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The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 6: An Atmospheric Final, and An Encounter with Tibet

Karpatalya v Northern Cyprus, CONIFA Final at Enfield Town FC

There’s a park match taking place at the side of the pitch at Fisher FC, in the shadows of the towering buildings of the Isle Of Dogs. Kids in Bristol Rovers shirts and kids in Tibet shirts have little idea what’s going on over on the pitch, but their intense battle for supremacy isn’t a bad contest.

Bristol Rovers fans’ affinity for Tibet is a strange side angle on this tournament, one that’s jumped out like the Tottenham fans’ strange love for Hungarian side Szekely Land, and the Watford fans’ love for Panjab.

It’s the final day, and I’m completing my ‘clean sweep’ of every team in the CONIFA World Football Cup: by sheer good luck, the two I haven’t seen – Tibet and the United Koreans In Japan – have drawn each other in an 11th and 12th place playoff, in a convenient location in fairly central London that allows plenty of time to head over to the final.

Tibet have been followed passionately, by all accounts throughout the tournament, and while they’ve been close, they’re yet to pick up a win. They take the lead, through a powerful edge of the box drive, but spend most of the game pegged back into their own penalty area.

The largely dominant Koreans equalise with about ten minutes left, and threaten to snatch it. Instead, they win on penalties, though not before Tibet score their first, and their striker rips off his shirt and does a Hulk impression to celebrate. The Tibetans are sung out by the haunting melodies of their fans: they’ve massive underdogs and they’ve been close in most games, playing a multitude of players from semi-pro leagues. They’ve done themselves proud.

I decided to skip the third/fourth place play-off and spend a couple of hours writing – as you can probably imagine, I have a substantial amount of work to do on my CONIFA book now, and also a certain amount of football fatigue. The two games today bring me to a total of 16 live games in a nine-day period (and only six of those nine days had any games at all on them), so I’ve been going some.

The final, way up north in Enfield, drew in a massive crowd. An entire squad of Abkhazians were draped over the closed off area of the stand. Tuvalu players climbed trees to get a better look at the pitch. Behind one goal, a large group of Hungarians set off flares and sung throughout, while the Northern Cyprus fans responded with melodic pipe and drums, and countless flags.

The CONIFA Diaries Matchday 5: Fantastic Semis Light Up The World Football Cup

Tuvalu v Tamil Eelam at Sutton United

“To understand Panjab, you need to talk about the partition of Hindustan, and the effect it had on people of any religion other than Hindu or Muslim. We were just caught in the crossfire.”

I love the conversations that happen around this tournament, and one of today’s was an in-depth lesson on the history of Sikhism, and the consequences of the formation of India and Pakistan on the religion. Panjab is one of the few entities that represents both.

This was a real ‘up and out’ day: four games of football in a day is, let’s be honest, too much. But it was necessary:

I’ve been quietly fostering a small behind-the-scenes goal over the last five days: to see all 16 CONIFA sides in action in person. That probably doesn’t sound all that challenging, given the tournament lasts ten days, but in realit,y it required two results to go my way today. I saw Panjab and Tuvalu for the first time at Sutton United, and I needed both United Koreans In Japan and Tibet to lose today so I can catch them playing each other before the final on Saturday. I don’t want to wish defeat on anyone, especially the loveable Tibetans, but I got lucky: it happened.

Seeing Tuvalu was just excellent. They’re one of those teams who can’t defend, at all, and as the game went on they played a higher and higher line, allowing a fairly weak Tamil Eelam team – a side who hadn’t scored before this game in the entire tournament – to simply play the ball in behind them and run onto it. That said, Tuvalu were surprisingly adept going forward, and smashed in a couple of brilliant goals, including one hit at pace on the volley from 15 yards, to lead 3-1. Both sides also missed a penalty, the Tuvalu ‘keeper making a diving save to keep out the Tamil Eelam finish.

Then Tuvalu capitulated, conceding three late goals to lose 4-3, the last two goals coming in stoppage time. Probably the game of the tournament so far, though you have to feel for the (smaller)  islanders.

