Allow there to be an alternative football reality: Oregon State travels to England to face Cornwall in a friendly. It is unlike the usual international structures you see throughout the season’s qualifying and friendly rounds of matches, or the summer tournaments.
Essentially, this concept doesn’t fit well with domestic football, where a community, town or city attempt to grab bragging rights off another community, town or city. It is also not substantial enough either for your typical international fixture.
In this universe, a compromise is given. Regions are legally allowed to play competitive matches against other regions. It is a far cry from what is permissible under FIFA leadership.
Football under the umbrella of its most senior governing body has always followed the same rulebook and the same structure. Only recognised countries are allowed to form international teams and compete in international tournaments. There is no space for Cornwall, Sardinia, the Cargoes Islands or Tibet.
However, there is a place where region vs region international football can exist and is free from any FIFA restrictions. Here, players from British Columbia, Oregon State and Washington State in the US can travel to England to play Cornwall.
This fixture is more commonly referred to as Cascadia Association Football Federation vs Kernow Football Alliance and both semi-professional sides are due to meet for the first time on Saturday, 22nd May.
In collaboration with North London’s Northwood FC, the stadia hosts, the fixture is a legal international fixture under the banners of CONIFA – the Confederate of Independent Football Associations.
Founding an international team
Away from your usual typical global media hysteria surrounding international matches, (you just wait for the European Championships) what this fixture means, and why it is even possible, dates back to a random February day more than four years ago.
Jason Heaton, co-founder and chairman of Kernow, was in his home kitchen with two football freestylers when he received a knock on his front door. It was Andrew Bragg, Kernow’s future co-founder and Director of Football.
At this point, Bragg was someone Heaton knew from grassroots coaching and his day job. He arrived with an intuitive idea about bringing international football to Cornwall through CONIFA. He learnt it from his son who played football with a Sampi player while in Sweden.
Once they searched what constitutes being eligible to participate, they found “Cornwall passed the criteria perfectly”. In fact, as Heaton says, “they [CONIFA] had been wanting to get a Cornish team in there since its conception [in 2013].”
However, the time was not right for Cornwall to become a member. Heaton decided to wait. He stayed in touch with CONIFA and kept an eye out for any developments which may arise to an opening chance.
It so happened that while Heaton was in London, CONIFA announced that the 2018 World Cup would be held in London. Seeing the news, Heaton saw an opportunity and re-engaged contact. Within three weeks, Heaton was a leading organiser of the tournament.
He had taken the opportunity knowing nothing had been confirmed other than the tournament would be held in London and that “Paddy Power were still on the fence as the main sponsor”. Everything that was needed to hold a tournament was barely in place.
The scale of dedication and time Heaton needed to put into the task was only heightened when he was selling his family home and undergoing reforms in his manufacturing company at the same time. This didn’t deter him.
“I spoke to every football club right up to 30 miles outside of the M25. I spoke to every single football club and ground, to find people and work out a plan, which we could put on a World Cup.”
After making an impression on CONIFA members, Heaton was voted into the Executive Committee in January 2018 as their global business director. He came armed with a long-term plan, but that was a discussion for another day. More urgently, the tournament’s final organisation details and the future of Cornish football.
To his delight, the World Cup was a success, and it ultimately became the momentum shifter in Kernow’s founding.
“It was always in the back of my mind; this would be amazing for the Cornish players. What an opportunity this would be.”
“I made contact with Andrew and picked it all back up in July. I gave him a ring and said, ‘Braggy, what about putting this team together’ and he went ‘absolutely 100%. Where are you?’. I think he was literally round my house in the hour.”
A few months later, on 27th October 2019, it was announced Kernow Football Alliance were an official member of CONIFA. The night in July when Bragg and Heaton restarted the idea, Heaton’s wife told him, “he [Bragg] is a proper sound guy. I know you will do good things with him.”
Whilst Heaton worked to put together the World Cup, Cascadia was building the foundations of either team to play in their inaugural tournament.
In contrast to FIFA law, World Football Cup hosts head the organising committee but do not need to play the tournament in their territory. So, despite the south-east Somalian state capital Barawa being the hosts, Cascadia made the flight across the Atlantic to London.
On the plane was a quickly assembled squad. The players barely had time for an introduction before flying off. Expectedly in this circumstance, preparation was very short.
However, that did not matter much. Wins against hosts Barawa and Tamil Elam in the group stage meant Cascadia reached the knockout rounds and a historic impact. Despite their journey ending with a loss to Hungarian-based team Kárpátalja in the quarterfinals, the tournament was an overall success.
“The Cascadian squad only met for the first time a week ago, and already has done itself proud – playing together better than some veteran teams and making true bonds of friendship that will last well off the pitch,” the team said on their website after the defeat.
Cascadia followed on, thanking the fundraising efforts, the players, coach, their president Aaron Johnson, and other members who made it possible. “A little more than two months ago – there was not such a thing as a Cascadian team. To be able to put together such a great squad, fundraise for travel expenses, find a coach, players, design and order kits, has been nothing short of Herculean.”
To end the open letter, they said, “From everyone here – we thank everyone who has taken part to make this incredible journey happen and can guarantee – this is only the beginning!”
