Conifa: Panjab FA target World Football Cup glory on 'home soil'

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'It's like a family' - Playing for Panjab FA at the Conifa World Cup

There is a gas engineer, a Metropolitan police officer and the first Briton to score in a senior World Cup final since Sir Geoff Hurst.

These are just three members of the Panjab FA team, who are busy preparing for group matches against the United Koreans in Japan, Western Armenia and Kabylia at the Conifa World Football Cup.

The tournament - starting on 31 May in London - is for nations, regions and states which do not have affiliation to Fifa, and therefore cannot take part in the more recognised international competitions.

Organised by Conifa - the Confederation of Independent Football Associations - it sees regions such as Tibet, Matabeleland and Tuvalu competing for glory.

Former Premier League official Mark Clattenburg will referee the final.

Hoping to go one better

Liverpool U23s and the Panjab FA following their end-of-season friendly
Liverpool Under-23s and the Panjab FA played an end-of-season friendly

Playing in their first Conifa tournament in 2016, Panjab - representing a northern state in the Indian subcontinent - finished as runners-up after losing on penalties in the final.

Looking to shake off the disappointment of two years ago, in preparation for this summer's showpiece, the Panjabi national team played a friendly against Liverpool Under-23s at the Premier League club's academy in Kirkby on 14 May.

Despite losing 4-1, the Panjabi team were "excellent" and "posed a tougher challenge than some of our regular opponents through the season", said Liverpool manager Neil Critchley.

"It wasn't until after we agreed to the game that we realised how big it was for the Panjab FA, and it was great to give them the opportunity to come and play," he added.

"Following that performance, there is no reason why we can't play them again."

Who are the players?

One of the methods management use to select players is to scour through squad lists in the non-league pyramid in England, and invite those with Panjabi descent to trial for a place in the squad.

While the association is open to all footballers of Panjabi origin, most of the players are at semi-professional standard and only two members of the squad are not British-born.

In 2017, Panjab became the first South Asian team to play against an England representative side when they faced England C in a friendly at Solihull Moors, and the association currently represents 125 million Panjabis across the world, according to their chairman Harpreet Singh.

The Panjab FA lost 2-1 against England C in a friendly at Solihull Moors last year
The Panjab FA lost 2-1 against England C in a friendly at Solihull Moors in 2017

Singh says one of the reasons he set up the association in 2014 was because "Panjabis are a sleeping community in sport", adding that he wanted to promote diversity and inclusion in football.

He believes the Liverpool friendly, and the Conifa World Cup, will help in those aims.

Singh said: "I'm an England fan, but the national team doesn't represent the different cultures in the country. Conifa has found an opportunity to represent all of the cultures in the world.

"Around 40% of the players at this tournament will be former professionals but all of our group games will be played at Slough Town so we're hopeful the local Panjabi community will come out and support."

Having set up the association, Singh approached former Chesterfield and Oldham Athletic defender Reuben Hazell to manage the team.

He added: "I told him my vision and that I wanted to create something that hadn't been done before. I have invested a lot of time and finance into the Panjab FA. It's all about promoting our heritage."

Life in the Panjab team

'I didn't realise I had matched Sir Geoff'

Amar Purewal from Sunderland - first British man to score in a senior World Cup final since Sir Geoff Hurst in 1966 - striker

Purewal, 28, handed Panjab the lead in the 2016 Conifa World Cup final, before host nation Abkhazia levelled with two minutes remaining. With no extra time scheduled, the match went straight to penalties and Panjab lost on sudden death.

Panjab team picture during the 2016 ConIFA World Cup opening ceremony
The Panjab team were runners-up at the 2016 Conifa World Cup

"I didn't actually realise I was the first British scorer in a senior final since Sir Geoff Hurst until earlier this year," Purewal said.

"No-one told me at the time and it wasn't until I saw a few tweets from Harpreet and received messages online that I realised.

"Sir Geoff Hurst is a national hero and to even have my name next to his is a great feeling."

Asked about that defining moment, Purewal said: "The game was quite tight and there were 10,000 fans watching in the stadium so it was a great atmosphere.

"I just remember pulling off the defender and being slipped in quite soon after I made my movement. I hit it early with the outside of my foot because I knew the keeper wouldn't expect it, and luckily he was quite small so it went over him."

Following heartache at the final hurdle in 2016, Purewal says the team have learned how to play against sides with a different culture and philosophy and are now "better equipped to manage games".

"This time round we want to go one better and win the competition," he added.

'I never give up hope of being spotted'

Aran Basi from Bradford - gas engineer/personal trainer - defender

Basi, a centre-back, was a schoolboy at Leeds United before being released when he was 14 after breaking his collarbone. The 25-year-old then embarked on a change of career - although he has not given up on his football dreams.

"I trained to be a gas engineer and a plumber for four years before I fully qualified, and then I worked for my uncle in the family business," Basi said.

"I've since qualified as a personal trainer so that is my primary focus but I often help out family or friends if they have ever got a leak."

The centre-back was one of three Panjab players to win a trial at Notts County following the last Conifa World Cup, although none of them were offered deals by the League Two club.

"I played in a pre-season game for County after the last tournament in 2016, and we won 7-0," he said.

Basi was one of three Panjab players who trialled with Notts County after the last ConIFA World Cup
Aran Basi was one of three Panjab players who trialled with Notts County after the last Conifa World Cup

"As a defender it was good to keep a clean sheet but unfortunately I was let go.

"I understand there will be more scouts at this summer's tournament and even though I'm 25 now, it will be in the back of my mind and I don't want to give up hope.

"Everyone knows what happened to Jamie Vardy and Chris Smalling, who have gone from non-league to winning international caps for England."

Asked what impact this tournament could have on the British Asian community, Basi said: "I hope this tournament will change attitudes among youngsters, but particularly among parents.

"The stereotype is that Asian parents are more focused on pushing their kids into education, but I hope seeing us in action will mean parents allow their kids to follow their dreams.

"It should also give the children confidence and belief of achieving success in sport and I hope it makes a change.

"If you chase your dreams hard enough, it might just happen."

'Policing is a challenge and every day is different'

Toch Singh from London - policeman - right-back

Singh, 27, plays club football for Glebe FC in Kent and has been a police officer for the past eight years.

He said: "Initially it was detrimental for my football because of the shift patterns, but I specialise in schools now, so I work Monday to Friday in order to cater for my semi-professional football.

"Policing is a challenge and every day is different. When you're a police officer, you're the first person everyone turns to you when they need help. In every situation you have to know what you're doing."

Having been involved in the national set-up since its initiation, the right-back believes his experiences on the pitch and on the beat can help guide some of the younger players in the squad.

He added: "I have taken those leadership qualities from my police life on to the pitch. I am one of the senior members of the squad so I think it has held me in good stead."

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