Thursday 21 June 2018

It’s In Die Hard Three - Northern Cyprus Vs Karpatalya, CONIFA World Football Cup Final 2018, Queen Elizabeth II Stadium (09/06/18)

It is with a very heavy heart, and I might as well tell you first thing and get it out of the way, but Tom
is not with me today.

Christ he’s not dead or anything, put the Kleenex away, but due to the bumbling management of his calender, he was unable to make our final game of the season, yes I’m pretty sure we said the National League South Promotion Final was our last one of 2017/18, but this one is now, I promise.

I do have a replacement, an emergency transfer following meetings with the FA, someone a little more acerbic than Tom, “Toby looks like a dickhead” they say, passing the Toby Carvery on the way to today's ground. The sight of the jolly three cornered hat wearing man, clearly rubbing them up the wrong way, but thankfully they are as obsessed with food, as my usual compatriot, so they're not really that different. Pointing out the “yorkie wrap”, which looks like a burrito made with a Yorkshire pudding, right below the “dickhead”.

AKA The Ball and Chain, AKA The Peanut, AKA The Mrs, AKA The Other Half, AKA My Better Half, AKA The Mother of My Daughter, AKA my Fiancee, AKA The Toad of Bramhall, today I’m joined by Rachel.

Donkey Lane, that never gets old, leading to the Queen Elizabeth II stadium, venue for the final of the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, that in just two games, has totally and utterly caught us in its spell, is bustling. All manner of people are jostling for space on the narrow pavement, many of them in matching tracksuits. The United Koreans in Japan stand out somewhat among the locals, and not so locals who have made their way here today.

As with the two other games we've attended, we arrive just as the first of a double header is finishing up. According to the CONIFA official in his floppy sun hat, selling programmes, the third fourth place play-off has been a “dull affair” and is heading for penalties.

The handiwork of a local football celebrity is apparent seconds after arriving. ‘Village’ the bandanna wearing, Santa Claus bearded Barnet FC fan who has a penchant for flags, his collection of seemingly every national flag going, that puts our single one to shame, surrounds at least a quarter of the pitch.

His offerings are not the only ones on show either, there is a rich tapestry of different flags already up. A vast Bristol Rovers/Tibet one hangs from the balcony of the exquisite art deco main stand, and it’s not the only one representing the west country club. A second one, a much smaller one is being flown by the Croydon Gas, not far from another, representing a club slightly closer to home, Colchester United.

Also on display, and perhaps just showing off quite what a draw this tournament has had, set back from the pitch a Port Vale banner, tied to a nearby fence, a black and white one featuring the crest of the Ramones, flutters in the breeze.

The fans of Szekely Land, whose team we saw miss out on a final place just a few days ago, have claimed the small covered stand opposite the main one for themselves. What has somewhat become of their calling card, coloured smoke, consumes it.

With the new addition of a megaphone and drum, their short bald Capo at the front with the loud hailer, flanked by the drummer, leads the whole stand, clapping above their heads in a song, “la, la, la, la, la”.

There is your typical non league change of ends, for one half of the crowd at least, as the game comes to an end, and the officials and players prepare for the shootout. Unfortunately we seem to be somewhat of an unlucky charm for Szekely Land as they miss out on third spot. One fan of Padania, their opponents, behind us punches the air “viva Padania” he shouts as they secure the win.

The drum of the Szekely Land fans is still going, as the remnants of the first game melt away and everyone prepares for the final. They don’t look like they are going anywhere though, staying I assume to support their fellow Hungarians Karpatalya (KAP) in the final. Considering it's basically a home tie for Northern Cyprus (NC), going by their considerable support here last week against Tibet, it's good to see that they are sticking around for moral support.

It's only a very brief lull between the games, the slight spitting rain makes Rachel almost turn inside out like she’s eating a lemon, but it’s just light enough to prevent her from digging me in the ribs, because she forgot her umbrella

Sitting on a slightly wonky picnic table, the CONIFA world flows around us. “Lots of babies and kids, which is nice” points out Rachel, this competition more than any other we've ever attended, has most definitely been a family affair. Plenty of players from the other competing nations are enjoying a pint or two. People stroll about in souvenir final t shirts. The NC band leader from the game against Tibet is here and thankfully has his shirt on, he had got very over excited the last time we saw him. A very burly Hungarian in a shirt bearing his country's flag, with a scarf hanging from his belt, tries to inconspicuously stick up some ultra stickers but fails miserably.

As naff and and as corny it sounds, a bit like a United Colors of Benetton ad from the late 80’s its a real melting pot of people, something that has been a real highlight of the last ten days. A sudden swell by the turnstiles sees quite a dramatic influx of people, many sporting different Turkish club shirts, many holding the white flag with the red crescent moon of NC. The strung out blockade of stewards tries its best to hold them back. According to one of them they are still trying to get the still singing Szekely Land fans to “leave”, good luck with that.

The ride along tractor is soon doing lengths of the pitch in preparation for the main event, not long after its completed, the teams are out to warm up. The diminutive NC coach who had what I could only describe as a ‘Bjork haircut’ his silver locks twisted up into stiff peaks, has had a makeover. Still
with his hairy spikes, it now looks as if a small child has been let loose on his barnet with a can of pink spray paint, it's quite the picture.

Another tick is added to the check list of ‘never seen that at a football match before’, something this tournament has been a great contributor to, when we see the men and women in traditional Turkish dress who are causing quite a stir. In blue fringed fezzes, knee high socks and gold embroidered waistcoats the men look both fabulous and devilishly manly in the same breath. The women in long ivory smocks and gold necklaces are each carrying a small terracotta pot, the men scythes.

There is absolutely no quibbling with the man in the Szekely Land shirt when he asks for a picture with them, sitting on the floor before them he holds up his scarf. In fact he is enjoying the limelight so much, quite the bank of photographers have swarmed around him to grab the picture, he has be asked to “get out of the way” in a loving, but you’re a bit pissed so we need to talk to you a bit like a child, kind of way, so a picture just of the impeccably dressed dancers can be taken.

A man appears with a microphone on the far end of the balcony of the main stand, talking in Turkish for a second it feels like I’m at some kind of political rally. Behind him,a band prepare themselves for a performance. The dancers having shifted now to the running track, still the focus of many of the cameras, they are not adverse to a bit of posing, ready themselves to dance.

Much like the dancers, but much louder, with not as good makeup, and with far more bears on the go, the Hungarian contingent have moved. Such is their enthusiasm, one steward has asked for someone to have a word with them, informing the messenger that he needs to tell them to “calm down” he says with his palms to the ground, gently lifting his hands up and down in front of himself or they are going to have to “ring the police”.

With so many people here, it's getting harder and harder to see a spot not occupied, every possible place for a flag or banner is also taken, you think I would have overheard someone mentioning the the matches kick off time had been delayed. Considering not one of the two previous games we’d been to had kicked off on time, it’s no great surprise.

It’s ok though, no one seems overly fussed, there is plenty going on, the NC band of a drummer and flute play, the kind of which Tom assured me you hear everywhere on your Turkish holidays, and the flag bearer are already doing laps of the pitch, all while the NC coach with the pink hair, is whipping up the crowd into a mild frenzy. Running along in front of them motioning with his arms that he wants more noise, “whoa, whoa, whoa”.

Not prepared to be outdone by the NC hype man, the same Hungarian who was posing with the dancers, enters the pitch, clambering over the railing, still with his pint in hand he does his best to provoke the crowd. When Bjork hair starts to run towards him, he instinctively runs away, his built in fight or flight kicking in, and it ends up looking like a Benny Hill sketch. When he realises through his boozy fog that the 5’4 man in a tracksuit and pink spiky hair means no harm, that he is friend not foe, they combine forces.

We’ve seen the odd bit of pyro in our time, funnily enough non from our trips abroad worth talking about. The vast majority has been here, and normally it's the odd smoke bomb cheekily smuggled into the Ryman League Cup Final. The most spectacular we've ever seen, was in of all places Yorkshire. The show at The Shay for the National League North Promotion Final 2017 now has a challenger, in fact I think it's safe to say that it has now been surpassed by the theatrics of the Hungarians in the five minutes preceding the teams coming out.

There had been a little bit at the Semi-Final, but today its seems thicker, even more acrid, even more plentiful, again it's in the colours of the Hungarian flag. Tom would be so impressed at the logistics of it. One green, one white and one red, each letting out a plume of dense smoke, that all but engulfs the small terrace behind the goal, blotting it from view. Billowing out from the back, it hits the low metal roof, causing it to curl upwards and out in broad mingling columns.