Two years on, Cascadia failed to capitalise on the beginning they hoped for. The pandemic’s impact caused the 2020 World Football Cup in North Macedonia and the 2021 European Football Cup in Nice to be cancelled.
For Kernow, there is potentially an even sour taste because they are yet to compete in an international tournament. Kernow remain on two competitive matches since their formation: a 5-0 win against Barawa and a 10-3 victory against Chagos Islands, respectively.
The on-the-pitch conditions of either side are difficult to judge. Instead of the stereotypical build-up to a football match – which are usually flooded with formations, the players and managers, tactics, recent form and any other small details – this fixture has simplistic commentary.
Cascadia and Kernow are just looking for a jumpstart after missing two years of football. It will serve as a relief that they are back travelling and playing football again.
“We want to play games and I really like Cascadia,” Heaton says. “I feel they have really held themselves together. We have a lot of similarities in that way, although they were in London in 2018. It is just nice to get things underway again.”
In many ways, Cascadia will hope this is where their beginning actually starts.
Fighting through a pandemic
Many would envision the spring and summer of 2020 as the moment when the world stopped. The pandemic stopped life as we knew it. Everything we loathed and loved about daily life was scrapped.
In Kernow, however, they saw an opportunity to capitalise. Over the past 18 months, they worked relentlessly behind the scenes to lay the foundations for their future. Heaton says, “You can’t get the ball on the floor so you have to look at what you can do.”
Top of the list were the simple things: ensuring player profiles are on the website and improving video editing. Further afield Kernow FA wasted little time to go beyond just having a men’s team.
Their appointment of Simon York as their Director of Inclusive Football, who has worked in this department for 18 years, led to an official Kernow FA women team.
Meanwhile, Heaton, alongside Andrew Bragg and their Kernow colleagues, built relationships within their industry.
“We have been getting on with clubs. The Cornwall Football Association in particular has been amazing. We have a real strong relationship with them now.”
“They are looking to support us in all aspects going forward now. A lot more came forward from them once we started to open ourselves up to extra teams and creating football for all those teams.
“We are looking to pick up games. We have held talks with local clubs, with some of them being professional. There are some really good conversations with really good people – all dedicated to football.”
The list of teams Kernow have been speaking to includes Aldershot Town, AFC Bournemouth, Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Plymouth Argyle. Of course, this does not mean Kernow FA’s men team can expect to be on the other side of Marco Bielsa managing from his box he sits on, or even conundrum how to neutralise Eberechi Eze’s dazzling skill runs.
The men’s games are likely to be limited to the under 23’s for matches against the larger clubs, while the potential fixtures for the women’s team are more “open”. Over this issue, Heaton is not oblivious as to why it is the case. “It could turn into a bit of a cricket score.”
He is also aware of the other concerning barriers these opportunities bring. “Money has to be raised. We would love to get to Leeds and do this and that, but it costs money. Knowing what is on the table, identifying what works within the time frames allowed and teams setting back up for the domestic league, it is a nice place to be. It is a nice headache.”
“Within our setup, we don’t step on the domestic league. We don’t want to put the extra strain on them. They have a lot of games to play. Some men are playing between 40 to 60 games a season.”
“Ultimately, the clubs have to get back on track. You don’t want to be stealing any of their thunder. Hopefully, the experience they have had with us will take it back to the club and they benefit. That is something we really like to make sure it happens.”
The timeframe for a potential match against Leed’s u23’s would be for the end of July. Even though Heaton says there is an “agreement” of sorts, the game could be susceptible. “Whatever happens, that would be the sign off for us before the domestic league starts.”
A trip to London town
At the end of all the original work to get the team started, for only a pandemic to stop you from playing for two years, and the dedication behind the scenes, you can sense the relief and excitement in Heaton’s tone.
“The lads are alright. We have been training recently and are in good spirits. There is a hunger there within the team environment, but it is nice and loose which is always good. Everyone seems to be really enjoying themselves.”
Kernow has had little to celebrate about in the last 18 months. While Project Restart and the 2020/21 season played on our TV screens and live streams, Kernow and the other CONIFA members have essentially been on pause.
The organisation was and, potentially still is, frozen. The 2020 World Football Cup last year and the 2021 European Football Cup was cancelled on 6th May.
“We had a friendly last night [Wednesday 12th May] with a local team – that went down well. We are looking forward to playing Cascadia. We can only do what we can do. You can only control what you can control. We are grateful now that we can get that ball back on the floor.”
The game itself is a big occasion for Kernow. This will be their inaugural away game. Aaron Johnson, the CONIFA president for North America and Cascadia, organised the match due to the unlikelihood of the CONIFA Euros going ahead. Once the official confirmation arrived, the match was confirmed.
“They are good to deal with Cascadia: good communication, good grafters and good at football. They made it easy.”
Additionally, it is a “massive” game for Kernow in generic football terms. No football for two years would leave any player, or team, gasping to understand what type of level they are at.
They have also been starved of the sports most basic emotions and routines: the week’s preparation leading up to the day, the talk within their friendship groups and family, the travel to the game, and those dreaded matchday butterflies.
Most of all though, it will be a chance for everyone to take a moment to relax. Heaton’s, Bragg’s, Kernow’s, Cascadia’s and CONIFA’s patience and hardwork has paid off. For Heaton especially, all he is looking forward to is “getting the lads together, getting on the coach, to go to London town.”