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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