One fan instead of just simply holding his scarlet smoke bomb aloft, he rotates in concentric circles, causing the trail to almost dance. Along from him among the chest beating scarf waving supporters under the cover of the stand, the back of which you can’t see for all the chanting people, “ria, ria, Hungaria” a man lights an actual flare, the kind of which that is more commonly found on a life raft, that is so bright and dazzling it’s hard to look at for too long.

The teams are read out, as they have been all tournament, by someone who knows what they are doing, and not someone who would stumble, mumble and massacre their way through the team sheets.

If there were any spots free, there aren't now, as the teams arrive down the green cage sided tunnel, people are quite literally pushed up against it to get a glimpse and a picture of the arriving players. The NC band welcome the players too, the flutes high pitched squeal as it did the last time I heard it, makes a b line straight for my inner brain, and a white haired NC coach, not Bjork hair, offers a high five up to every player in their gleaming red tops as they cross the running track on to the pitch.

Sadly the piddly PA doesn't quite do the anthems justice, each rousing in their own right, time conscious Mark Clattenburg checks his watch between them, ensuring there are no more delays, and on their completion both drums are back to it.
 Kick off almost passes off unnoticed, with the NC fans behind the other goal producing two flares of their own, as the NC band forever mobile is back racking up the miles as it circles the pitch. It battles its way through the crowd, all you can see is the flag at its front, but without being able to see the two responsible for its distinct sound, The attendance is insane, people have been forced to stand on two green banks either side of the small covered stand, just to get a glimpse of what's going on.

It's a rather cagey opening quarter of an hour, in fact it will turn out to be a rather cagey ninety minutes with very few clear cut chances. KAP have in their number 9, someone who we saw in the semi-final who is able to deliver the most tremendous of corners and free kicks, but NC are just so big, the size difference between the teams so blatant, it's hard to imagine that it's going to be a ball in the air, that is going to be the way to get past them.

Thankfully what's going on off the pitch, more than makes up for what's going on it, or to be precise what's not going on it. There are quite literally people everywhere, the drum of the KAP fans has not stopped. They start to sing a song to a very familiar tune, I just can't put my finger on it, and although I’m sure it's not where I recognise it from, Rachel tells me “it’s in Die Hard three”.

The spitting rain is back, however I don’t think that's what keeps bringing the NC bench leaping to their feet. The slightest infringement against their players and they are up, shouting and waving their arms. If it had been any other referee, he or she may have been affected by the constant barrage, but old Clattenburg just takes it in his very suntanned stride.

Much like their bench the NC fans are just as animated, quick to squeal and scream when their forward looks likely to meet a well timed through ball, but just can’t make it. Their band, as it did the last time, seems to drop in and out of my consciousness, I’m not sure if it's ever gone, just that I’m becoming immune to it.

The effect it has on Rachel is interesting, but not surprising. She nudges me and tells me it makes her feel “hungry”. To be fair to her it is very similar to the only CD they seem to have in our local Turkish restaurant. I had hoped a different companion today, would have meant some different topics of conversation, but no such luck.

Front and centre of the KAP fans is the man with what Rachel calls the “weird” megaphone. I’m not quite sure why she finds it so strange, but it does make the man talking though it sound a little creepy. A brief moment of quiet doesn't last for long, as the KAP fans start banging the stand around them for added percussion. The NC supporters reply with a bit of chanting of their own “la, la, la, la, la” accompanied by the second member of their woodwind section, a man with a Vuvuzela.

With thirty minutes gone Rachel calls it “exerting their dominance” I call it being a bit overly physical, but whenever a KAP player looks to have got away from his NC marker, KAP who look much more willing to attack, their quick exchanges causing a few headaches for NC, the NC players are more than happy to simply cut them down.

“You’re fucking shit” shouts someone through the megaphone, unimpressed with the NC approach. This erudite tactical appraisal is soon replaced with a new song, “please don't take me home, I just don’t wanna go to work”.

If I’m honest I was expecting more from the NC supporters, considering the size of the local community, I really thought we were on for some fiery ‘Welcome To Hell’ kind of shenanigans, to accompany the band, but they have really failed to get going as of yet, a reflection almost of their team.

The man on a primary school chair sitting on the apron of the pitch has lucked out, he looks dead comfy. He has a front row view for another NC shocker. The KAP players ask for a card, will it be a green one, last chance to see one of those, will it, nope. Clattenburg does not take kindly to the request for the booking and gives the KAP attempt to take the free kick early short shrift, blowing his whistle, he calls back play.

“You’re fucking shit” chant the KAP fans again, followed by a blast of an air horn to add to the unorthodox orchestra, and Rachel ask disappointedly “who let the English person in charge of the megaphone?”.

Another NC foul, they are now just looking “thuggish” as Rachel puts it. KAP go close from one of
the deadly corners “ohhhhh” cries the crowd. The KAP fan who posed so effortlessly with the dancers before, has hopped the railing again and is running along behind the NC goal, his appearance is welcomed with another blast of the air horn, and his trespassing has the stewards circling.

Into the last five minutes of the half and KAP’s attacking intent continues to shine, it’s a speculative shot from long range, but at least they are trying. Minutes later and their quick feet and sharp passing nearly catches out NC, causing the players to berate each other.

It is clear to me now that the only time the NC fans at the far end of the pitch really get noisy, is when the band passes them on their continuous laps of the pitch. This has not been lost on the KAP end, “your support is fucking shit” someone announces once again via the megaphone.

Now I doubt what was being said in Hungarian was anymore poetic or highbrow, but it not being in English seems to automatically give it an air of mystery. When some bloke from Enfield gets hold of it, it just sounds a bit crass. Rachel a real deep thinker, asks “is that all we can offer the world” this great nation of England the birthplace of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Owen, “songs about shit”.

KAP right into the final minutes of the half continue to push forward, is it a case of NC being a bit reserved or just having a complete lack of creativity. Rachel ponders if NC got to the final by simply “pushing people over?”. Although she is unable to hypothesise for long, as a native has got hold of the megaphone again and she is back to shaking her head, just like she does when our daughter stands in front of the TV and hits it.

The half finishes slightly unceremoniously, with another NC hatchet job and the KAP fans chanting “off, off, off, off”

It's an uneventful half time, it's far too busy to contemplate going anywhere. So we stand and watch the KAP fans jumping to the sound of feedback from the megaphone, which then starts playing some police siren esq noises. Rachel is trying to work out what to do if the “rain comes” and everyone I imagine is straining to hear what the PA is saying, with so much to compete with, I don't know why he is bothering.

One NC coach is very relaxed as the team's reappear, he saunters back to the bench holding an ice cream. Its green smoke that welcomes the KAP players, the NC keeper forced to prepare for the restart surrounded by a thick haze, “poor goalie” says Rachel as more and more comes forth from the KAP supporters behind him, and the stewards are again on high alert.

“Hacked them again, boring” says Rachel, NC picking up where they left off at the beginning of the second half. “Hack them down and do nothing” is Rachel's summation of the NC approach. She is pretty spot on, but at least they have come out for the second half a bit more attacking minded. Although they are still mostly consumed with stifling KAP, they now look a little bit more willing to venture forward, they have a header from a corner just tipped over within the first five minutes.

There is also certainly more singing from the NC end too, “la, la, la, la, la” and the blasts of an air horn gives some suggestion that there is some life among the hoards of people. This is still though not deemed enough by the KAP end “your support is fucking shit”.

Despite NC’s new found vigour, KAP continue to play the far more attractive football, with just under ten minutes gone, they have an attack that results in a fine solid shot, that is well held. Again though the action around the pitch is far more fascinating, however well KAP are playing.

The Abkhazia fans, many with their green and white “Lord of the Rings flags” as Tom dubbed them, because of the single white hand print on them, have somehow found enough space to form their own little enclave, on the roof above the changing rooms, most if not all are singing away, some sit with their feet dangling over the edge resting on the top of a St Johns Ambulance.

To my right a Tibet fan struggles to get through a gate, because he is wearing a hat that is also an umbrella in the countries flags colours, and to our left the KAP fans are doing their very own thunderclap, however their drum sounds like its on its last legs.

“Another one, yeah” grumbles Rachel as NC strike again, “very odd team tactic” she adds. I have to admit I thought this final was NC’s to lose, having seen both teams before, I’m surprised they have gone down this route, making the game “quite drab” as the nearby @TerraceTrav put it. His pessimism though might be down to the disappointment of seeing the queue for the burger van, and has decided he's going to have to “give it a miss”.

Rachel suggests that NC must be very confident in their ability to take penalties.

