Football fans

After all: underdogs of world football

Some little-known soccer curios: the Football War, the alternative VIVA tournament and a professional engineer who played for a national soccer team.

Two questions keep bothering me on the eve of the World Cup in South Africa:

First, how do you compete in international football if your country is not quite a country?

Second, is there still a place where amateurs - say, 'humble' lorry drivers or engineers, as opposed to grossly overpaid professional players - can be part of a national soccer team?

The answer to the first is VIVA! Or, to be more exact, the VIVA Soccer Cup for the Countries the World Forgot.

The previous VIVA (and strictly non-FIFA) World Cup was held in July 2008 in Gallivare, Sweden - or rather Samiland - one of the FIFA-and-UN-unrecognised nations that competed with teams from Kurdistan, Assyria, Padania and Provence. Padania - an aspiring country in the north of Italy - won by beating the Assyrians 2-0.

This year's VIVA will take place in Gozo (Malta) between 31 May and 6 June, and the number of participants has grown: on top of the five from the 2008 tournament, teams from Gozo itself (one of the three Maltese islands), Provence and Occitania (a linguistic region covering parts of France, Italy and Spain) are expected to compete.

According to Jean-Luc Kit, the tournament coordinator, VIVA Cup is strictly apolitical. 'We have never changed a border with a game of football,' he says.

That may be true for VIVA, although at least one violent attempt at border-changing was undertaken in 1969 as a result of a 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifying game that led to the four-day-long 'Football War' between El Salvador and Honduras.

Fingers crossed for Gozo...

As for the second question, about amateur players, there's a story behind it.

The 2010 World Cup largely lost its attraction for me the moment I found out that the world's most admirable football squad did not make it into the finals and was not going to be represented in South Africa. I am speaking about the national team of the Faroe Islands - a self-governing Danish dependency with a population of 49,000.

Forget Italy and Brazil. As I discovered during my visit to this barren volcanic archipelago in the North Atlantic some time ago, the faraway Faroe Islands, with 400 men's and 25 women's football teams, is by far the most football-crazy country on the planet. Which other nation can boast a soccer team for every 50 males or every 1,000 females? A football pitch can be found in every village, composed of sand or astroturf (grass is a rare commodity in the Faroes, and is mostly reserved for the country's 80,000 sheep). To maintain such a space in the rocky, mountainous Faroes - where the only natural patch of flat surface is used as the national airport (with the world's shosrtets runway) - is not an easy task and takes a lot of engineering. In many cases, nearby mountains have had to be excavated by determined villagers.

The biggest day of fame in the history of Faroe Islands football - if not in the whole of the nation's history - was 12 September 1990, when the Faroese team of amateurs defeated Austria 1-0 in their first European Championship qualifying game. This victory - one of the biggest shocks in international soccer - was achieved on a neutral field in Landskrona, Sweden. Officially it was supposed to be the Faroes' home game, but the other three members of the qualifying group refused point-blank to play there, despite the fact that the first real grass pitch was specially created for the tournament in the village of Toftir (it cost the country one more mountain). The weak-kneed excuses varied from difficulties of travel to the capricious weather with changeable winds, which, allegedly, made the players kick the ball in one direction and run in another.

The reverberations of the 63-minute victorious shot were heard throughout the world. For the Austrians, it must have been the biggest national humiliation since the Anschluss. 'Resign, Waldheim!' yelled the headlines of all Faroese newspapers. It was hard to imagine that one of the world's best professional football teams could be defeated by a bunch of amateurs from a cliff in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, it was not Kurt Waldheim, but Josef Hickersberger, the Austrian manager, who had to resign (Waldheim resigned later, when he was diagnosed with Waldheimer's decease - a curious geriatric condition which makes one forget about one's own Nazi past).

In the Faroes, a national holiday was declared. Some 5,000 Faroese - more than 10 per cent of the population - came to meet their heroes at the airport. 'Now it's the turn of the Danes,' the triumphant Pat Gudlaugsson, a local shop-owner and the team's part-time manager, told the cheering crowds, having in mind his team's next qualifying game with Denmark. But if Lightning was the Faroes' striker, he was not to strike twice: the team returned to losing ways against the Danes and didn't make it to finals.

Once was certainly more than enough for the game's two protagonists: young forestry engineer Torkil Nielsen (the man who actually scored the winning goal) and lorry driver and a part-time goalkeeper, Jens Martin Knudsen, who prevented the Austrians from scoring a good dozen of theirs. Overnight, they became the country's most popular figures, and Knudsen's bobble hat, worn during the match, was elevated into a national symbol.

This pom-pom cap of Knudsen's had a history of its own. It was knitted by his granny at the suggestion of a doctor to protect the head of the 14-year-old tyro goalkeeper Jens Martin from being kicked by other junior soccer players, who often confused it with a football during games. From then on, Knudsen was never seen without it (I mean his cap) on a football field. 'Once, early on, I forgot to wear it and had a bad match,' he once admitted.

A couple of months after the victorious game with Austria, two visiting Norwegians stole the pom-pom mascot from Knudsen's unlocked house (they don't lock their houses in the Faroes!) and tried to smuggle it out of the country. Luckily, the thieves were apprehended at the airport, and the national treasure was returned to its rightful owner. This was the third recorded robbery in the whole of the nation's history.

It would take a stellar upheaval in the game for the Faroese ever to win the World Cup. But they can console themselves with a thought that in another alternative (yet, unlike the VIVA Cup, imaginary) world championship of the most famous caps - the World Cap? - Jens Martin Knudsen's celebrated headgear would definitely have been among the favourites.

Vitali Vitaliev's latest book 'Life as a Literary Device' has made it to the Top Ten Best New Books list of the Independent newspaper

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