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.
Back on the pitch, Barawa went on to be thumped 8-0, conceding seven second-half goals in an extremely slack loss to Northern Cyprus in their quarterfinal at Sutton United. Being 3 pm on a weekday, the damp squib of a match, in which Northern Cyprus were excellent and Barawa indifferent, was played out in front of a crowd of around 200, and was my personal low point of the tournament so far.
But everything has its lulls, of course, and things were to pick up rapidly. Cascadia, the team representing a bioregion of the US and Canada, have grown quickly into this tournament after their opening loss, as a big, physical team, and faced extremely young surprise package Karpatalya in the second quarterfinal at Sutton.
This was probably the game of the tournament so far, in terms of competitiveness: extremely accomplished, physical Americans against fast, fit, technical young Hungarian/ Ukrainians. Karpatalya won out 3-1 in a fiery and memorable contest which would have made for a solid final (I do think both sides are close to that level). Their third came courtesy of a slightly soft injury-time penalty, and before that, the game was wide open and highly competitive.
The lull was over; Karpatalya and the other Hungarian-linked side Szekely Land join Northern Cyprus and clear favourites Padania in the semis. Onwards.
Today, I uncovered the fluid side of CONIFA; the need for flexibility that exists in order to keep a tournament like this on track. I learnt how close some sides were to not attending at all, and saw a side collapse under the weight of expectation and politics. I saw the cracks, and respect the organisation all the more for how long they took to briefly appear.
These posts, the CONIFA diaries, are not about all that. They’re a very basic overview of the tournament through my eyes, written after each match day. I have hours and hours of interviews, background and stories around each team recorded, ready to go in my book, ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten’, which is detailed and available for pre-order here. For obvious reasons, I won’t be telling them all in blog posts. To get the inside track, buy the book!
Quarter Finals Results (games in blue I attended)
Northern Cyprus 8 – 0 Barawa
Cascadia 1 – 3 Karpatalya
Szekely Land 4 – 0 Western Armenia
Padania 2 – 0 Panjab
Placement Tier Quarter Finals
Ellan Vannin – Tibet (win awarded to Tibet, Ellan Vannin withdraw)
Abkhazia 6 – 0 Tamil Eelam
Matabeleland 0 – 0 Kabylia (Kabylia win 4-3 on penalties)
Tuvalu 0 – 5 United Koreans In Japan