KAP flash a ball across the NC box which seems to stir the flute and drum, NC then have a horrible shot over, which is jeered by the fans behind it “who are ya, who are ya”. The drum still about holding up, beats out the rhythm of the latest song, as their end of ground is once again soon filled with green, red and white smoke.

Things are getting tense, even the row of Tibetan players behind us look pensive. KAP have a shout for a penalty waved away and then in the words of one nearby person the NC player alone at the back post “bottles it” when the ball drops to his feet, but he's all sixes and sevens and can’t score.

NC are finally starting to show some of their muscle in attack, going close again with a header, balls into the box aimed at their giant players, certainly seems the way to go. This missed effort is again ridiculed by the KAP fans, “you're fucking shit, you’re fucking shit”.

As the spitting rain turns to proper rain, the man on the primary school chair, tears apart his burger, looking decidedly unimpressed, as is Rachel who has made a makeshift hood out of a hi viz waistcoat. One man has been even more inventive and stands holding a cardboard box over his head, as those a little better prepared than us, unfurl their brollies.

Into the final ten minutes and NC have noticeably upped the ante, there is a lot more purpose in their play, they have KAP all but pinned back and they get as about as close as you can to scoring, without actually doing so, when they hit in the woodwork.

The KAP fans heckle the NC player who went down claiming he was fouled and asked for a penalty, which Clattenburg is having none of. All the action is being condensed into the final minuets, like NC finally decided to pull their finger out. Rachel wonders if their plan all along was to “rope a dope” KAP.

They go close again after a chipped ball into the box  is stabbed wide and when it seems all set up for the former St Mirren player, NC’s towering number 99 to grab the glory, his power header whistles just over.

There is not much hanging around following the final whistle, it just isn't the Clattenburg way. A few moments are allowed for a drink and for each team to decide on who is stepping up to take a kick and that's about it, a simple raise of the hand from the KAP players seems to be enough to signal they are happy to take one.

Such are the sheer amount of people here and the stadium looking almost full to bursting point, it means there is little to no room to allow for much movement towards the end the shootout will take place in front of the NC fans. Three of which like us have been caught out by the rain, shelter under a
NC flag.

It’s all very panto as the first KAP player steps up, plenty of boos, hissing and hysterical arm waving from those behind the goal. They are unable to put him off though, the NC keeper went the right way, the ball just evading his grasp, he lies prone his face in his hands, that was close.

NC’s big number 99 is not so lucky, the KAP keeper who showed his prowess for saving a penalty in the semi-final, dives the right way, pushing the ball wide. Number 99 pulls his shirt up over his face and walks back towards the half way line.

KAP score their third, but NC fail again, the keeper choosing the right way once more. Its then KAP’s turn to miss, the takers attempt striking the foot of the post and bouncing out. NC’s next attempt is expertly taken, right in the top right hand corner. One young lady behind me letting out  a blood curdling scream as he makes his run up, only stopping once has scored.

The tide starts to shift momentarily, it's the NC keepers turn to save. NC’s next one is even better than their last, absolutely unsavable. One NC player on the half way line falls to the floor in relief.

More boos, but they fail to distract the KAP taker, whose penalty just squeezes in, the NC players were sure their keeper had done enough. This time they’re falling to the floor in despair.

For a very brief moment after standing up, I genuinely don't think the KAP keeper has realised what he's done. He’s pulled off another fine save, including his performances in the semi-final, he really has been a standout player. He stands motionless, the NC player whose just seen his kick saved knows it's over, but I’m still not sure if the KAP keeper has realised it yet.

His teammates struggle to catch him, such is the sudden surge of adrenaline that overcomes the man in goal, once its dawned on him they’ve won. His lime green jersey is already off and whirling above his head as he races up the by line. Not towards his team mates, the bench or fans, he’s just running, because I don't think he knows what else to do.

Tears, hugs and kisses, more shouts of “ria, ria, Hungaria”. The pitch is soon filled with KAP’s fans, a whirlpool of players and staff forms in the eye of a mass of celebrating people.

With the backdrop of more green smoke, the players form a long line, all holding hands they applaud their excellent support, as the odd verse of “championes, championes” breaks out.

There is somewhat of an overly long pause between the players and fans singing what I think was the Hungarian national anthem in a circle on the pitch, the players eventually disappearing, finally remerging on the balcony above a sign that reads “World Football Cup Champions 2018”.
The man with the megaphone was certainly growing impatient, as were most people, finding himself one of the primary school chairs to sit on, with his drum set up in front of him, which he would occasionally hit with what looked like a ginormous wooden spoon.

Each player in red stands beaming with a large gold medal around their neck and most have a phone in hand to capture the moment. It's pretty much dusk when they are awarded the trophy, the flashes of the numerous cameras in attendance, bounce of its reflective surface.

Sometimes its very easy to conclude these blogs, sometimes they pretty much wrap themselves up, this one is not so easy, because I see it more as a conclusion of three separate experiences, across the three games we attended, making just so much more to consider.

I’d never heard of CONIFA, I’d never heard of 99% of the teams taking part, I was honestly a bit sceptical, really not sure what we were going to see. I can tell you now, I wish we had seen more. Three games was simply not enough, the atmosphere and spirit was completely infectious, it had us hooked straight away, and was almost the perfect football experience.

Yes sometimes it all felt a bit disorganised, yes the final was ultimately a bit of a disappointment, and
yes we never saw a green card given, just the one the @TerraceTrav  got after the final signed by Clattenburg himself, but all of this was completely immaterial, except for not seeing a green card dished out.

You could write pages and pages about how marvellous the platform CONFA gives those people who are not able for whatever reason to represent their small corner of the world.

We met so many friendly people, so many people who embraced the competition wholeheartedly who accepted all its foibles, and simply out of a love of football, willed it along from beginning to end.

For me the one resounding moment I’ll take away from it, is not the effortless coolness of Mark Clattenburg and the way he swaggers about, but the makeup of the KAP support at the final. 99% of which I’m sure were the fans of the team KAP beat in the semi-final, remarkable. It was their pale blue and yellow scarves, shirt and flags that filled the packed terrace, and if that is not the dictionary definition of the ‘Beautiful Game’, I don't know what is.

Well done CONIFA, consider us converts, when and where is the next one?


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Wednesday 13 June 2018

Get A Grip Clattenburg - Karpatalya Vs Szekely Land, CONIFA World Football Cup Semi-Final 2018, War Memorial Sports Ground (07/06/18)

When one thinks of Hungarian football, one recalls the exploits of the Magical Magyars and their
1953 dismantling of England at Wembley, which included among them the great Ferenc Puskas. The three time European Cup winner with Real Madrid goal machine, who scored 514 goals in 530 club appearances.

It is therefore fair to say there is something folkloric about this European nations rich football history, that should fascinate any football fan. I did however never think I would be getting my first taste of it at a non league ground in Sutton.

It was quite the ordeal heading from the north to the deep dark south. Riding solo, Tom opting for the train instead, to navigate half of London at rush hour. I keep myself entertained, I say entertained, I think I mean ‘I creep myself out’ by listening to a very odd play on the radio, sipping regularly from a 2 litre bottle of water as I shuffle slowly from one end of London to the other.

My keenness though to keep hydrated, it's not exactly sunny, but it's still warm, backfires as I find myself in somewhat of a predicament, around the Richmond area, desperately in need of the toilet. I scan the passing side streets, trying to see if there is somewhere I can stop to relieve myself and not look like a total yobbo, but I can’t so carry on, squirming, growing thirsty but not wanting to exacerbate the situation.

I pass pubs, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops. A Pizza Express I’m sure that has a very fine loo, but I can't see anywhere to park. Things are getting desperate, when I notice on my Sat Nav, the gleaming icon of a nearby BP garage.

It’s not far, but the traffic is hardly free flowing, I edge closer to it, the need to wee building by the second.

I hurriedly park my car and dash for the loo, but it's occupied. I stand trying to look like I’m not about to have a major accident between the grapes and the craft ale in the adjoined M&S, when I hear the click of the door lock, a man emerges, and I try my best not to barge him out of the way into the pitta chip stand so I can get by.

Life is good again, the remainder of the journey is fine, if not a little slow. I’m able to drink without fear, and I’m soon turning down the narrow lane leading to the War Memorial Sports Ground, home of Carshalton Athletic FC, the venue for our second CONIFA World Football Cup game.

At the end of the allotment bordered road is Tom, I'm of course happy that he has been able to find his way here by himself, I’m not so delighted at seeing the squat chalkboard opposite him that reads, “Car Park Full”. Shit.

I won't go into too much detail, but there is a considerable amount of embarrassing pleading with the kind man in the high viz, to find me somewhere to park my very small and humble VW Polo. He asks me to wait in some kind of car park purgatory, while he makes a call.

