The first day of the World Football Cup was a real feast of football, with the potential for some to gorge on three courses of football, in one day, at three different non-league grounds. I opted for a little calorie control and a double bill of games at Gander Green Lane, home of Sutton United. The entree would be the well-fancied Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man) v Cascadia, and the main course was Matabeleland’s first game of the tournament against Padania.
Like Sutton, most of the grounds being used for the competition are 3G and available to hire by anyone, often for a reasonable price. Gander Green Lane, clearly busy in the middle of half-term, had a lot of the extra goals still positioned around the pitch, partially obscuring the view in some cases.
The ground looked great, however, in the midday sunshine. I picked up my programme, did some last minute research and took my seat in the main stand. I’d be treated to back-to-back games featuring four teams from three continents, with different stories and even some recognisable names.
Ellan Vannin v Cascadia
The first game of the day was Ellan Vannin v Cascadia. It sounded a little like it could have been a game contested in a fantasy novel, but both teams were highly thought of. The team from the Isle of Man had previously made the latter stages of CONIFA tournaments, and although they were playing for the first time Cascadia had a couple of familiar names from the non-league scene.
Max Oldham was the best known to me, having seen him in the Bostik South promotion playoff final for Corinthian-Casuals. There were also a couple of lads that had previously played for my local Waltham Forest FC and James Riley, who had enjoyed a distinguished MLS career.
Cascadia is known as a bio-region that’s made up of Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia in North America and it was their first ever game together. They made a quick start despite having limited training time and nearly forced Ellan Vannin into conceding an own goal in the opening exchanges.
The North Americans looked dangerous down the flanks, with Max Oldham, in particular, causing the Islanders plenty of problems. Against the run of play, however, Ellan Vannin took the lead with a spectacular finish. Stephen Whitley drove the ball into the top corner from outside the box. Cascadia responded immediately and Doughty, formally on the books at Manchester United, equalised from a well-worked move. Cascadia kept up the pressure and at no stage looked like a team that hadn’t played together before. A rare attack from Ellan Vannin, however, led to a second goal, this time scored by Jones, to give them a somewhat undeserved lead at the break.
The second half was a slightly more controlled affair as Ellan Vannin used their lead to exert more control on the game. They reduced the amount of space available out wide and had more possession. They extended their lead with two more fantastic goals. Firstly Sam Cane slalomed his way through the Cascadia half, into the box and applied the finish. McEvey then put the icing on the cake with an excellent free-kick.
The final result of 4-1 seemed a little harsh on Cascadia, who had been the better side in the first half. Ellan Vannin, however, took their chances when their opponents were on top and pulled away as they improved. The excitement continued in this group and Cascadia’s 6-0 win in their final game saw them qualify for the quarter-finals ahead of Ellan Vannin, who missed out on goal difference.
Padania v Matabeleland
The second game of my Sutton double-header was the main event and Matabeleland’s first ever tournament game. It was to be a tough assignment for Justin’s team against a side that had won the last CONIFA European competition. A larger crowd had built for this afternoon kick-off with lots of neutrals clearly enthralled by the Matabeleland story. Several of their now prized replica shirts were already in evidence around the ground as the players came out onto the pitch. Bruce Grobbelaar, was also attracting a lot of interest as his presence as goalkeeping coach was confirmed, much to the surprise of many new CONIFA fans.
Matabeleland started the game well and looked fairly comfortable knocking the ball around. Their opponents, made up of players from the fourth and fifth tiers of Italian football, took a few mins to work out their opponents and then began to show their class. The Italians first real attack found their forward at the back post and he finished well.
Matabeleland provided a few moments of excitement for the crowd, but the strength of their opposition told, and Padania added three more goals before the break. Any second-half hope of a comeback was extinguished fairly quickly with a couple more goals.
In the final quarter of the game, the fitness of the Matabeleland players began to come to the fore, and they put together some great periods of play. They and their large contingent of fans were finally rewarded with a goal after a good move down the right-hand side. The ball was blasted home and the pockets of Matabeleland fans around the ground went into raptures.
The African side came out of the first game with a lot of credit and won plenty more fans during the evening’s opening ceremony. The toughness of their opening game became more apparent as the tournament continued and Padania became the only side to win all their group games and establish themselves as tournament favourites.
Day three: Matabeleland v Tuvalu
I had a ticket for Matabeleland’s day two fixture against Szekely Land. Unfortunately, a stomach bug got the better of me, and I had to watch via the official streaming site. The stream was good quality and it looked like a great occasion at one of my favourite local grounds, Haringey Borough’s Coles Park. Matabeleland again started well but had their goalkeeper sent off. It was uphill from there and Szekely Land, a largely Hungarian populated area of Romania, ran out 5-0 victors.
As Day three arrived I was finally able to leave the vicinity of the toilet bowl and headed out to Coles Park for Matabeleland’s crucial final group game against Tuvalu. It was crucial as it perhaps presented the team’s best opportunity at a first CONIFA win. Tuvalu, an Island nation in the South Pacific, had also found the going tough in the group stage.
Coles Park was the perfect venue for this game between teams from two faraway lands and a good crowd built in the main stand. The atmosphere, encouraged by Matabeleland’s most passionate fans, was great throughout and by the time the 90 minutes were up everyone knew the team’s official chant.
Justin’s side started well from the outset and now looked fully at home on the 3G surface. They moved the ball quickly and tested the Tuvalu defence with their pace and passing. Shylock Ndlovu gave Matabeleland the lead and their second goal of the tournament. Within minutes, however, Tuvalu equalised with their first goal of the tournament.
Matabeleland continued to look threatening and Ndlovu added a second goal before half-time to ensure the Africans had the ascendancy at the break. Shortly after, they had the chance to put the game to bed but had to settle with a 2-1 lead after missing a penalty.
The atmosphere in the stand went from lively to a full-on party in the second half as players on both sides began to feel the effects of three games in four days. Matabeleland continued to attack and were awarded another penalty late in the game. This time they converted and sent the crowd into a frenzy. It was a fantastic win and a great way to round off the group stage.
After the game, the celebrations continued as the team, and many of its fans held an impromptu celebration in the Coles Park car park. It was a superb way to end and it one thing summed up all that is great about this tournament it would be this moment, although there had been many others over the weekend.
Matabeleland go on to face Kabylia in the placement games and will still get to play three more games in the tournament. The next stop on their CONIFA 2018 adventure will see them visit another excellent North London non-league ground at Enfield Town.
To be continued...