ConIFA 2018, The Semis: A Proper Football Tournament

by | Jun 9, 2018

Everything good about the CONIFA World Football Cup was encapsulated in Thursday’s events. And an important bit more besides.

Tuvalu grabbing three goals against Tamil Eelam. The Sri Lankans’ storming comeback from three-one down late on to win four-three. Tibet scoring at all against Kabilya. And we’ll forsake the “eight-bloody-one” jokes out of respect for the Tibetans that they and their boisterous fans deserve. Especially as their very participation in the tournament so narked the Chinese government.

Then there was sixty-year-old Bruce Grobbelaar keeping a clean sheet for the opening 25 minutes of Matabeleland’s 1-0 friendly win over the Chagos Islands. And we’ll forsake the jokes about his dad-dancing attempts to join his team-mates’ post-match dressing-room celebrations out of respect for the fact that he attempted at all.

But most importantly, on the day, the semi-finals were evidence that, for all the camaraderie generated (Isle of Man’s travails apart), there was a real and important football tournament taking place. For Northern Cyprus, Padania, Karpataliya and Szekely Land, winning became more important than taking part. And two fabulous, ‘proper’ football matches resulted.

Semi-finals can define tournaments, especially when the pressures of a final so often stultifies creativity. Think of Germany’s 2014 Fifa World Cup triumph and the semi-final springs to mind (David Luiz’s perma-confusion springing delightedly to my mind). 1990 is obviously defined in England BY England’s semi-final. But it was a far better match than the final anyway. 1982 by the France/West Germany semi-final, a fabulous match, albeit overshadowed by Schumacher/Battiston et al.

France’s fabulous semi-final win over Portugal, which recently resurfaced in various John Motson tributes, defined Euro ’84, not the dull France/Spain final (though until the final the England-free tournament was only shown in brief highlight segments by England’s horribly parochial broadcast media). The 2012 Women’s Olympic semi-final where Canada were so blatantly sawn-off against the United States side ‘led’ by ultra-violent striker Abby Wambach(CHK). I could go on…oh…I have.

Anyway, CONIFA 2018 had two semi-finals of sufficient quality to define it, helped by the games forming a fantastic double-bill at Carshalton Athletic’s Colston Avenue ground. And helped further by Padania’s anthem, a slice of 80s US glam-rock which early Bon Jovi might have considered for a B-side. Through Sutton United’s distorted PA system seven days earlier, it had sounded like a death-metal classic. Now we know why.

Northern Cyprus and Padania were effective on the counter-attack in their quarter-final wins, the Turkish Cypriots against a Barawan side reportedly weakened by players’ work commitments, the Northern Italians against a Panjab side weakened by playing so many warm-up and tournament games in the last month. I’d like to say Padania were pacier, for alliterative purposes. But I’ll have to stick with Padania were patient.

And this patience largely worked early on, which meant clear-cut chances were few-and-far-between/at a premium (choose your cliché). Northern Cyprus should have led on nine minutes, Kenan Oshan lobbing his left-footed shot over the bar after nipping clear of Padania’s L-shaped offside trap. They could have led on 23 minutes, the net moving after Halil Turan’s header…but only because Padania keeper Marco Murriero nudged the side-netting after pawing the header away JUST in time.

On the half-hour, though, Padania took the lead, almost as much against the laws of physics as the run of play, Ersid Pllumbaj’s low right-footer punishing a rare concentration lapse in the Northern Cyprus half-back line, much to the horror of the “mad Dad” Turkish Cypriot who’d been springing around in front of us every time on-field events didn’t go his side’s way.

Within six minutes, though, ‘mad Dad’ was leaping about rather more delightedly, as Billy Mehmet solidly held off attempts to fell him just inside the penalty box and fired his right-foot shot into the bottom corner, after clever work from Turan and Oshan around the edge of the box.

Padania lacked their opponents’ dynamism, as exemplified by their best player, Gianluca Rolandone, an imperious midfield presence who failed to waste a pass in the 135 minutes I saw him play but was hardly ‘box-to-box,’ unless you define the centre-circle as a box. Nevertheless, they led at half-time, Nicolo Pavan slotting home a loose ball after his own shot was half-cleared, two minutes into an over-lengthy stoppage-time stint.

Padania defended superbly after the break. But it was a case of having to, as Northern Cyprus zipped the ball about in search of an opening. The two number tens shared the only clear chances for 35 minutes, Giacomo Innocenti heading straight at keeper Hasan Piro on 50 minutes, while Turan’s 68th-minute header was deflected wide. And Padania’s Michele Bonfanti twice got in the way at crucial moments.

But on 80 minutes, from the umpteenth corner the inevitably tiring Italians conceded, Turan headed joyously home after Murriero made a stunning reflex save from (or couldn’t avoid) the Tyson Fury-lookalike Mehmet’s powerful first header. Barely had ‘mad Dad’ and his dozens of kindred spirits in the crowd calmed down than they were up celebrating what everyone knew would be the winner, Mehmet stretching to slide home after Turan broke down the left and drilled the ball across goal.

