area of Zimbabwe) at the age of sixty years old! That was quite a coup to say the least and it showed just how quickly the tournament’s appeal had grown since its first ever tournament in 2016 when CONIFA received barely any comments for its social media updates. In other words, London 2018 couldn’t have gone any better for CONIFA.

What London 2018 also did was seriously whet the appetite for an official Kernow team. With the planning and organisation for London 2018 finally done with, it was Heaton this time who called Andrew Bragg that summer and really re-ignited the idea about forming an actual Kernow team that would be a part of the CONIFA federation with the aim being to play in the 2020 World Cup. Remarkably, just four months later, Kernow was an official CONIFA nation. Kernow’s journey to honour centuries of history had begun. But how difficult was it to get players interested in playing for Kernow? It turns out that it wasn’t difficult in the slightest and Heaton reveals a huge sense of pride within Cornish people and a unique sense of identity that they are chomping at the bit to display in front of a worldwide audience. Make no mistake, this is serious for Kernow.

“Andrew Bragg came into his own attracting players for Kernow. He’s like the don of Cornish football. He has so much coaching experience and he’s highly respected within Cornwall. He made sure it wasn’t difficult at all for people to want to represent Kernow. He hit home that you’ve got generations of players that haven’t played for a team specifically representing Cornwall. Players jumped at the chance to make themselves available.”

Heaton is passionate when it comes to why this means so much to the players involved.

“It’s difficult for Cornish players who start at non-league level to play elsewhere. There’s not a lot of money involved and it’s a real ordeal for up and coming Cornish players with great potential to travel elsewhere to make the next step up. That’s why a lot of Cornish players tend to stay in Cornwall for their whole careers. It’s always said that there’s a lot of broken dreams in Cornish football. But it’s also something that gives the place such a huge identity because they’re all in it together. There’s a real abundance of talent here and it doesn’t get realised because of location. There’s players for Cornish non-league teams who could definitely play higher up than what they do but even the nearest football league teams like Exeter and Plymouth are still a two hour drive away.”

Kernow mainly selects the cream of the crop from Cornish non-league teams such as Bodmin Town, Mousehole and Falmouth Town. They don’t have the leisure of being able to select up and coming youngsters bursting with potential in the reserves of a Football League side because, to put it bluntly, there are no Football League sides in Cornwall and there probably won’t be one for some time. So for these Cornish non-league players, is playing for Kernow the highlight of their careers?

“Absolutely. 100%. No question. This is the biggest football available for these players because of what I’ve mentioned before about location. Cornish football is at a bit of a stalemate. This World Cup can help Cornish non-league football massively. Every match we’ve had so far has been streamed live for people to watch and they’ve really helped display the talent we’ve got here. We’ve had loads of great feedback from people watching at the games and watching on the streams back home. I’ve even had people come to me and tell me they’ve never been bothered about football before but are seriously behind the Kernow side.”

I was interested to find out what Jason thought about my claim that the top two tiers of English football and tournaments like the Champions League are businesses now, not sport, and whether something like CONIFA football is the perfect antidote for people who have become disillusioned with the emptiness that football’s riches can provide.

“A well run business is nothing to be ashamed of. The two have to be really well balanced, the sporting side and the business side, no matter who you are. But we’ve got to be doing the right things for both purposes. A lot of chairpeople I know involved with football don’t even really like the sport and they just get in the way. But I know what we’re doing is for the right reasons. What we’re doing isn’t about money. That isn’t a factor. As we said right from the start, let’s just commit to this just being a good idea for Cornish football.”

As our conversation continues, we move onto what I find is the most fascinating talking point about CONIFA teams. Politics. As the saying goes, sports and politics should never mix. But surely CONIFA is a unique sporting example that blatantly rejects this. These teams are here because of politics are they not? I made the mistake of referring to Cornwall as a county earlier on in our chat.

“Let me just stop you there, sorry. Nation. Not county. We are a nation. You’ll have loads of people telling you to stop saying county if you write that.” I think we can call that the telephone call equivalent of a slapped wrist for myself! But it’s not rude. Far from it. It’s pride making itself known, desperate to get across how many people in this part of the UK feel and for people outside of this to be educated. This isn’t just football, this is the story of a nation’s difficulties being acknowledged by the wider world. So, should sports and politics mix?

“Of course it should and it does all the time. It’s everywhere. There’s politics in my own kitchen. When a country hosts an event, they’re representing themselves aren’t they? The Olympics, World Cups, politics is there. You can’t rid a place of culture.” It’s a fair point. When do you ever see an Olympics Opening Ceremony without the President or Prime Minister of the host nation being there? Politicians that high up will do anything to advertise the nation and even if they have no interest in sport whatsoever, they’re made aware that sport is an extremely good method to exploit how you want a country to be perceived. If a British sportsperson ever achieves something big, the Prime Minister will always have a tweet ready to associate their special feats with the country they’re from, even if what they tweet has been written by someone else and handed to them on a jingoistic plate.

