The ConIFA World Cup tournament for non-FIFA nations ended on Saturday with Karpatalja triumphing over Northern Cyprus on penalties in the final at fan-owned Enfield Town and thereby succeeding Abkhazia as world champions.
The winners, representing the Hungarian minority in western Ukraine, were undoubtedly the most accomplished team in a tournament that saw such diverse nations as Tibet, Panjab and Matabeleland (including Bruce Grobbelaar at the age of 60) represented. It all took place in and around London across ten different non-league grounds with sixteen teams playing six games each over a ten day period and was generally regarded as a huge success. This was shown by the fact that over 2,500 people attended the finals day which also saw Padania (from northern Italy) defeat Szekely Land (another branch of the Hungarian diaspora) on penalties to take third place in the competition.
The competition was even marked by the introduction of a “green card” (which may or may not have something to do with the headline sponsor) which was given if a player indulged in dissent or a spot of diving. Players receiving the green card were to be substituted immediately and, if all substitutes had been used, their team dropped down to 10 men as a result.
The tournament was not without controversy either, with the Isle of Man representative team, Ellan Vannin, withdrawing after losing an appeal against the nominal hosts, Barawa, who, they alleged, played an ineligible player. With all teams playing on each matchday, a team of London-based Turkish players was quickly assembled and Tibet, their opponents, were able to play on their designated match day.
The surreal nature of the tournament was brought home to me on several occasions on my trips around the non-league arenas of the south east. Firstly, as the organisers struggled to control sixteen sets of players and officials at the opening ceremony at Bromley on the first day in during what Paul Watson (organiser and friend of SD) described over the tannoy as “possibly the shortest opening ceremony ever… and possibly the worst”.
Secondly, the sheer incongruity of watching a noted Italian soprano sing a five minute long operatic aria through what sounded like a 1930s radio, all the while standing on the balcony of the Bedfont Sports FC clubhouse (which itself looks like a semi-detached house) as around 50 baffled Hungarians from Szekely Land looked on incredulously will definitely live long in the memory. The added hurdle of competing with the noise of huge jets taking off from Heathrow airport next door did not perturb her for one second.
At Sutton United’s ground for the quarter final, the playing of the national anthems also saw Karpatalja and Cascadia (representing a North American bio-region) listening to their tunes via a laptop and speakers placed strategically behind them by the aforementioned Paul Watson. Once again, with the sound barely audible to anyone other than the teams, a baffled crowd was left scratching its collective head.
My abiding memory of the tournament however, will be the sheer joy of the players and fans representing often-forgotten areas given the opportunity to inform an ever-growing number of fans about where they come from via the simple medium of football. The singing of the Matabeleland players wherever they went, the discordant but haunting tones of the Tibetan singer at the opening ceremony and the air of organised chaos that surrounded the whole ten days was truly magical.
Personally, I can’t wait for the next one, wherever it’s held.