On-field celebrations after the final whistle will live long in the memory, even of those fans whose inter-match drinking time was cut by ten minutes (about a pint-and-a-half by the looks of some of us them) as we waited for the centre-gates to part after Mehmet eventually headed for the dressing-rooms. Particular delight centred on another mad Dad in official Northern Cypriot Football Federation gear, with a proto-punk hairstyle and ‘dance’ moves which suggested he’d been in a few late 1970s mosh pits.

Money’s worth was thus obtained long before the two ‘Hungarian’ semi-finalists warmed up for their encounter. Szekely Land’s warm-up only finished five minutes before designated kick-off time, when called ashore by an increasingly agitated young referee in only his second match of the tournament (yes…THAT Mark Clattenburg). But they were probably a few exercises short, as Karpatalya were deservedly three-up, on 75 minutes, before Szekely HOTTED up and provided a stirring climax to an already enthralling encounter.

Karpatalya are the ‘Denmark 1992’ of this tournament. Called up on 4th May as replacements for Slovakian-based Hungarians, Felvidek, the Ukrainian ethnic Hungarians have peaked at the right time, just like the Danes. They beat holders Abkhazia in their group, on their way to meeting Romanian-based…yes, you’ve guessed it, Hungarians Szekely.

Both sides were neat and tidy in a lively, if chance-free, opening quarter. But Karpatalya were neat and tidy at a ferocious pace. And they should have led on 22 minutes thanks to some not very neat untidiness from Szekely keeper Pavel Horvat, whose chest control suggested he was wearing some sort of spring-loaded vest and presented Alex Svediuk with a briefly gaping goal. However, Szekely captain and centre-back Csaba Csizmadia, a dominant defensive presence and as unrufflable as his slicked-back blond hair, appeared from out of nowhere to thump the ball clear.

Four minutes later, early Karpatalya substitute Ferenc Barta nearly netted with his first touch, his rasping left-foot drive deflected half-a-ball-width wide. But on 36 minutes, Gyorgy Toma, the best player I’ve seen at the tournament, defied his voluminous shorts with a dazzling two-step in-between two defenders and the cutest of right-foot finishes under the on-rushing Horvat.

Yet for all the second-fiddling Skezely were playing, they should have scored in their next attack. Artur Gyorgi leapt onto a defensive slip and prodded his shot past keeper Bela Fejer, with the two players colliding as the shot was scrambled off the line. Clattenburg, annoyingly correctly, deemed the collision a foul by Fejer, brandished a yellow card and pointed to the spot. However, Fejer redeemed himself instantly, somehow diverting Lorand Szocs’ spot-kick onto the bar and showing even greater athleticism to leap to his feet, charge across goal and punch the loose ball to safety.

They were initially made to pay for their profligacy when Toma netted his and his side’s second goal, on 57 minutes, Horvat deceived by the late in-swing on Toma’s right-foot, long-range shot, the ball bouncing up off his body and spinning away from his scrambling effort to keep it out of the net.

Again, Szekely should have scored in their next attack, Attila Csuros hoisting Szabolcs Kilyen’s low right-wing cross over from the edge of the six-yard box…some achievement if he’d meant it. And again, they were to pay for their profligacy, when a goalbound Toma was sent tumbling inside the penalty box and Gergo Gyurki rolled the spot-kick into the opposite corner to which Horvat flew.

AGAIN, Skezely should have scored in their next attack. And, at last, they did. Fejer got in the way of one low shot but it was only a few seconds before the ball was back in the box and headed home by one of approximately EVERY SINGLE Szekely player whose gold numbers on bright blue shirts were effectively invisible from the stands. That’s my excuse, anyway. But one thing was clear. Szekely scored again two minutes later, Barna Bajko leathering a left-foot 25-yarder right inside the post. And it was panic on the streets of Karpatalya.

With Csizmadia allowed to play quarter-back from the centre-circle, Szekely peppered Karpatalya’s defence and while Toma and co still had the legs and wherewithal to relieve the siege on the break, they couldn’t get on the ball. And Lorand Fulop thought he should have equalised on 84 minutes, judging by the way he pummelled the spare ball behind the goal into the adverts after half-volleying Kilyen’s hopeful lob inches wide from not that many more inches out. “More difficult than it looked,” I ventured. There were no takers among the nearby pro-Szekely locals.

More scrambles came and went, with a terrace consensus building that Szekely deserved an equaliser, despite not being in the game very much at all for 75 minutes. But, almost inevitably, Toma finally got meaningful possession and space to run 40 yards before playing a pinpoint crossfield pass to fast-advancing defender Csaba Peres, who didn’t have to break stride before finishing right-footed with more aplomb than Szekely had managed for 15 minutes.

Szekely’s squad sang heartily with their noisy and, with pyrotechnic-assistance, colourful fans, in what could have passed for a celebration if you hadn’t watched the game. And while Csizmadia’s post-match assertion that “the better team lost” was pushing it, it was a brave late effort.

In the group stages. Northern Cyprus and Karpatalya drew 1-1, while Padania beat Szekely Land 3-1. However, both games were ‘dead rubbers’ after all four teams had already reached the top-eight. So, those results will have little bearing on finals day, which will have to go some to even match the magnificence of semi-finals day, a day to define the best of proper football tournaments.