“Cornwall has always felt like its own place. Cornwall is its own race, its own people. That’s there in history, that can’t be disputed. Cornwall, to me, is a nation that is under jurisdiction of England. Describing a Cornishman as an Englishman is like describing a Scottishman as an Englishman. Take it as gospel when I say that people here describe themselves as Cornish rather than English.”

How does a team qualify for a tournament like the CONIFA World Cup? After all, Kernow has still only played five games in its short history. I soon discovered that it’s far from a normal process. But then again, it wouldn’t be CONIFA if it was a normal process.

“You qualify through a points system where you organise your own matches. So if you play a local amateur team and win, you get three points. If you beat a recognised semi-professional side, you get eight points. If you beat an actual professional side, then that’s worth twelve points. We’ve played five and won five and by doing that we already amassed enough points to qualify and we’re already the number one ranked European CONIFA nation. Qualification is sorted like this because none of these teams are funded. Everything is self-funded. It’s unique but I think this process works though because it forces you to be organised. It’s up to you to arrange the games to try and qualify. If you were to lose a game you weren’t expecting to, you’d then look to arrange another game from scratch to try and get some points back on the board.” CONIFA appears to have introduced tactical match arranging to run alongside the more traditional tactics while a match is in process.

You’d have thought Kernow, like most teams just before a big tournament, would have played some friendly matches to help prepare them. The amount of games played in their history still remains at five though. Heaton explains why:

“We have an amazing relationship with the Cornish Football Association and all Cornish teams. Because of this, we don’t step over the Cornish FA. They said to us, we love what you’re doing but we can’t work with you. We will support you though. That’s why we don’t play games during the domestic season. There’d be too many games to fit it in and we don’t want to step on their toes. They all really support what we’re doing though.”

This very conscious attitude to not get in the way of domestic affairs has also influenced their approach at looking to bring players in from higher levels of football who have Cornish links.

“There’s lots of Cornish links at Southampton and they’d all absolutely love to play. There’s a player at St Mirren who really wanted to join us. But it’s extremely difficult contractually to get these players to actually represent you. We have to be careful with players on professional contracts and we appreciate that but the feedback from clubs and their players involved have always been really positive. We’d hate to scupper chances. We want to create chances. We even approached Nigel Martyn, the former England goalkeeper, to see if he wanted to be involved in some way with us.”

Heaton is particularly enthusiastic about how Cornwall itself is supporting Kernow, not just for their World Cup, but the team in general. It’s clear from his excitable description that he is more than chuffed with how Kernow’s team is resonating with the people of Kernow. I suspect that this is what he is most proud of regarding the team’s journey so far and you can sense the beaming smile on the other end of the phone.

“The support has been phenomenal. We’ve got to depths with real Cornish people. We’re seen as ambassadors for Cornish culture. That’s when you know you’re doing something really good. Cornwall is crazy about sport. We’ve streamed all our games live and the response has been wonderful. The local press support has been fantastic too.” The press have certainly played their part in embracing what the Kernow team is promoting. The fact that the first question asked at the team’s recent press conference to announce their World Cup squad was spoken in Cornish speaks volumes. Reinforcing Cornish identity lies at the heart of this project. The official Kernow strips themselves are unique in design in how they are dominated by the Cornish landmark of St. Michaels Mount.

“The press for the tournament itself is bigger than it’s ever been. Every match is being streamed live online and shot in 4kHD via MyCujoo so anybody in the world can watch it. Sportsbet are involved with the tournament. COPA90 and VICE are following and covering us throughout. We’ve got all our bases covered. We want them involved. Chuck in other big media followers who are now aware of this tournament and it’s going to be what it should be all about. Having fun!”

With so much going on right now, I begin to wonder if Jason has had time to envisage where he sees the Kernow team in ten years time. Is it possible for the team to be doing more than it already is doing? It turns out that we have only scratched the surface.

“By that time, we want a women’s team. We would love to have hosted either the CONIFA World Cup or European Championships. Lastly, we want to reconnect with Cornish links that span across the world.”

Our chat draws to a close with the biggest question of them all. Can Kernow win the CONIFA World Cup?

“Gwari rag gwaynya. Play to win. That’s the Cornish motto. We are only in it to win it and we can definitely win it. This is a squad that are made up of proven winners and they have no notion of fearing to win. Everything is set up as detailed as possible with the intention of winning this.”

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