After a brief lesson in the history of Sikhism and the importance of the Panjabi identity, I caught the first half of the North Indian team’s win against hosts Barawa, too, which ultimately ended 5-0. They were the highest ranked team coming into the tournament (though not the favourites), and looked very decent if lacking a particularly outstanding playmaker. They’ll play for fifth place next.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 4: A Lull, A Protest, A Thrashing, and A Cracker

Sutton United entrance CONIFA World Football Cup

Every tournament, even a World Cup, has a lull: a moment when – if only for one game – you wonder if there might just be something better you could be doing with your time. Whether it’s England’s invariably turgid group games against ‘lower standard’ opposition at the World Cup, or a player dispute at CONIFA, a tournament wouldn’t feel quite real without it.

That moment has just arrived for me. It came somewhere between A Tuesday morning mini-scandal, and a quarter-final thrashing. Both involve unfortunate hosts Barawa.

Someone observed to me today that CONIFA seems to be taking part in large part on Twitter. It is an impressive social footprint the tournament is leaving across London, a part of which I am contributing to, in my own little way. It was through that particular medium that I learnt of a dispute over the results of Group A on Tuesday morning, after the final games took place on Sunday.

Barawa’s star man Mohamed Bettamer, a former Libyan international and African Champions League player, was evidently registered after Barawa’s opening game of the tournament against Tamil Eelam on Thursday night, and went on to be a critical player in both their loss against Cascadia, and in their win against Ellan Vannin. The latter result saw the Isle of Man side knocked out. Barawa won the game 2-0, and Battamer got a goal and an assist. Ellan Vannin vociferously protested. I gather, from asking around, that Cascadia weren’t overly happy with his inclusion, either.

Some have made the fairly obvious point that Bruce Grobellaar turned out for Matabeleland on Sunday, against Tuvalu, and also wasn’t on the squad list. I’m inclined to believe that CONIFA have been universally lax with the rules on player registration, as they suggest, given the obvious difficulties with sorting squads for a tournament like this. But the pure fury reigning down on the organisation from the Ellan Vannin side – and Barawa’s radio silence on the issue ahead of their game with Northern Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon – didn’t do the tournament any favours, right or wrong.

I understand the need for a laid back process around player registration – as CONIFA’s Secretary General pointed out on Twitter, several teams wouldn’t have made the tournament without it – but I also understand frustrations at the late inclusion of a clearly very good forward. There’s a bit of me that wonders if Ellan Vannin might have been better served taking it on the chin, but then again, I understand their frustration. Perhaps quitting the tournament and heading home early, though, was a little overblown (and yes, that’s exactly what they’ve done).

As a result, the lower-tier ‘placement’ games are heavily disrupted, with Tibet turning out yesterday against a late, volunteer opposition drawn from the local Turkish community, and given a by in a game that should have been against Ellan Vannin.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 3: The Favourites Fall, and A Taste of Kabylia

Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia line up for the anthems in Enfield

“We’re Turks, not Greeks. I can’t imagine any player from Northern Cyprus would ever want to play for Cyprus, any more than he’d want to play for Greece” – it’s a quick outline from a fan, but a good summary of one of the most convincing arguments for the ascension of a non-FIFA affiliated country from its current status. Northern Cyprus have had players – like Muzzy Izzet – turn out for Turkey, but turning out for the current Cyprus team is just unthinkable.

The Turkish-Cypriots in Enfield on Sunday afternoon are passionate, and more than happy to lay out their position, as the inverted Turkish flag – red on white rather than white on red – of the Cypriot Republic sits draped all over Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II ground.

The Abkhazians were somewhat less forthcoming on their relationship with Georgia – “we don’t talk about that,” two tell me, before launching into the longest national anthem I’ve ever heard in competitive sport, delaying kick off by a couple of minutes to allow for their solemn orchestral opus.

Two years ago, CONIFA’s second ever World Cup was played out in Abkhazia, a separatist region of north-west Georgia, with the hosts taking the title in penalties, and followed fanatically. Over 5000 people attended the final.

