ConIFA 2018: Padania vs Matabeleland

by | Jun 1, 2018

Padania justified their status as one of the CONIFA World Cup favourites which this hugely entertaining and convincing win over an eager, ambitious, snazzily-dressed but ultimately outclassed Matabeleland.
The 2015 and 2017 European Football Cup winners looked winners at Gander Green Lane, even as they went through their pre-match paces on Sutton United’s 3G pitch. The Matabeles quickly established themselves as the crowd favourites, among neutrals and virtually all the partisan support present. And that support was ready to shout, scream, holler and cheer at ANYthing they produced, from the slightest slick pass or move up to Thabiso Ndelela’s wondrous 78th-minute goal, arguably the best of the match, in the face of some quite stiff competition.

Quite how much competition wasn’t immediately clear. Ndelela bullet-headed Sawusani Mudimba’s cross nearly through the net, to make it, according to my calculations, 6-1. But the small crowd of Matabele-fans-for-the-day behind the goal chanted “we’re going to win 8-7.” This had me thinking I’d missed Padania’s seventh goal during my second half toilet-stop (late middle-age, sorry), or whether these fans were tempering their mock optimism with a realisation that Matabeleland were bound to let another one in, during an 11-minute, six-goal spree. Indeed, one of the optimists, Dulwich fan Duncan Hart, later said that they were “just being realistic that in a further six-goal comeback, another one might go in on the counter.”

CONIFA twitter, however, was insistent that the score was only 5-1 and stood firm in the face of a near twitterstorm of “it was six” from, to judge by the size of said storm, virtually the whole crowd, before finally admitting the miscalculation (although the CONIFA website maintained the “5-1” stance in their first day round-up). And goal difference might matter in Group C, as Matabeleland, playing their first competitive games, could ship goals to anyone, despite keeper Michael Sibindi’s enthusiasm and agility. Such arithmetical problems surely won’t blight the Fifa World Cup…until Russia only draw their first game two-nil.

Padania led on nine minutes, with their first properly-constructed move, Giacomo Innocenti’s side-foot volley converting Gabriele Piantoni’s crisply-struck right-wing cross. And it seemed only a matter of time before goals two, three, four and more would follow. Yet they were made to wait by a combination of desperate Matabeleland defending, even in far-from-desperate situations, and a blooper of a miss on 23 minutes.

Sibindi made a hames of a high ball and Ersid Pllumbaj passed up an easy chance to give Piantoni an easier one. But, with Matabele defenders flying everyway bar the right way, Piantoni took more care getting his pose right than sticking the ball in the net, his over-careful side-foot shot hitting the post. The outside of the post too, if you wouldn’t mind.

Matabeleland gained some much-needed composure from this, although they still stretched a “shoot-on-sight” policy beyond reason. Some shots threatened to ricochet dangerously. But even the well-struck ones were comfortably cleared off the line…the 18-yard line, that is. Until the 35th minute, when Mthulisi Mbizo’s 30-yard free-kick arrowed towards the top corner, only for previously wobbly keeper Marco Murriero to snatch the ball mid-arrow.

Padania were shaken from their stupor by this and doubled their advantage four minutes later, the crowd reaction an unusual sequence of cheers, groans and reluctant applause as Sibindi made an excellent save and the loose ball fell to Piantoni on the edge of the area, who this time eschewed his previous undue care and general faffing around to rifle a real net-buster into the top corner.

Piantoni scored his second two minutes later. “Proper goal, too,” my notes said. All perfectly timed and weighted passes and well-angled off-the-ball running before Piantoni’s neat finish into the roof of the net, leaving him the width of a post from a first-half hat-trick, although that tells a polite and far from complete tale.

Padania added a fourth on 45 minutes, Innocenti’s cleverly curled left-foot finish disabusing Sibindi of the notion that he had his angles right. And around the hour mark, they scored another two, with their substitute strike force initially looking more potent than their starters.

Guilio Valente muscled his way into the six-yard box with the ball just about keeping up before he muscled it almost through Sibindi. And in the next attack, he just failed to prevent the ball going out of play behind the goal, only for the talkative but dozy linesman to give…nothing, allowing Valente to cross the ball past the woefully out-of-position Sibindi, who’d rushed along the goal-line to confront Valente and watched from a distance as Andrea Rota nodded the ball into the unguarded net.

This was the goal CONIFA missed. But it kickstarted Matabeleland’s best spell of the game. And not because Padania stopped trying. Indeed, right-back Michele Bonfanti was booked for the first remotely poor tackle (in a game of plentiful tackles), a sign of Padania’s creeping frustration.

From the proverbial nowhere, Ndelela started threatening down the inside-left channel like he was Cristiano Ronaldo. His deflected shot forced the well-worked corner which gave Mudimba the chance to fire a cross at the centre of Ndelela’s forehead. And said forehead did the rest almost before Murriero could get his fingertips out of the way, which was handy (sorry) for Murriero’s digital safety. “The fans loved that one,” noted CONIFA Twitter. “The crowd enjoyed that one,” noted Matabeleland Twitter, clearly sitting in the next seat.

Padania looked a proper team, which, on the afternoon, meant everything. Matabeleland’s display betrayed their fraught preparations, frantically fund-raising right up until last weekend.

The smattering of semi-psychedelic team shirts in the crowd spoke to the success of some of that work, shirts which should have made an ‘away’ kit wholly superfluous. Yet Matabeleland had one (black shirt with some ‘splurge’ on it… as disorganised and enthusiastically applied as their defending), and, perhaps disappointingly, wore it here. It was the afternoon’s only ‘perhaps disappointment,’ however. And you suspect that Matabeleland might have a bigger, brighter, brasher following with every game they play.