‘We hope to be there, but of course money is our problem’ sighs Herol Mandarin, president of the Union Chagossiene de Football. Mandarin is explaining to me the various problems his association has to deal with, this time whether or not the Chagos Islands can compete in this year’s VIVA World Cup which is being held in Iraqi Kurdistan in June. ‘It is impossible without a sponsor or any assistance, we even get told to move off public parks when we are training’.
The Chagos Islands are not your typical national team. The islands are situated in the Indian Ocean and were home to 2,000 indigenous people before, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the UK and US military deported them to the slums of Mauritius and the Seychelles in order to build Diego Garcia naval base. This controversial decision by the British Government was largely unnoticed by the mass media at the time and after a long wait the Chagossians were finally granted rights to full UK passports in 2004. As a result the Union Chagossiene de Football has set up a somewhat unlikely home in Crawley, where most UK based Chagossians live.
The islanders came up with the idea of a national team shortly upon arrival in the UK and having founded their association in 2004 they became full members of the N.F.-Board (the governing body for teams not in FIFA) at the annual meeting in London in 2005. The association has been strapped for cash from day one and Hengride Permal, who works at the Chagos UK Support, explained her frustration to me in the association’s modest headquarters in central Crawley ‘you would think it would be easy to join a league in England but it isn’t. We get no help from the local council either’. Her comments relate to a club side, Chagos Island F.C, which competed in the now defunct Crawley & District League from 2008 to 2010. The team stormed to the title in their first season and looked set for successive promotions until the league disbanded, and the players have been in limbo ever since. Attempts to join the Sussex County League have fallen on deaf ears and so, with no real outlet, Mandarin and co decided to make more of their membership in the N.F.-Board. The team were hoping to attend the 2010 VIVA World Cup in Gozo but finances again took their toll. Former manager James Chennan explained ‘it costs a lot to fly there and many of the team could not get work off’.
The squad of about 30 players meet for training 2-3 times a week, astonishing given they have no league to play in or facilities to use. ‘We just want to keep our youth fit and off the streets’ says Mandarin, who joins me at a Friday night training session in Bewbush. The lack of resources is immediately apparent but so too is the standard of football on show. Many Chagossians played in the Mauritius top flight before heading to the UK and one player, veteran Johnny Edmond, even won 8 caps for the Mauritian national team. Mandarin himself also played in the top flight on the Indian Ocean island but it is the younger members of the squad who are making waves in the local non-league scene. Although Edmond is still involved with Three Bridges, who look set to secure promotion to the Ryman league this season, the best player on show is Mervin Bhujan who, as a striker, has been scoring for Sussex County League side Oakwood all season.
The squad have no lack of technique but it’s their temper that seems to be preventing them from wider acceptance and Chris Bridges of the West Sussex League explains ‘We did talk to the club when the Crawley League folded - at the time we felt their disciplinary record was sufficiently bad to discourage us from inviting them to join’. So it seems it will be through international matches that the Chagossian dream will live on, a dream that has become more of a reality during the last few months. Aside from a defeat to some London-based Mauritians and brief and negative dialogue with FIFA in the early 00’s there has been little international action for the side since their move to the UK. However in December 2011 new N.F.-Board member Raetia, representing the ancient Swiss province, flew to Crawley armed with a full strip for their hosts to play in. Bhujan was instrumental in arranging a ground, Oakwood’s, and also in the final scoreline as the striker bagged a brace in a 6-1 thrashing. The main problem the Chagossians face is a desperate lack of cash which prevents them from purchasing kit or ever even dreaming of travelling to away games. Attempts to gain some charity from the megabucks at Crawley Town have failed, and it does seem the team are set for a lengthy future on the side-lines. The team were on the ‘list of prepared associations’ for this year’s VIVA tournament for months, but have recently vanished from it, seemingly confirming another non-appearance for the islanders.
Just when all seemed lost another moment in the spotlight has surfaced, and the team will travel the short journey to Godalming, in Surrey, where they will face fellow N.F.-Board member Sealand in a friendly game on May 5th. The announcement of only their second ‘international’ is the cause of much excitement for the Union Chagossiene de Football and I was pleasantly surprised to find out the players had been training 4 days a week and months in advance in order to make the final squad. Sealand’s international credentials are somewhat dubious but their position of locality to Chagos is one that may prove helpful in the future. Sealand National Football Association president Neil Forsyth hopes to make this fixture annual, and there are talks of expanding the game to a yearly-held friendly tournament. No matter what the future holds for the Chagos team there is no doubt that the commitment of people like Herol Mandarin will continue in the face of adversity in order to, as coach Jean-Claude Luc puts it, ‘show the world who we are’.
Chagos Islands will face Sealand at Weycourt, Godalming Town F.C. on May 5th with a 14:30 kick off. Entry is £3 and includes a programme.
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