Their bid to retain the title crashed and burnt this weekend, first against Hungarians in the Ukraine, Karpatalja, with the late replacement side who’ve risen to the occasion beating them 2-0, and then with a 2-2 draw in which they couldn’t add to a late equaliser against Northern Cyprus in a ‘must win’ encounter.

This was an odd game, perhaps best described as melodramatic. It was poorly refereed, and with the Abkhazia side a touch aggressive, and the Northern Cyprus side willing to go down at the slightest touch, things were a little farcical at times. Nevertheless, Abkhazia opened the scoring with a thunderbolt of a finish from 25 yards, though Northern Cyprus has been in charge for much of the game. The Cypriots hit back to lead 2-1, before a late penalty and lots of farcical bickering saw out the game at 2-2, enough to see Northern Cyprus through in second in the group, and holders Abkhazia out.

Ellan Vannin, another side I had pegged as a potential winner, crashed out elsewhere as Cascadia got more than the five-goal goal win they needed against Tamil Eelam to overturn the Isle of Man side on goal difference, and see themselves through alongside hosts Barawa, who shocked Vannin.

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 2: Mad Hungarians, Upsets, and A Trip Down Wembley Way

Szekely Land fans in Haringey Borough, for the game against Matabeleland

In the baking heat in Haringey, I’m trying to talk to a Hungarian about his side, Szekely Land. “We are Hungarian,” the half-cut fan and his mates yell repeatedly at a largely empty stadium half an hour before kick-off, pausing to whisper that they have a bag full of flares, and plan to whip them out as soon as the players appear.

He looks at the opposition and promises an easy win, dipping into the supremacy of Hungarians over Romanians, while his mate attempts to burn the lace off my shoe to use to tie his flag. He thinks he’s being subtle – I copped it straight away, but figured the cost of the shoelace is worth the madness of the ‘interview’ – and soon three inches of string carefully burnt from my rugged old pair of Sondicos is being used to attach a red, green and white flag with some dubious looking lettering to the pitchside railing.

Szekely Land are playing Zimbabwean rural underdogs Matabeleland in the blistering heat, and despite the advantage that might seem to afford the African side, Matabeleland are on a road to sad self-destruction. The men in tribal white and orange start strongly, pressing the Szekely Land side back and making several solid chances.

They implode shortly afterwards, their goalkeeper shown a straight red card only twenty minutes in for flying out of his goal and clattering a forward clear through on goal – the first decent Szekely Land chance. From then on, it was only a question of ‘how many?’ The answer was five, and with Padania and Sekely Land both two wins from two against Tuvalu and Matabeleland, Group C is over with a game to spare. It’s hard not to love the naive flare of Matabeleland, but in a stadium surprisingly dense in nutty Hungarians intent on ‘trolling’, maybe some things are for the best.

There’s always some fun to be had with Matabeleland, though. This time it came through the ‘keeper’s new way of firing the ball out: an incredible flat kick out of his hands that flew 70 yards at extreme pace, at no more than head height, and caught out Szekely Land several times. It was odd enough to have caught out almost anyone. No Bruce Grobbelaar this time for the Zimbabweans, but he’ll likely be playing tomorrow.

The results from around the ground started trickling in from CONIFA, and a couple stood out. Holders Abkhazia, beaten by this tournament’s Denmark (circa 1992), Karpatalya, another Hungarian ethnic minority, this time in the Ukraine. Western Armenia turned over CONIFA’s number one ranked team Panjab, and Cascadia got their act together to beat hosts Barawa, who looked excellent in their opener (full results below).

The CONIFA Diaries, Matchday 1: Clattenburg, Sportsmanship and the Matabeleland Party

Padania and Matabeleland walk out at Gander Green Lane, Sutton ahead of their Group A game at the CONIFA World Football Cup

Tamil Eelam are on the back foot, the men in white forced back by the Somalian hosts, Barawa, under the Thursday night Hayes Lane floodlights. The hosts are swift and aggressive, a fluid attacking team that play into space and exploit static backlines.

