‘In the end they just gave in’ – the islander who fought FIFA and won

Faced with having a national team and a manager, but no players, Malcolm Blackburn took on FIFA from his kitchen couch, with nothing but two dogs and a cup of cocoa for company...

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“The worst thing about Manx people is that they don’t like change,” according to Chris Bass, manager of the Isle of Man’s international football team.

“At least, they say they don’t – but they’re all going around in new cars and with new mobiles. If they really don’t like change, why aren’t they all still riding horses-and-carts?”

Even on the Isle of Man, then, change is inevitable.

Which is precisely why Bass and Malcolm Blackburn, Manx Independent Football Association supremo, have been long-time campaigners for the evolution of football on the island.

Blackburn was fundamental to the creation of the national team. He established MIFA and aligned it with the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), with the team known officially as Ellan Vannin, the Manx Gaelic name for the island.

With Bass on board as coach, Blackburn then spent several months lobbying FIFA to ensure the island’s best footballers would not face bans if they answered the international call-up.

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“Getting all this off the ground was very difficult,” he says. “When it was first suggested, we were told that all participating players would be sanctioned. The Isle of Man FA, under instruction from the English FA, said it was unaffiliated football… Players whose hobby was playing football were being told that they wouldn’t be able to play the game on Saturdays.”

Football on the Isle of Man falls under the auspices of The FA via the County FA system. Being a crown dependency rather than a sovereign state, the island has no official FIFA-approved representative side.

In the eyes of world football’s governing body they are nothing more than a region competing in the English football pyramid.

This, however, was never going to be enough for Blackburn, who found himself confronted with the unusual reality of having created a national team, complete with a manager – but no players.

“I got out all the rulebooks and spent many nights sat on my kitchen couch at home in my dressing gown sending various emails to FIFA. That left a situation where there were thirty or forty lawyers up against little old me, sat there with my two dogs and a cup of cocoa for several hours every evening…

“In the end FIFA just gave in. I ground them down until they worked out they didn’t want anything more to do with me – so they said it was up to the local association to deal with. The FA heard that and put it back to the Isle of Man FA that it was their responsibility.

“I was then called into the Isle of Man FA headquarters and we agreed a memorandum of understanding, whereby we could both operate side-by-side without any risk of sanctions for players, and also permitted our use of grounds on the island.”

Since then, Blackburn’s MIFA has been enshrined as the de facto Isle of Man international team. They were runners-up at the CONIFA Football World Cup in Sweden in 2014, losing on penalties to County of Nice, and are expected to be in the shake-up when the tournament reaches London this summer.

More important, perhaps, is the sense of identity that MIFA aims to foster among its players and supporters.

“We are a proud nation,” asserts Blackburn. “We’re quite proud that we have the oldest continuous parliament in the world; we’re proud that we’re self-governing; and we’re proud of all our quirkiness. People say it’s a bit strange, but we have our own language, we have our own food. There are so many aspects to island life that are different to what people call ‘mainland Britain’, which we call ‘the other island’.”

As with the majority of CONIFA members, the pursuit of self-determination occupies almost as integral a position within the organisation as football itself.

“There is a wind of change blowing whereby people want to stand up and let others know their own identity,” says Bass, an Englishman. “I’m an adopted Manx. When I arrived on the island originally in 1976, I was classed as a ‘come-over’ – but the minute you pulled on a football shirt you were a Manx international.”

Thirty-two years later, in London, Bass will be leading out a team of internationals aiming to present their very own Manx identity to the rest of the world.

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