ConIFA 2018: Karpatalya – The New Denmark

by | Jun 11, 2018

Blimey. got one right. The two breathtaking semi-finals will, in pure football terms, define 2018’s World Football Cup, as the same four teams in a different order produced a tired-looking third-place match and a tight, defence-dominated final on Saturday. Nary a goal in 180 minutes plus stoppage-time, so both decided on (admittedly dramatic) penalty shoot-outs. Welcome to ‘real’ football.

Except that finals day, at Bostik League Enfield Town’s curiously-appointed Queen Elizabeth II Stadium on, ahem, Donkey Lane, was still a wondrous occasion. And I say that despite having to depart the public transport void that is Enfield’s ground before the closing ceremony, in order to guarantee I’d make Sunday lunch.

Picture Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, as Russia clinch the Fifa World Cup final (probably winning three-nil, having scored from two of the seven penalties given them by newly-appointed Fifa referee Yuri Putin). As the game draws to a close, with the opposition’s centre-half sent off for not wearing a hat, the other 30 teams (if Fifa president Gianni Infantino doesn’t add another 18 nations before Thursday) gather together in the main stand, chat away merrily and sing songs of joy, while the coaches mingle happily with spectators. Welcome to ‘real’ football, CONIFA-style.

Karpatalya went the full ‘Denmark Euro ‘92,’ coming off the proverbial beach to win the tournament. Both they and Northern Cyprus failed to reproduce the dynamism of their knockout-stage victories in the final. But the teams weren’t cagey so much as too well-matched and defensively solid for the good of the spectacle. At least for 76 minutes.

Neither keeper had much dust to shake from their gloves until the 50th minute, when, in super slo-mo, Karpatalya custodian Bela Fejer tipped over Ahmet Somnez’z looping header. And seven minutes later, Milan Laszik stung the hands of Northern Cypriot keeper Hasan Piro. But the game opened up when Karpatalya’s workaholic right-sided midfielder Csaba Peres succumbed to injury.

The last quarter-hour was a stream of Turkish-Cypriot crosses into the box, from both flanks. And THE chance, the one that would surely win the game if taken, fell to gargantuan number nine(ty-nine) Billy Mehmet, whose powerful downward header from Unal Kaya’s far-post, right-wing cross bounced under Fejer’s body and up…and up…and up…onto the top of the crossbar. It WAS the chance. It went. And although Halil Turan headed an 88th-minute opportunity wide, penalties felt inevitable.

The pre-match spectacle thus remained the highlight of the gathering gloom in which the final was played. Northern Cypriot dad-dancing kit-man died his proto-punk locks in his ‘national colours’ and ventured all around the ground to crank up the crowd far more vigorously and far less creepily (if no less ridiculously) than England’s ex-cheerleader Ken Baily (ask your parents).

On one incursion, he looked ready to, ahem, ‘escort’ an unsanctioned pitch invader off the premises. But the lad turned around JUST in time, clocked the hair and advisedly f**ked off sharpish. While we probably heard “you fat bastard” or “who ate all the pies?” in Magyar dialects as he approached the ‘Hungary’ end which the Szekely Land and Karpatalya fans united to form.

The ‘cheers’ largely didn’t need leading, as three sets of supporters were in full-on ‘party’ mode (although Padania fans were only semi-trappist by comparison). Alas, the Hungarian pyrotechnics were also ‘full-on,’ threatening to disrupt the football more than once and probably ensuring that its penalty shoot-out would take place at the Turkish Cypriot-dominated end.

Indeed, the only cheers being led were the remarkably cockney-accented “yawr sappowt is fu’ing shit” from the Hungarians, occasionally accompanied by “we ‘ate Tottenham.” One supporter later told of some “West Ham fans who got the singing going at the Karpatalya end.” Which explained EVERYthing.

Anyway. The ‘kicks from the penalty mark,’ to use their formal title, took place a pitch-length away from all this colour and colourful prose, with Turkish-accented boos accompanying every Karpatalyan approaching their spot-kick (with both sides’ penalty-takers personal space invaded by a video cameraman).

This initially had the opposite of the desired effect. Karpatalya’s Gyorgy Toma refused the ‘he’s bound to miss’ role invariably played by one of the preceding game’s better performers. But Mehmet had already proved an inadvertently-willing understudy, Fejer making a fine low, left-handed save. And Karpatalya were two-up with three to play when Yasin Kurt topped his penalty feebly to Fejer’s right.

But the comeback started here. Perpetual motion midfielder Zoltan Bacs rolled his kick against the inside of Piro’s left-hand post and Istvan Sandor so carefully placed his kick that Piro was able to advance three yards off his line to…erm…ah… Firat Ersalan made it sudden death after four penalties each. Alex Svedjuk snuck his kick under Piro’s body. Then Fejer won the tournament, with a save worthy of its importance, diving very low, very far to his right to dismiss Turan’s not-at-all-badly-struck effort. Then…scenes.

Padania’s 5-4 come-from-behind shoot-out win over Szekely Land just about reflected the 90 minutes. Szekely Land reserve keeper Barna Nagy made two fine first-half saves and Laszlo Szocs…erm…socked the Hungarian’s best chance halfway to the A10. But my only notes during a second half that looked as wearying to play as it was wearisome to watch were substitutions (and not even all of THEM). Hungarian crowd pyrotechnics made it difficult to be a Padanian left-winger after half-time. But that could be misconstrued as a political observation. So, I’ll stop there.

