THE FINAL of CONIFA’s World Football Cup may have been something of a damp squib (literally), settled in the unsatisfactory manner of the penalty shoot-out, but the occasion underlined the very warm feeling the tournament created among the many people who watched the games in and around London.
There were glitches, notably the clumsy exit of the Isle of Man’s team from the competition, a protest over their opponents, Barawa, fielding a player who was not listed when the squads were initially named. CONIFA is a body made up of states that are either unrecognised or misplaced, most have legitimate issues, such as Tibet, while Cascadia is a so-called “bio-region”, which is scarcely comparable. All have had some form of struggle, so they know how to hold their ground – hence, Ellan Vannin made a stand and withdrew. People were divided about whether this was right or wrong, but it didn’t upset the flow of the competition.
The final day, June 9, was a colourful affair, with all 16 (well, 15) teams travelling to Enfield Town FC to bring the curtain down on a successful tournament that started on May 31 and ended 10 days later. In that time, just under 50 games were played – that’s an astonishing number for what was, essentially, a volunteer-run event.
The Matabeleland team was one of the most popular among fans. Financially challenged to raise enough cash to get to London, and managed by Brit Justin Walley, their attitude won the hearts of fans everywhere. “I want to shake your hand,” said one fan to a track-suited player. “I’ve bloody enjoyed watching you boys.” Walley, meanwhile, said his team had loved being in the UK and had improved game-by-game. “We were in a tough group,” the added. “But I am proud of what the team has achieved. It has been a great experience.”
Walley later admitted that the emotion of the competition prompted him to burst into tears as he was leaving London. There were a few tears at the end of the final from Northern Cyprus fans, who had been confident of victory . “I cannot believe we have lost,” said one woman who had been present at all of the team’s games, largely because her son was in the squad. “We wasted chance after chance. I am absolutely speechless. I’m choking.” It was true, Northern Cyprus had been extremely generous to their opponents in most games, their powerful play creating a plethora of opportunities for the front runners.
Even Enfield Town must have been surprised at the size of the attendance that turned up to see Northern Cyprus take on Karpatalya. It wasn’t just standing room only, it was standing room outside the perimeter of the stadium, the grass banks that are out of bounds on regular matchdays. The ethnic Hungarians, Karpatalya – a late replacement for a team that couldn’t make the trip – had a huge contingent of “ultras”, with red and green smoke billowing across the pitch. Just to make it completely authentic, there was near-the-mark chanting that was somewhat out of character with the CONIFA ethos.
The game was typically tense for a final, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, everyone was happy to be at the climax of a competition that captured the imagination of the public. Tibet were the people’s favourites without a doubt, for a number of reasons. Notwithstanding the politics, the gentle, giving Tibetans (there were rumours of food being handed out to supporters) won many friends, even if they were outmuscled on the pitch.
As for the quality of the football, it was something of a surprise, gravitating between step three and four non-league. It was a competition that certainly appealed to non-league fans, from the younger, bearded community to the obsessive groundhoppers. Across all demographics, there was a spirit of discovery, something which used to apply to FIFA World Cups. And it was good value for money, too – how often can you say that?
And so, the trophies were handed out – every team got one – and Karpatalya rejoiced at their penalty shoot-out win. Teams hugged, congratulated each other and the thousands of people who attended went home with just a little more knowledge on places like Panjab, Western Armenia and, of course, plucky Tibet. It is doubtful there has ever been a football competition quite like this in modern Britain. If the 2018 World Cup can generate half as much goodwill, it will have done a very good job.
To see the report on the final, by Olaf Jensen, click here