“One space left round the back” he tells me, pointing to the far corner of the rammed car park, towards a pothole covered track, that leads along the side of one of the grounds stands. It’s a bumpy ride, the surface sea of tranquility esq and I’m glad I no longer need the toilet. Just about making it to the other end all in one piece, where another man directs me to my space.

As with our first game in this competition, there is also one happening before ours as we arrive. It was the not inconsiderable roar of one set of fans celebrating a goal from inside the ground that greeted my arrival. Talking to the man in the car park, he informs me the score in the first semi final, is currently 2 - 2, and if it stays that way what a “logistical nightmare” that poses, because it will mean extra time and potentially penalties, and he doesn't see how they are going to get all that done and be able to kick off on time for the second semi-final.

It was maybe then the car park coordinator who was the happiest, and not the supporters of Northern Cyprus, when they not long after score again, the second roar from the crowd even louder than the first.

Once inside, we watch on as what by all accounts has been a super game comes to an end, and the both of us are left wondering if we picked the right match. Explaining to Tom that Padania, Northern Cyprus’s opposition is in Italy, he doesn't think they “look very Italian”, until about thirty seconds later when one is shown a red card right in front of us. Arguing with the referee in the finest of Serie A traditions, with a single half clenched hand that he gestures with in front of himself, Tom reckons “he does” now.

This healthy stereotype is reinforced further when another player is booked for another robust challenge, and can't believe he is being shown a yellow card, his arms out by his side. Flabbergasted that his crunching tackle was not deemed within the rules of the game.

“We should stay and watch, see how good they are” suggests one Northern Cyprus fan, his team having just secured their spot in the final, thinking it might be worth sticking around to check out who they will be facing in forty eight hours.

Tom takes the break between games to sort himself out, “maybe I’ll get a burger” he says looking longingly off into the distance. Its less than an hour to the supposed kick off of the next game, and the Northern Cyprus players look in no rush to be getting changed and vacating the changing rooms, the players of Szekely Land (SL) and Karpatalya (KAP) are standing around and looking a little frustrated, as a definite air of disorganisation descends.

“You know the seasons ended, where there's no cheese” says a returning Tom, who despite the lack of toppings still seems satisfied with his burger, the pattie of which is far too big for the as he puts it the “childs bun”. Wanting to sympathise with the fact he was unable to have his customary cheese burger, and had to make do with a plain one, I’m also trying to work out why there is a person here with a CCCP shirt on.

At the moment it feels like there are more press, camera men and photographers here than anyone else. One person with a laptop, attempts to string his charger over three rows of seats in the main stand from the only working plug socket. He eventually forages his preferred place, and moves forward, having made a bit of a spectacle of himself.

Someone not holding a large telephoto lens or a camera on a body mounted gimbal, makes a point, which might just be the reason people have been attracted to this specific match, “two sets of Hungarians should be a good atmosphere”. KAP being Hungarians from the Ukraine and SL Hungarians from Romania.

After being quite taken aback by the officials “jazzy kit” at Enfield, Tom is far from impressed by tonight's offering, “don't like that refs shirt, looks like a rugby kit”. On the far side of the pitch a single SL flag has been draped over the railing around the pitch, next to it a single Hungarian one.

All the fuss regarding the changing rooms caused let's say by Northern Cyprus hardly being prompt about their departure, means Mark Clattenburg, yes Mark Clattenburg the once Premier League referee who is now Head of refereeing for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, looks a little perplexed as he saunters to the mouth of the caged tunnel, with quite a nice tan, and his much talked about tattoos, each one denoting the major finals he's officiated on show, that both sets of players are still warming up on the pitch.

For a moment, the fact that the game is clearly going to kick off late, seems insignificant, as the sheer presence of The Clattenburg, and the stir that his appearance has made, people are clambering to get a picture, he did not warm up with his assistants, so seeing him has caught a few people, me included by surprise.

“No one want to play football?” he asks, in his thick Northumberland accent, grasping the match ball.  Pointing to someone in the stands, he then points to his watch exaggeratedly, with a perplexed look all over his face. When he gives a sharp blast on his whistle, most around him flinch, he now points to the teams, telling them forcefully, “I want you here”.

There is potential for more delays, the players are still out on the pitch by the way, when a heated discussion breaks out between a CONIFA official in their distinct white shirts with green trim and a member of the KAP coaching staff. There is an issue with the team sheet, and they are waiting for a “translator”. A man in a poorly fitting suit, who is profusely sweating, does his best to mediate between all parties involved.

Never before in all our time, have we seen the two teams about to play, walk up the tunnel, line up as
usual, certain players going through their little pre match rituals, one or two offering up encouragement, and then moments later walking back out again. KAP ended up changing in a portacabin, and SL on the pitch.

The worlds of music and football are inexplicably linked. Some songs are pinched from the charts and adapted by the fans, and pieces are synonymous with particular clubs. You'll Never Walk Alone or that overused bit from Star Wars are good examples, but never did I think one by 90's band Right Said Fred would be one of those, but considering their song ‘Bring The House Down’ is the tournament official anthem, and its miles better than 'Waka Waka' by Shakira, I guess it makes sense.

What is normally the most patriotically English ground in all of non league football, due to the long line of St George's Crosses, that fly from the top of the long covered terrace on one side of the ground, tonight that mantle has shifted a bit, tonight it’s most definitely Hungarian. In what feels like no time at all the red white and green of the Hungarian flag is hanging all around us, dotted among them the pale blue and yellow ones of SL. One of which is at the end of a wooden flag pole with a gold phinal, being carried by the burly bearded man next to me, and right into the face of the man next to him.

There is an almost sombre feel to the singing of both nations anthems, KAP are up first then SL. A few of the KAP player hold their hands up to their chests, all are stiff, few of them sing along. When it's the turn of the SL players, they stand with their arms over the shoulders of the man next to them. In the crowd a few fans join in, many who do, do it with their scarves held up above their heads.

We eventually get underway, about six minutes late, every one of which I’m sure Clattenburg is irate about. Both teams set a quick tempo, both of them settling into their stride instantly and its SL in their pale blue tops, who have the first shot on goal.

Clattenburg's let's say ‘laissez-faire’ attitude is apparent very early on, allowing on one occasion a clear tug of the shirt go unpunished, instead waving the game on in his very nonchalant manner.

The SL fans on each side of the pitch, sing back and forth to each other, the much smaller group focused around the large man with the flag, exchange songs, “ol-a, ol-a, ol-a”, with the much larger group surrounded by all the flags, behind the benches. From what I can work out, the SL supporters many sporting blue and yellow in some form or another make up the majority if not all of the crowd, except for a decent sized handful of people like Tom and I here for the spectacle. There doesn't seem to be any KAP section if you will, but with both teams Hungarian roots, are they just cheering on everyone?

Lenient to say the least, some may say Clattenburg is allowing the game to flow, some may say he doesn't really give a shit, one thing that is clear is he is making up those lost six minutes if its the last things he does. One thing at least, his relaxed attitude is allowing for is quite an exciting encounter. With fifteen minutes gone, SL whip a ball across the KAP box to the back post, but the player whose well positioned, is off balance and unable to hook the ball home.

Tom was sure that Clattenburg had “retired”. I explain his current employment status and he asks much like the stars friends, if hes being paid “$1,000,000 a match?”. However much he is racking in, he's certainly had plenty of time to soak up some sun, he has a very healthy glow. He is eventually forced to use his whistle for the “first time” as Tom puts it, with twenty or so minutes on the clock, following a foul even he couldn't ignore.

What I can only describe as big blue balls up almost results in KAP taking the lead, a pass back of course means the keeper can't pick it up and the encroaching player in red puts him under all sorts of pressure, forcing him to rashly attempt a clearance, that ends up hitting the forward. The ball bouncing towards the goal, there is a sharp intake of breath from the SL fans, before the keeper eventually makes up for his mistake, somehow getting it to safety. There are plenty of angry shouts from the fans to our left, and a firework display ohhhh's from the stand to our right.

I can't quite emphasise enough quite how much whip the KAP number 9 is able to get on the ball, he somehow manages to wrap what looks like his whole body around it, getting it to deliciously curl into the box every time. KAP are really coming into their own, playing some very neat, quick and intricate football. A ball inside the SL full back on twenty five minutes is a real gem, the winger meets it perfectly, cutting the ball back into the box, only for the eventual shot to be deflected over.

Not uncomfortable by many means, the War Memorial Sports Ground is really one of the better ones we have visited, but two young ladies have taken comfort to the next level, giving themselves what Toms says is the “best seat in the house”. Having dragged a nearby bench right to the edge of the pitch, they can watch on with an uninterrupted view, without having to do any of this standing nonsense.