The killer punch is coming: a rapid through ball pinged out to the right of midfield towards star man Gianni Crichlow. The former QPR man skins his marker, looks up, spots Tamil goalie Umaesh Sundaralingam about five yards off his line, and pings a spectacular lob over his head into the Tamil goal. His teammates shine his shoes in front of the fans: Barawa have arrived.

It’s day one of CONIFA in London, and it’s following the unwritten rule of any kind of travel based writing: when you’re on a very specific schedule, there will always be delays. Thank you, Ryanair.

So my CONIFA experience started with a mad rush down to Sutton United’s Gander Green, where I arrived just in time for halftime in the Ellan Vannin and Cascadia game.

Ellan Vannin -from the Isle of Man – are considered one of the early favourites for the tournament. Their fans tell me that the recent rejection of Jersey’s UEFA application has hit them hard, their chances of recognition diminished by another entity in a similar situation being emphatically rejected in February despite intense lobbying. But they’re passionate, aggressive and organised.

Their opponents, Cascadia, arguably have more obvious technical ability, but are fairly incoherent as a team. The North Americans have been brought together in recent weeks, with a couple of real superstar players, in particular, former MLS mainstay James Riley, who’s come out of retirement to captain the side.

Ellan Vannin won out 4-1, controlling chunks of the game, though a lot of the margin could be put down to disorganization on the part of their opponents, who also looked more than a little jetlagged, and will almost certainly improve.

Things came to life for game two at Gander Green, Matabeleland v Padania. Like Ellan Vannin, Padania – a North Italian separatist state – are amongst the early favourites for the whole tournament, with most of their players drawn from the Italian fourth tier. Matabeleland – representing relatively rural southern Zimbabwe – are almost all out of the country for the first time, and immediately charmed almost everyone.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: Stumble and Fall

Well, that sucks.

It’s a quirk of football, though, that pretty much any team can play any game poorly. It seems to apply doubly when it’s absolutely loaded with meaning (how many good cup finals do we see? I’d argue not many). In truth, I think Villa could have played another 90 minutes and might not have scored in this game. I’m not sure if it was a case of bottling it on the big day, or Fulham just working out how to shut the team down, but I’ll lay it out how I saw it.

Most days, that game would have finished 0-0. That’s not a complaint, by the way: Fulham’s goal was extremely well taken. It’s just, I’m not sure I’ve seen Villa concede another goal where a man was just left alone roughly where Hutton is supposed to pick him up all season. Generally speaking, it just doesn’t happen.

The goal went in early, though, and in truth, Fulham could have had more before the break. It was the same old theme of the playoffs this year for Villa: step back, and let teams come at you, and hope the defense is good enough. It would be another thing if the ‘attack on the break’ approach was working a little better, but it really wasn’t.

The second half was a little stronger from a Villa perspective, if very frantic. Grealish was by far the best player on the pitch. One of Fulham’s defenders got a pretty harsh red card with 20 minutes to go. Villa had a couple of decent penalty shouts and Grealish tried to take on everyone (and almost succeeded). But there was nothing really clear-cut. Grabban seemed to drift, and was utterly ineffective. Snodgrass had a sub-par game by his standards, and the wing-backs were pretty ineffectual. Apart from chucking on a load of strikers who didn’t do a whole lot, there didn’t seem to be much of a plan B. Only Adomah and Grealish – as has become standard, actually – had particularly above-average games, and it just wasn’t enough.

So now…

I already have a love-hate relationship with the playoffs. In one sense, they’ve obviously inherently unjust, and arguably an end of season money-spinner. Fulham went up, and they also finished third, so there was a certain poetic justice to it all, where it makes me personally happy or not (the answer is not, in case I’ve left any doubt!).

The consequences for Villa, as I outlined before it all kicked off, are quite substantial. Next year has an air of ‘must do’ about it now, as the parachute payments will be gone. The deadwood, in the form of Micah Richards and Gabby Agbonlahor, really need to go. We probably need a new striker, unless Kodjia can find some real form.

Of course, many of the best players will be gone, too. It’s hard to picture Grealish hanging around all that much longer in the Championship. Snodgrass, Johnstone and Grabban (the latter I’m fine about) are on loan, and will be going, perhaps except Johnstone. Terry can’t have that long left in him. The squad, in short, is going to need an overhaul, and it’s currently quite hard to envisage Villa finishing higher next year, rather than lower.

