Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game becomes one man this week as the CONIFA World Football Cup Final plays out in Enfield.

Words by Daniel Magner

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.

BeFunky-collageChrist 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.

IMG_20180609_181034With 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.

IMG_20180609_181322A 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.

IMG_20180609_181418If 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.

P1010927“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.

P1010933One 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.

P1020114NC 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.

IMG_20180609_203400The 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.

Photo from Dan(1)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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