Toms constant need tonight to suggest something looks like something else, is verging on the preposterous and ill advised. With diplomatic tensions between the UK and the rest of the world already at an all time low, he really needs to be careful when suggesting the SL badge, a yellow crescent and sun, looks like “Portsmouth”.

Headaches for the Home Office narrowly avoided, he shares with me his thinking for a new approach for 2018/19. If our little dabble into international football has taught him anything it’s that eating before kick off is the “way to go” and may well be his “new tactic for next season”.

Despite all the high energy on the pitch, each team are doing a reasonable job of containing each other. The SL fans are still singing back and forth, a bit of a call and response breaks out between the two groups.

If I only get to see one thing during this tournament, a green card, I will be a very happy man. A frankly horrible and scything SL challenge from behind, we were both sure was going to bring this about. “Thought we were going to see green”, said no-one ever before, until seven days ago, and now Tom says its like its as much a part of football vernacular as 'put it in the mixer'. On this occasion it’s only a yellow, but as he points out the game is developing into a “physical one”, so he senses there will be more chances of seeing one ahead.

Tom was not aware of this new addition to the referee’s arsenal that is unique to this competition, a middle ground between a yellow and a red, it's basically a signal to the bench of, get this fella off now, or I'll end up sending him off. Although he’d never heard of it, until about an hour ago, he is now desperate to see one, “I’ll have to find” Clattenburg “later and ask to see” it, he says rather sinisterly.

Another heavy challenge, and despite Toms deranged muttering “green, green, green”, he is again disappointed, it's only yellow.

“Fucking hell” says Tom, as one KAP player almost dismantles one man in the wall with his thunderbolt of a freekick. What it was lacking in finesse, it made up for in sheer unadulterated, in the words of that shaggy haired, global warming denier twat Clarkson, “power”.

Although there has been plenty of attacking intent from both sides, much like with the freekick, neither team has shown much subtlety, that though changes on the 40th minute when one KAP player, not big and bulky, but small and slight, jinks and glides his way through the SL defence, neatly slipping the ball under the keeper, and almost before it's even hit the back of the net, he is wheeling away, his index finger pressed up against his lips, followed by his teammates nearby and then his keeper, who didn't want to miss out on the party.

I’m not sure anyone has quite yet had the time to absorb the quality of the KAP goal, it really was a nice one, when up the other end of the pitch a clattering challenge by the KAP keeper on the SL player thought on goal, who is “taken out” as Tom put it, the ball continuing to bobble goalwards, Clattenburg blows up regardless of it looking like it still might just go in and points to the spot.

“Red card” says Tom, as the on time Premier League referee raises his hand.

There are various types of penalty in the world, a Waddle, a Southgate, a Panenka. For the keeper at least, the cruelest one is the one where he saves it, can’t hold onto it and the taker, gets to the loose ball and scores off the rebound.

For the briefest of moments that's exactly what looks like has happened following the quite brilliant save by the goal celebrating KAP keeper, getting low down to his right, he manages to get both hands to the ball and pushes it on to the foot of the post, “great save” shouts Tom.

Instead of heading into touch the ball bounces up, hitting the bar, and is now heading towards the centre of the six yard box, with the goal gaping.

With the taker steaming in to nod it home, the man in neon green and trousers is already back up on his feet, and flying across the area to literally punch the ball off the forehead of the SL player who I’m sure thought he was going to make up for his initial blunder.

I’m not sure if it was the speed in which it all happened or the distance from us to it, but we are both starting to doubt if the red card we think has been awarded, was in fact given. “Looked like one” says Tom, but in hindsight neither of us can remember seeing anyone go off. A quick head count like a teacher on a school trip, confirms there is still a full complement of players on the pitch, Tom putting the lack of what seemed like obvious dismissal down to Clattenburg wanting to keep it “fair”.

The remainder of the match bookended between the drama of the saved spot kick and the half time whistle, which happens bang on fourty five minutes, Clattenburg not playing a second of added on time, Tom now more sure than ever that he doesn't “give a shit”, Tom describes like it's the alternating colours on a striped football scarf, “red, blue, red, blue” he says as the action swings from end to end.

SL have a great chance to draw things level, the player on the edge of the box has the ball put on a plate for him but he skies it over and then KAP have a gilt edged chance to double their lead, but the player glances his header just wide. “Ooooooooh” gasp the fans as the chance goes begging, but are soon back to singing across the pitch towards their compatriots, as the teams go off and the fanciest of match day flags I’ve ever seen is unfurled.

Tom having eaten before the game, means we spend the half time break together for the first time in a while, watching on as the SL substitutes take some woeful shots on goal, most of which clear the goal, the large green net there to prevent them clearing the stand, and out into the night. My smirk at their shocking attempts is soon wiped from my face when Tom asks, “are you parked in that car park?”.

The flag bearer cuts a bit of a lonely figure as the second half gets under way, both groups have united like football Power Rangers, and are much, much louder now they have combined forces, and their songs are a lot more frequent. Tom tells me “lots of Budweiser and watermelon seeds” are being consumed among them.

“Wake up Clattenburg” shouts Tom, the man in charge now seemingly overlooking the need to enforce the passback rule. The SL player clearly nudging the ball back to his keeper who drops down on it and picks it up after an early KAP attack.

There is no other way to put it, but the SL keeper has fucked up there, about ten minutes into the new half, diving down to collect a relatively simple shot, the ball has somehow bounced over him and in. The SL substitutes warming up in front of us, exchange a look and a few words, I don't know in what language, but it's not hard to decipher they are not impressed.

It's not a Hungarian, Ukrainian or Romain voice that pipes up with, “we’re gonna win 3-2” from within the bustling crowd, whose allegiances are becoming harder and harder to deduce.

SL are slowly starting to dominate, one winger presents a well placed player in the box with an excellent chance to lessen the deficit, but taking a leaf out of the substitutes book from half time, he sends his close range shot towards my car. Almost, not quite as bad, but almost, the crosser of the ball nearly goes full Ketsbaia. Right in front of us, he is not far off putting his foot through the hoardings, but keeps his shirt on.

The SL bench have seen enough, time to make some changes, one of the players warming up is called over.

Before carrying on any further, another SL chance is coming up, I must first apologise on behalf of all Spurs fans, for one of my fellow Lillywhites whose decided now was a good to start singing “yid army, yid, army, yid army”. I'm not apologising because of the contentious language in the chant, but because of the simply moronic timing of it.

Back to the football, and that SL chance. Another one on one, and again the KAP keeper takes the man and not the ball, not once but twice. Showing his trademark agility, he is up again in a flash, not content with whipping out one player, he charges into the second, preventing somehow in a tangle of limbs the rebound ending up in the back of the net.

“He don't wanna give a penalty” says Tom now suspicious Clattenburg is on the take, “maybe he's making some money on the side”.

A rare KAP breakout, ends in a wild shot over. However the football for a few moments at least takes a bit of a back seat, as from the crowd to our left, the colours of the Hungarian flag, in the form of three smoke bombs, start to smoulder then erupts from above the heads of the fans. Soon it engulfs all around them, rolling up into the sky and slowly seeping across the pitch.

Maybe it's growing up in the UK, where such sights are so unfamiliar, but it never stops be a source of great intrigue, when a bit of pyro goes off on these shores. Wooden rattles and more recently plastic inflatable clappers are about as exciting as it gets for us.

Tom is impressed by the logistics of it, praising the “very organised” people who are putting it on. “You buy red, you buy white, you buy green” he says, imagining how the conversation between the three protagonists had gone.

Through a vale of white fog KAP go close again, then SL spurn another chance, a free header, the player was totally unmarked but he conspired to put it wide, resulting in another Ketsbaia impression, “they like kicking the advertisements” says Tom.

The man to our left sums up SL’s last twenty five minutes perfectly, they've had “three golden chances” he says, but failed to take even one of them, at the moment as he puts it, “that's the difference between the sides”.

Tom can be a little bit of a conspiracy theorist at times, a tad tinfoil hat, take your fillings out they are tuning into my brain waves on occasion, but even I am starting to suspect Clattenburg is up to something. “Lenient” as Tom puts it, doesn't seem to describe his approach enough. Another SL player through on goal is unceremoniously hacked down, and there isn't even a sniff of a card.

“Unless he’s waiting for him to get up” ponders Tom, as the fouler, has ended up doing a bit of a Gascoigne ‘91 and has hurt himself in the process of halting the KAP attack. When he is eventually carried off by two of his teammates, no booking is forthcoming.

