The CONIFA tournament continued apace while I was busy at work, trying to watch via various streams, during the week. The midweek section of the positional rounds started with controversy as Ellan Vannin, who I’d seen on the opening day, pulled out amidst claims of rule breaking and a dramatic finish to their group. My team, Matabeleland began the week competing for 9-16 place with a game against Kabylia.
It was a closely fought 0-0 draw that Matabeleland eventually lost on penalties. This meant they’d contest a friendly against the Chagos Islands who were invited to replace Ellan Vannin. Matabeleland would qualify for the 13th place play-off despite the result and won the friendly 3-0. The playoff would be on the morning of the final day at Aveley, allowing me plenty of time to get to the final in the evening. The final would be between Northern Cyprus and Karpatalya, who’d made it through eventful semi-finals.
13th/14th place playoff - Tamil Eelam v Matabeleland
Matabeleland had already visited Haringey Borough and Enfield Town in their tour of some of my favourite local non-league grounds. They were now off to Aveley’s Parkside which, although slightly further away, is another one of my favourite footballing venues. They’d had a chance to familiarise themselves to the ground two days earlier as they also played their friendly with Chagos Islands at Parkside. The opposition for their final game of the tournament was Tamil Eelam, who represent a population of around three million people in Sri Lanka.
I was able to finally visit Parkside in conditions that didn’t replicate the North Pole and decided to bring my Cockerpoo, Rodney, along for the trip. We arrived shortly before kickoff and made our way through the typically welcoming turnstile and over to the far side, close to the benches. I greeted several, increasingly familiar, fellow Matabeleland fans as we made our way around - what a great idea the replica shirts were.
The relaxed looking Matabeleland bench was missing a European Cup-winning keeper for this game. Was Grobbelaar still recovering from his appearance in the friendly two days previous? Parkside’s seating areas were fairly full with fans for both sides, and despite the early start, it didn’t take long for Matabeleland Ultras to find their voices. Justin and his coaches were revving the guys up as I took my seat, hammering home the point that this was the final game and to finish the tournament on a high.
The early exchanges of the game were fairly even. Both sides looked comfortable in possession but neither tested the opposing keeper too much. Matabeleland had the brighter moments and soon began to set the pace of the game. They created several good chances as the half went on and had some promising shots from outside the box. Tamil Eelam threatened now and then but the Matabeleland defenders were on hand to keep them at bay.
The second half started quietly and was incident free for the first 10 minutes. Rodney and I positioned ourselves just behind the goal Matabeleland were attacking, with one or two other Matabeleland fans, hoping to get a close-up view of them scoring. After the brief stalemate, the Africans began to find their stride again. They dominated possession as their fitness told. They hit the post and had a couple of good chances that just missed the target. Eventually, they found the moment of magic. Some quick passing found Nollella in the box and he calmly side-footed the ball into the bottom corner.
Matabeleland and their fans celebrated wildly, and just as the celebrations diminished the final whistle went and they began again. The win secured Matabeleland 13th place, but more importantly meant they finished with a win and signed off the tournament in style. After a tough start to CONIFA life, they’d gone unbeaten in four games, with only a penalty shootout loss denying them the chance to finish higher.
The CONIFA Final - Northern Cyprus v Karpatalya
Following the joy of seeing Matabeleland win again, I was on the way over to Enfield for the Final of the CONIFA World Football Cup. I’d lost one dog - not actually lost him he just didn’t come to the final - and gained two parents, a wife and a baby daughter for the short trip up to the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The athletics venue adapted for non-league football is a lovely stadium, but perhaps wouldn’t be my first choice to host a game like this. There are few raised areas meaning a large crowd could make it tricky for anyone under 6ft to see the game. As it turned out the increased space, provided by the athletics track, meant everyone could circulate easily, stop, have a chat and watch the game from different angles.
We arrived with plenty of time before kickoff and managed to secure a spot, despite the ground being full half an hour before the game was due to start. Latecomers soon adapted and began to populate the grassy banks on the far side. I even spotted a few people making use of some nearby trees. The other teams, gradually arriving back from their placement game,s made their way up to the main stand and were clearly visible in their team tracksuits.
You’ll notice I’m not saying much about the game itself. It was pretty terrible. The occasion was amazing, however, as fans mixed well with each other, the occasional celebrity and some players who walked laps to soak up some of the atmosphere. While this went on there were occasional flickers of hope that an actual game of football was about to break out.
Karpatalya edged the 0-0 draw overall although Northern Cyprus, the more popular side with the crowd, provided the most threatening moments of the game for the last 10 minutes. As the final whistle came some unscheduled rain began to fall, and people ran for cover and better vantage points to watch the penalty shootout.
Penalties can often seem quite exciting, but this might be because they often follow fairly dull games. This one, however, did have plenty of drama. Northern Cyprus missed their first two kicks while Karpatalya converted both of theirs. The Cypriots then scored their next two while their opponents then missed two in a row. It came down to the fifth and final spot kicks all square. Northern Cyprus missed and Karpatalya scored to give them the trophy.
While the Karpatayla fans celebrated with their team I, and plenty others, swarmed the pitch to get some photos and a good spot for the presentations. After the crowds settled and everyone got their bearings, Paddy, from the bookmakers sponsoring the event, (is he an actual guy, or is this a marketing character?) presented a trophy for each side for their final position. This was taking a while, so I stayed for Matabeleland’s presentation and then headed home triumphant from ticking ‘World Football Cup final’ off my bucket list and awash with a CONIFA glow.
The after party and final thoughts
As I headed home across Enfield Playing fields I noticed a group of guys had fired up a BBQ. As I got closer and the faces became increasingly familiar I noticed this was no BBQ, this was a Zimbabwean braai. I was beckoned over by the Matabeleland fans, who I’d now seen at several non-league grounds, and was encouraged to get amongst the grilled meats.
Within minutes the team had arrived and the party started. What followed was a blur of photos, smokey eyes, conversations about potential future trips to Bulawayo and trophy touching. It was a great way to finish the tournament and an opportunity to say goodbye to some of the guys who 10 days earlier I’d seen looking very cold, and slightly apprehensive on a gloomy day in Hendon.
The overall experience of the CONIFA World Football Cup was great with lots of different people from around the World enjoying football without the influence of big money. The non-league grounds of the South East lent themselves perfectly to the tournament and crowds seemed to be good. The tournament received lots of coverage, so it’ll be interesting to see where it, and its teams, go from here as it becomes increasingly well known. I for one will be eagerly following Matabeleland’s progress as they try and qualify for the next addition.