Nagy saved Padania’s first penalty and Szekely Land were 4-3 up after some imperious spot-kicking (including one satisfying thump from ultra-blond ex-Hungary international Csaba Czismadia. But Padania glovesman Marco Murriero saved two near-identical classically ‘right-height’ penalties, the second, from Balazs Csiszer, clinching the tournament’s third-place spot.

Panjab were fifth, another shoot-out win, over tree-hugging hippy-esque Cascadia, but after a great game, Cascadia coming from three-down to draw 3-3. The seven starters of Barawa (see below) lost seven-nil to Western Armenia in the…seventh-place match. Holders Abkhazia beat Kabilya to ninth, 2-0. Japan’s United Koreans beat Tibet on penalties after their fourth draw of the week-and-a-bit. The popular, Matabeleland beat Tamil Eelam 1-0 to grab 13th spot. And while Tuvalu were only ahead of the long-vanished Ellan Vannin, they finished 15th in style, thumping the Chagos Islands 6-1.

Inevitably for a such a big event run by a volunteer-heavy organisation such as Conifa, not everything went well. Some problems were not of Conifa’s making. Finances were considerably more constrained by certain sponsors making Tibet’s non-participation a condition of said sponsorship, under no pressure whatsoever, oh no, from the Chinese government.

Knock-on effects included dampening Conifa’s venue ambitions (from Charlton to Carshalton, to use a catchy example). Kick-offs in many second matches in double-headers were delayed as teams had to wait for dressing-rooms to be vacated. Carshalton had ‘temporary’ dressing-rooms but Ellan Vannin whined that they were inadequate. Mind you, Ellan Vannin whines weren’t exactly news, which neatly segues in to the problems of Conifa’s making.

Conifa’s ‘loose’ interpretation of their squad-submission rules acknowledged the logistical problems routinely faced by its quasi-national members. Barawa, the source of the controversy over which Ellan Vannin eventually flounced out of the Cup, began their seventh-place play-off with seven players (against the playful Western Armenian troupe which found more ‘forceful’ methods of fielding ten men or less).

But while the 21 individual relaxations of the eligibility rules (including one for Ellan Vannin) were entirely understandable, Conifa rightly accepted that communicating these better, i.e. at all, was “best practice.” Communicating team line-ups could also have done with a bit of ‘best practice’ as team-sheets appeared to be written by people whose handwriting resembled doctors with the shakes, with shirt number attribution vacillating between gesture and guess.

(Lack of) communication was also financially damaging. Time constraints necessitated double-headers, for which admission prices were £12-per-match. I’ve attended many Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) double-headers, where one ticket covers both games. Thus I assumed I was being charged full price despite only attending the second match of Sutton’s opening day twosome. Likewise when I only attended the first half of the Carshalton double-bill on the tournament’s first Saturday.

And until a friend of mine queried the situation with me on semi-finals’ day, I had no reason to believe that Conifa were treating double-headers any differently to the GAA. And I was quite happy to pay £12 for just the one game. And when I was asked if I wanted “to buy my ticket for the final now” at Enfield on finals’ day, I was taken aback…but more than happy to pay £24. After all, £12-per-game was value-for-money on average. Dirt cheap for the semi-finals, if perhaps less so on other occasions.

And even if the correct prices were advertised on the website, I did not see them either communicated or enforced at the grounds themselves, including, it transpired, the final. Before then, I was only asked IF I wanted a ticket on one occasion. I was never given a ticket as a matter of course. And I was never asked to show any ticket, nor did I see anyone asking anyone else to show any tickets.

“A communication problem, I think,” noted the lad on the Enfield turnstile, correctly. And literally well-worth solving before future Conifa competitions.

Conifa’s future is unpredictable. They are looking to expand, especially as their status as a global organisation is undermined by a South American continent-sized hole in its membership. But there has been criticism of Yorkshire being accepted into Conifa, considering their incompatibility with Conifa’s stated ethos of representing “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories.”

All-bar-one of the critics I heard noted that Ellan Vannin was a more appropriate case for membership because of its “distinctive and demonstrable linguistic heritage” (‘posh’ for ‘they have a language’), with potential Cornish and Breton teams cited to support this theory. Yorkshire may be a ‘region’ but it lacks such a heritage beyond the realms of caricature. One for Conifa to ponder.

Conifa’s next big thing will be 2019’s European Football Cup (including Yorkshire, presumably), with the next World Football Cup in 2020. And, as the 2018 event was officially hosted by Barawa, the 2020 event could theoretically return to these shores…maybe even in Yorkshire, although my Walsall-supporting friend (and there were an inordinate number of Walsall fans dotted about the tournament) is already campaigning for Panjab to be 2020 hosts, with the final at Walsall’s Bescot Stadium.

The 2018 tournament’s kinks and flaws are comfortably capable of being ironed out. And, anyway, they were overwhelmed by its qualities. The personalities, the attitudes, the style and colour and, occasionally, the football. It may not have been a complete success. But it was undoubtedly A success. Crowds grew as, well-earned, positive publicity grew. And, regardless of the football, finals day at Enfield was simply joyous. Definitely a tournament to add to your football tournament diary.