Even though the smoke has gone I can still taste its acrid presence and maybe in an attempt to clear the residue from around him, one person is whirling their scarf above their head.

So let me get this right, there is no booking for the now injured player on the sidelines, but he’s given a penalty to KAP, which is rolled home, this time the players are heading for the bench to celebrate. The third goal catching out one person nearby, the last time he looked “there were loads of players down” he looks away for a second and KAP are now further ahead.

“We’re going to win 4-3” says the optimist in the crowd.

What a save from the KAP keeper, who has been positively superhuman all game. From point blank range he blocks the goal bound shot and the ball is scrambled clear. He is though helpless just after, when this time a well placed cross is met in the air by the leaping player who heads home SL’s first goal.

The SL players don't go over the top, they hardly celebrate, they're much more interested in getting the game back underway. A few KAP players have other ideas, holding on to the ball which nearly causes a punch up. "Get a grip Clattenburg" bellows Tom.

I know I said just two paragraphs ago that the person singing “we’re going to win 4-3” was optimistic, well I might have to think about retracting that, as minutes after grabbing their first, SL have bagged a second. A crashing second from just inside the box, that sends their fans loopy. The KAP keeper hoofs the ball into the crowd and again the SL players are not getting ahead of themselves, racing to retrieve it from their fans, no times wasted celebrating and head to the centre circle.

Booo’s ring out from the few KAP fans after a bruising SL challenge, but instead of ensuring the victim is OK, Clattenburg drags him to his feet, “is he allowed to do that?” reflects a confused Tom. SL though, regardless are on fire, KAP are rattled, this puts the physicality levels through the roof.

Keen to see more pyro Tom and I are caught between watching the match and watching the terraces, “I don't know where to look” he says. We think for a second another pyro show is about to begin, “oh, oh, oh” says Tom in anticipation as some smoke starts to rise from the crowd, but it turns out just to be someone having a vape.

KAP are now hanging on for dear life. Players from each side are showing signs of the all their effort, going down with pangs of cramp. There is a bizarre moment when one SL hits the deck close to the main stand, a KAP player approaches him, and the people in the stand respond like he is about to assault him, only for him to help the stricken player.

Some of those suffering though, particularly the KAP players, Tom thinks might be putting it on, “they keep dropping, then getting picked back up” he points out, like they are playing some kind of parlour game.

Five minutes left, and the pale blue siege continues. “How?” shouts one man next to us, SL now seemingly the neutrals favourite, when a pinpoint ball to the back post finds the player waiting to receive it, but he's too slow to react and can’t get his feet in order, and fluffs it. “Think he thought he was offside” suggests the same man who can’t believe he didnt score, as a reason perhaps for his poor touch.

More booing, this time not for a rash challenge, but time wasting, KAP taking an age to do the simplest of things. The resident Spurs fan is back, doing his best to improve international relations, by suggesting that in the spirit of the EU they all “go fucking mental”.

SL are getting closer and closer but as the man next to me points out “there isn’t much time left”, just as SL flash another header wide, which is followed by cries of “ahhhh”. Invested, might be an understatement, the man next to me is pleading with some higher power, “oh please” he says as SL lump another ball into the box, but it comes to nothing.

Three minutes of extra time left, and KAP are going to try and waste every second of it, and continue to be booed.

For all the fight SL have shown since going three behind and then grabbing back two of their own, with so many bodies committed forward, they were always going to be susceptible to a break way. With what can only be seconds left to play, they are just that, KAP scoring their fourth. The keeper once again makes the run from his goalmouth to congratulate the scorer.

There is one last sniff of a SL third, when they are awarded a free kick, that very nearly catches out the KAP keeper, who had to be on his toes, and just manages to get enough on it to tip it over. Even if it had gone in, and enough people here were willing it to do so, there would not have been enough time to get a fourth.

KAP are heading to the final.

With any kind of knockout football, emotions on and off the pitch are always much clearer to see. Lose a league game and well, you'll be playing again in a few days time, where you can hopefully rectify your mistakes, so it’s not maybe the end of the world. Lose in a cup, well that always feels that little bit more painful, because it's potentially a very long wait until you have a chance as they say, to go again.

Many of those in pale blue fall to the pitch, those in red obviously ecstatic, the keeper, who Tom owes an apology to after calling him “dodgy” after he was anything but, seems to be getting some extra attention. In the stands the SL fans are no quieter than they had been during the match, they applaud their team, who looked for a moment like they might just pull off a “comeback” as Tom put it. Those with flags and scarves hold them proudly above their heads.

Plenty of manly sporting kisses are exchanged, a few of the KAP coaches overcome, embrace the players, picking some up off their feet and rag dolling them like toddlers.

In an excellent sign of sportsmanship, the KAP players fall silent, linking arms just as the SL players have in front of their fans, as a hush falls over the ground, a first for the evening, as flags and scarves continue to be held aloft, but instead of loud chanting, the fans and players again join each other in an almost mournful recital of their anthem.

As the KAP players squeeze into their portacabin changing room, the walls and ceiling pounded, "ria, ria, Hungaria" they sing, one Northern Cyprus fan who did stick around says to his son, "I fancy them" for the final.

I'll tell you very simply how good this evening was, how good it was despite Clattenburgs antics, and regardless of pyro, singing and flags. The numerous 50/50 scarves the SL fans had, couldn't ruin it, that's how good it was.


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Wednesday 6 June 2018

Magic Spray & Britney Mics - Northern Cyprus Vs Tibet, Group B - CONIFA World Football Cup 2018, Queen Elizabeth II Stadium (02/06/18)

Sitting alone in the far east of the Mediterranean sea, not far from the Turkish mainland and Lebanon,is the partially recognised state of The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

High up on the Tibetan Plateau on the northern side of the Himalayas, sometimes known as the “Roof of the World”, are the co custodians of the world's tallest mountain Chomolungma, that's Mount Everest to those not up to scratch with their Tibetan, or those able to use Google like me, is Tibet.

Nestled at the end of the joyfully named culdesac Donkey Lane, in the North London borough of Enfield, is where we for the first time in three years are about to watch our first international. In the shadow of the exquisite art deco stand of the Queen Elizabeth II stadium, or Donkey Dome to the locals, is where Northern Cyprus (NC) and Tibet (TIB) are going head to head in the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018.

Normally once the season is over, Tom and I go our separate ways, adopting a near state of hibernation as far as football is concerned. The summer months are time for me to get out my fishing rods and bait box, for Tom its all about dusting off his espadrilles, and heading out in search of the best IPA his local East London pop up breweries have to offer.

This year, with the World Cup, it’s a little different, however there was still going to be some time to reacquaint ourselves with loved ones, and forget about football for a while and just relax.

Until that is we were made aware of a competition happening right here in London, in a couple of venues right on our doorstep, between teams who are never going to appear in a Panini Sticker album, who are never going to finish bottom of a World Cup qualifying group with a goal difference of 47, but from the little research I’ve done, it's clear that its just as important to those taking part, as it is for the teams heading to Russia in a few weeks time.

CONIFA the Confederation of Independent Football Associations organises every two years for non-FIFA affiliated football associations the chance to compete for their very own World Cup or I imagine because of copyright their very own Word Football Cup. So when the opportunity arose to see the likes of Panjab, Székely Land or the Isle of Man, it was just as good a reason as any to delay reminding my eleven month old daughter, that I am in fact her father.

“Nice shirt” says Tom, as we spot our first (TIB) supporter, wearing what might just be one of the most splendid football kits in all of football, with its alternate blue and red stripes, radiating from the badge on the chest, in an almost identical design to the Tibetan flag.

It is neither the fans of TIB or their opponents (NC) that we see first once inside the ground, but that of Abkhazia, one of the teams taking part in the earlier kickoff, in this afternoon's Group B double header. It is their flags, a green and white striped number, with a white hand on it, that Tom says reminds him of something from The Lord Of The Rings, that are being flown from the small terrace in front of the curvaceous main stand of the home of Enfield Town FC.

Those familiar with the QE2, would recognise the humongous blue flag that hangs from the balcony of the normally full first floor seating area, a staple of most if not all home games here in the regular season. Beside it currently though are more examples of the Abkhazia flag and it is not the cries and shouts of the Enfield Town Ultras that fill the air, but the drums and horns of the Abkhazia supporters.

“Never been to a game where music is being played” comments Tom, as what I think is a sound system somewhere among the flag waving Abkhazia fans, starts to pump out some accordion music.

Although I have no idea of what he is saying, the international language of football, allows me to translate what one coach of the teams, whose game is shortly about to end is saying, when he rushes from his bench and starts berating the linesman, in his as Tom put it “jazzy” pink top, I’m pretty sure he did not think the call of offside was the correct one.