It’s bleak, in other words. Very bleak. Or perhaps that’s just my pessimism.

Context.

I’d be lying if I said football doesn’t matter to me. The same day as this final, though, the results of Ireland’s vote over the rights of women to access abortion services came in. I think you probably have to live in Ireland to understand how frightening to 8th amendment is to anyone who’s ever had a child. There are numerous reasons why it was a bad regulation, ranging from some revolting extreme cases, to simply that it seems sensible to allow someone in the early stage of pregnancy to decide for themselves whether they want to be a parent.

And yes, I know you probably weren’t expecting a football blog to take that turn, but it’s hard to be all that sad in the context of today’s other result, which matters a whole lot more to me. I won’t go on about it, but in my view, Ireland is growing up and emerging from a world of religious dogma at a rapid pace, and I’m proud of it. It makes a football match seem more than a little insignificant.

Context, I guess, matters. Time to get my writing into gear and focus on the ‘other world cup‘.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: Off To Wembley!

Well, that was far from a classic. Tinged with the added emotion of Jlloyd Samual’s death in a car crash a few hours before kick off, Villa’s second leg against Middlesborough was one of the tensest and most uninspiring games of football I’ve ever seen as an Aston Villa fan. All’s well that ends well…

 

An oddly flat but intense game.

In my experience, Villa have always known how to test your nerves. You’d have to say, trying to look at things from a Middlesborough point of view, on balance they were really poor over the two legs. Without wanting to downplay the occasion, which makes things very different to a normal game, you could almost say Villa won by default. I’m reliably informed they had one shot on target over 180 minutes, none in this second game, which they needed to win, but seemed to forget that until the latter stages. They created incredibly little.

Nevertheless, Villa contrived to make things difficult for ourselves. The first half saw the home side sit back from about 15 minutes on, after a strong start, struggling to hold the ball outside of our own half, and sitting horrendously deep as Middlesborough seemed to keep a lot of the ball. Inability to clear our lines or hold onto the ball in an in any way attacking position is offset, I guess, by the fact that Adama Traore was once again largely shut down. The best Boro really created in the first half was a number of potentially dangerous crosses, which the superb Alan Hutton largely opted to let just fly over his head at the back post. It said more about Middlesborough’s lack of quality, though, than anything Villa were doing.

Things did get better in the second half. With the intensity ramped up, that Adomah/ Grealish partnership came into play, and looked really threatening at times. We seemed to figure out that the best way to defend was to try and get the ball in the other half and hold it, and Grealish and Grabban both had decent efforts on goal. I’m a little unsold on Grabban still: he had very little impact on the game (though you could certainly blame the service), and looked clunky at times. James Bree is also an obvious weakness: he struggled at right back in place of Elmohamady, and I’d be more than a little worried about him coming up against someone better on that wing when Wembley arrives.

The drama came at the end, of course. Downing smashed the crossbar – heart in mouth. Johnstone made a very rare error, in saving a shot by handling outside the area, a move he arguably should have been sent off for, depending on your definition of a clear goalscoring opportunity.  I suspect we would have gone through anyway, given how late in the game the incident was, but the leniency will serve us well in the final: Johnstone is essential to this Villa team, and I suspect he’ll have work to do at Wembley.

Here’s my good friend Stephen’s take on watching me watch the game. I suspect my nerves were more entertaining than what was on screen…

It’s hard to say anything all that positive, apart from that we did enough, and it really is all that matter at this stage. This was emphatically not a classic, though I do think the better team won.

Onwards.

All of which means it’s a one-off game against Fulham that determines whether Villa go back to the Premier League; a game played on the same day as the Champions League Final, and allegedly substantially more valuable. As I said in my previous blog on this, Fulham are the team it would have been better to avoid. They’re all but unbeaten since New Year, they have Mitrovic and Sessegnon, both of whom are undeniably Premier League class, and they will certainly go in as favourites.