Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game take in Northern Cyprus v Tibet in the CONIFA World Football Cup.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
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.
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.
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.
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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