Looking on, the NC players and coaches are already here, not long after noticing them, the TIB players arrive, taking up a spot just in front of their foe. They are a little bit less conspicuous in their appearance, Tom once again coos over their kit “that shirt is so cool”. They line up along the barrier, watching the final moments of the game, their pose almost like the scene from a photo shoot, written across their backs, in a font normally reserved for takeaway menus, reads Tibet.

When the first game of the day comes to an end, there is a sudden injection of activity, which will not fall below a quite ferocious level, until well after kick off. The fans of Abkhazia are soon packing up their flags, taking them down from the balcony, only for any available space not to be available for long, as the flag bearing the white hand is quickly replaced with the one bearing the red crescent and star of NC.

The TIB players, some of whom were already doing their stretches, and the steely eyed NC players, soon head down the green caged tunnel, as the ground is quite suddenly transformed.

Having claimed their spot within seconds of the final whistle of the first game, the TIB supporters quickly occupy the small terrace, and it is soon their sunburst flag that flies from the end of its fans flagpoles and goodbye to the sound of the accordion, and hello to the sounds of their rhythmic drumming and low harmonious singing.

Both teams are soon back out, crossing the red surface of the running track and onto the pitch to warm up, one TIB player offering up a silent prayer just before he does. With everything going on, its bizarrely the the hair of the TIB players that becomes the main topic of conversation.

“There’s Fellaini” says one person to another, “where?” they ask, “you'll see” replies the person who
had first pointed out the shaggy hairstyle very similar to that of the Belgian. “Oh yeah” says the second person moments later, when they finally catch a glimpse of the wild mop of dark hair.

Tom is always keen to cast his professional eye over the hairdos of the players on show, and with today being an international affair, he is more keen than ever. He wonders if he can get one step ahead of a new trend, by seeing what is all the rage in North Nicosia or Lhasa. He is particularly taken aback by one TIB players “amazing mullet” which he says makes him look like a “70’s Mexican footballer”.

The carnival atmosphere is almost ruined by the near decapitation of a person in the stand behind one goal, due to the frankly woeful shooting practise of some of the NC team. There are more balls crashing off the stand, causing people to violently duck or clearing the stand all together and bouncing onto the running track behind, then there are going in.

Looking on, with what can only be described as a twisted hairstyle similar to that of Bjork, the short NC coach, looks far from impressed.

High spirits are soon restored, they are never far away today, regardless of the football and the ultimate result of the impending game. Responsible for this is the band comprising of two NC supporters, one playing a drum slung over his shoulder, the other playing what I think is some kind of flute, the kind of which you might see a snake charmer play.

Walking along the narrow front aisle of the balcony, led by a man in a red shirt, who has his very own NC flag at the end of a thin white pole, such is the immediate volume that the whole place nigh on stops, turns and looks. One woman, clearly quite captivated by the music, as are most people, she looks up attentively at them, almost in a trance, she herself waving two much smaller NC flags, one in each hand.

Replying not in a retaliative way, but more, ‘well if you can do that so can we’, the TIB fan with the much larger drum, responds, encouraging even more movement from the numerous excellent shirt wearing fans on the small terrace, many who themselves are also holding flags, except for one young lady, who is sat just below the drummer on the steps, her hands covering her ears, with a less than impressed look on her face.

There is a brief “welcome” from the very quiet voice over the PA, who is having to compete with two sets of fans. It’s time to announce the teams, the only other announcement up until now had been about a car that was blocking in a coach. Instead of muddling through the lists of names, which I’m sure even your brightest linguist might struggle with, someone in a spark of wisdom has suggested handing the microphone over to a person from the nation of the teams.

We then hear the obvious and very recognisable lilt of the person reading out the respective starting 11’s, which is done flawlessly.

The green tunnel that leads from the small door from the changing rooms, towards the edge of the running track is cramped to say the least. Mascots, players, CONIFA volunteers, and the match officials, not in the “jazzy” pink of their counterparts form the first game, but instead an stylish all black one, all jostle for space.

From either side flags of each nation fly over the heads of the respective teams, and the NC band is in full swing, the noise of the flute, so piercing, but not unpleasant, makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else but.

The players eventually walk out onto the pitch, after what feels like a bit of a delay, there is a visible commotion, not an angry one, more just an attempt at a conversation between more than two people, having to contend with all the noise of the fans and the instruments around them. The expectant mascots just stand waiting, looking a little miffed, the TIB ones neatly lined up, all in their tremendous shirts, do their best to pose for a picture, for a proud mum who struggles to take a picture of them, by sticking her phone through the close bars of the tunnel.

Delay to kick off, “too many people outside” still waiting to get in is what Tom overheard being said. The ever so slightly frazzled looking referee with what looks like a whole roll of sticky tape on the side of his face to keep his mic in place, is having to explain what is going to happen to various people, who I suspect English is not their first language.

Eventually the players return from their half hearted kick about, the mascots are just about ready to give up, and are grasped by the hand. The NC captain, a mountain of a man with a neon green arm band, and white pennant in one hand is the first to receive a friendly, but almighty smack around the back of the head from who I think is the NC coach in a pale blue shirt. He may be the the first to receive this treatment, but he’s not the last, it's not like he has been singled out, every player after him also gets a sturdy clip around the ear.

I always find national anthems quite emotive things, some maybe find them overly patriotic, but I think there is something quite special in a group of people singing together, in a collective show of national pride. One of the biggest losses of Italy not qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, is not seeing Buffon sing the Il Canto degli Italiani, now that will put a lump in the throat of any person.

TIB’s anthem has a very distinctive sound, quiet, almost like a lullaby. The players stand on the pitch with their hands on their chests, the drum quietly beating along with it, there is no raucous outpouring, just a respectful sing along, until the end that is, when the final few lines are sung with a burst of emotion.

When it's the turn of NC, backs straighten that little bit more in the crowd and on the pitch, their anthem, with its very traditional, with a slight Star Wars entrance of a bad guy tone to it, is wonderfully respected as was TIB’s. Those singing adopt that low monotone timbre most people adopt when singing in public, when they are not overly comfortable doing so. Plenty of the small flags in the crowd, are slowly swayed in rhythm with the tune.

The TIB drum is by far the loudest at the kick off, there are plenty of cheers from all corners of the ground, there are very few spots free to lean against the white railing that encircles the pitch. Two minutes later and it's the NC flute that is loudest, as the players dash towards the bench to form a great big pile on, the referee watching on with his hands behind his back, making sure they don't have to much fun, NC have just just taken the lead.

Following the restart and the action is all one way, the NC team are holding siege to the TIB goal, much like the NC band are holding siege to the eardrums of everyone in a file mile radius. It’s not that its a horrible noise at all, but its just so pervasive, it's like it has found the direct track into your inner brain.

NC have another chance well saved by the scrambling TIB keeper and then hit the post with another header. Only ten minutes gone and the suspicions held by many that this was going to be hard going for TIB are upheld.

The slightest hint of a TIB attack, tackle or simply winning the ball back is followed by almost hysterical screaming. When TIB flash their first effort of the match just wide of the NC goal, it is near pandemonium.

“Should have this at every football game, I love it” says Tom.

When he says “this” does he mean the sheer amount of flags, colour and noise. Does he mean the two man NC band that is now mobile, doing laps of the pitch led by the man with the flag. Does he mean the man singing “One team in Cyprus, there's only one team in Cyprus”. Whatever it is, I could not agree with him more, it's all verging on the overwhelming and is marvellous.

A loose ball heading into the crowd almost interrupts Toms explanation that “if you go on holiday to Turkey” music very similar to that being played by the NC duo is on a near constant “loop”, but thankfully any disaster is prevented by the silky skills of one man who stops the ball dead, “best touch I’ve ever had”.

As Tom puts it NC have some “real beast players” the difference in stature and physique between the two teams is so apparent, with a quarter of an hour gone NC head wide again, after their countless ball into the TIB box, they clearly have a plan.

Thankfully for the sake of the game and their adoring fans, TIB have settled into the game, their every action still greeted with enthusiastic screams, not even the slightest hint of a booo, hiss of grumble at a misplaced pass happening here.

The application of some magic spray, that the referee is very “sparing with” according to Tom, no liberal shaving foam scars all over the pitch here, in the lead up to a NC free kick can only be captivating for so long, because on the far side of the pitch there has been a coming together of the NC band, and the slightly smaller but just as energetic TIB one, in the small seater stand.

Those NC fans sitting, their flags hanging also from any available spot there too, receive the band with much ardour. The TIB fans who there are a fair few of, with flags and whirling scarves, welcome the NC ensemble with open arms, if I was that way inclined I might even use the expression “scenes”. Tom though as ever puts it much better then me, after his initial concerns, “oh now they've met” are quickly dispelled, “the bands are getting along”.

The more the games goes on, the more apparent NC’s tactic is. Long time players of FIFA will know it, its the ‘fast man down the wing to the by line, dink it into the box for the big man to score one’, pretty standard stuff, they much like the music from Toms holidays, NC are doing it on loop.

NC think they have scored again but its offside. Unfortunately the game has got a little dull, gratefully there is so much else going on, it's inconsequential. You have your choice of the TIB fans singing “oll-a-oll-a-oll-a Tibet” on one side of the pitch, the drum of the group on the other side to listen too, or like me, you can listen to the slightly catty comments from Tom about the referees assistants, “put them in a fancy kit, don't mean he can referee”, when he gives a ball out, when it clearly wasn't and we get another example from the NC bench of the international football language of pissed off.

The noise levels of the TIB fans peaks and troughs at quite a steady pace, because as Tom puts it they have “little moments, small flashes” which is received by much shouting, but then have “nothing at the end”, which then quietens them ever so slightly.

It is therefore with a slight tinge of irony that its while Tom has gone on a drinks run, no food for him today, he’s already scoffed some chicken nuggets in the car on the way here, that TIB manage something “at the end”.

Inadvertently quoting Wayne's World, the man standing next to me shouts “game on, game on” as the TIB scorer dashes off towards his bench slapping the badge on his chest before stopping short of it and going full Connor McGregor, swaggering, with the swagger turned up to 11. Even when he is soon swamped by his teammates, he still tries to impersonate the Irish man with three players hanging off him. He eventually breaks free of them, pointing to his badge once again, before motioning to the crowd for more noise.

Asking the TIB fans for more passion, is like asking Danny Murphy to stop being grumpy or Tim Lovejoy to stop being gormless, but miracles are possible, and they manage to reach a new level of intensity that is even impressive for them.

It doesn't take the NC band long to reply to the equaliser, as they continue their seemingly never ending laps of the pitch and it is the sound of the two man orchestra, that plays us into half time.

As the players head in, I head for the nearest shade, Tom of course is enjoying the sun, it allows him as he puts it to “top up his tan”. I though find it oppressive and head for the cool dark space next to one of the teams coaches, plonking myself down on the running track, thankful for the slight breeze.

Tom’s attempt to get a pint was wholly unsuccessful, the queue for the bar on the top floor of the main stand, was all the way down the spiral stairs and out the door. He was able to pick up something though, and I have the option of a “warm water” or “warm Coke”. Nothing says thirst quenching like a tepid can of Coke a Cola.

While a man nearby blows his nose like a sea lion, some kids have an impromptu kick about, its hard not to be impressed by the NC fans in the best possible non league tradition, swapping ends and erecting their flags behind the goal in record time.

I feel a lot better for my dose of the shadows, the drink helped, despite being room temperature, but Tom is still bemoaning not being able to get a drink, specifically because they were selling a certain Turkish beer he has become quite fond of, “love Efes”.

The high pitched hum of the drone flying overhead is soon drowned out by the TIB fans, “oll-a-oll-a-oll-a Tibet”, who then in turn are almost but not quite drowned out by the return of the you know who. Assuming it is the same man playing the flute, which Tom keeps on telling me is not a flute, so we agree on “wind instrument” is going to have “very sore lips” by the end of today.

An early NC chance is cleared, and it feels for a moment that normal service is resumed, after the late TIB equaliser. The activity near in the TIB box stirs the screamers and one woman who is letting out the most blaring “la, la, la, la” by smacking her tongue off the roof of her mouth.

“Hit it, hit it” shouts one nearby person to the TIB player with the ball at his feet on the edge of the box, thanks to an iffy kick from the NC keeper, with the goal empty, there is a chance that the minnows are about to go ahead, only for his half volley to go just wide.

Although the effort is off target, it's certainly an example of TIB looking much more competitive since the restart, as Tom puts it they “look much better”. A lot of this in his eyes is down to who he has branded the “Tibetan Messi” the twinkle toed number 20, who Tom says looks like he has a “sheep dog on his head” and he must be “so hot”, he's really come into his own. Every time he gets the ball he looks like he is capable of doing something with it, and Tom mutters with real affection, “little magician”.

The NC bands latest lap of the pitch, brings them again into contact with the TIB one, again there is no animosity, just postivity. One TIB fan though is finding the “wind instrument” a bit much, and is standing with his fingers in his ears, like a toddler at an overly loud birthday party.

TIB are getting their chance, they go close again, and then with about twenty minutes gone, one player tries a cheeky little lob over the keeper, that very, very nearly comes off. TIB though are finding it hard, almost impossible to shackle the NC number twenty who is fast, strong and “very good” adds Tom.

The screaming of the TIB fans, that accompanies any kind of NC attack is getting to The Beatles at Shea Stadium proportions and for the first time the drums on each side of the pitch are in unison, except the fans to our left who are singing what sounds like a song to the tune of Old MacDonald.

In the space of about three minutes the game is turned on its head. Firstly NC hit the bar with a flicked header, showing off they’re aerial threat once again. Then one of their players reenacts the Nigel De Jong tackle from the 2010 World Cup Final. Which results in the the TIB physio being called over, but he looks a bit more just like someones dad or helpful uncle. “That's not a physio” says Tom as he jogs on, only with a bottle of water, that he is not very forthcoming with, only giving the downed player the smallest of sips.

Tom is then absolutely crushed at the sight of the latest TIB substitution, “oh no” he gasps as Messi goes off and maybe it was completely coincidental or maybe its because he was the fulcrum of the team, but NC then score their second.

The band now leading the not insignificant amount of people crammed together on the small terrace behind the goal, barely has time to whip them up into a complete frenzy, when only a smart save, stops NC getting a quickfire third.

Boos have replaced the screams now that NC’s attacks are becoming more and more frequent. There is a brief respite when the NC keeper has another howler, passing the ball again to a TIB player, who crosses the ball into the box, the goal gaping, but no ones there.

Thirty minutes gone and NC further their lead. The band leader now has his top off and he is whirling it above his head and their little troop has now found a new figurehead, a young lady in a full NC kit who walks at the head with her flag above her head, beaming.

The only thing to take the gloss off the day, was the sight of the the “wind instrument” player clearing out the spit or that which my northern fiancee would call ‘goz’ from his reed as he passed us, however before I can fully compute the sight of the copious amount of flying spittle, he the drummer, the flag bearer man now with his top on, and the still smiling little girl are already back up on the balcony, they have done some mileage today.

With both teams playing again in twenty four hours, the game somewhat fizzles out. This can't be said for the crowd. The TIB supporters have gone a bit panto, booing now anything that is not go their way.

Nearby the band leader, back from the balcony is telling someone how he had been “told off” by his wife for taking his top off, who told him to “put it away”. The NC keeper causes a few more bitten fingernails and hopeful TIB screams when he very nearly shanks another kick, but manages to just clear it.

“Four minutes” signals the fourth official to both benches. Behind me one optimistic honorary TIB fan for the day, I think it's fair to say they are the neutrals favourite, shouts “still time Tibet come on” as the largest of the TIB drums sounds almost like thunder as the the final minutes of the match play out

As has already been proven today, this was not your average football match, this is highlighted once again by the behaviour of both sets of fans after the final whistle. Normal football rules dictate that the losers slink off and the winners revel in their victory for a while, before then making their way home.

This afternoon both sets of fans stood side by side, its only clear that TIB have lost because it's their players sprawled on the pitch, while NC’s confidently stride towards the changing rooms, but judging by the fans, you wouldn't be able to pick who had just watched their team get knocked out, and who has just seen them progress to the quarter finals.

To my right I have the NC supporters, the inflated cheeks of the “wind instrument” player looking ready to burst, the drummer working at double time, as men with their arms out to their sides, flags in the air, dance along to his latest tune.

To my left, the TIB fans, congratulating the crestfallen players who walk the two person deep crowd of people on the edge of the pitch, desperate to hug and congratulating them, one holding up a sign, “team Tibet we will win”. The flags have not dropped and inch, the drummer hasn't let up, the singing now if anything even louder.

As much as this was far from your average football match, there were still overpriced drinks, stalls selling merchandise and “magic spray and Britney mics” as Tom put it. There were also many underlying political undertones associated with each team, too heavy and complicated for my small brain, but on the surface the whole spirit of the day, the ethos this competition seems to ooze from ever pore, can be summed up by the NC flag bearer, still with his top on, applauding the TIB fans, “well done, well done, fantastic support”.


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