Sunday, 27 January 2019

That Familial London Derby - and yet another 'must-win' match

The English Premier League
Sunday 20th January, 2019, 4:00 pm kick-off - Craven Cottage

My son Callum intimated to me, back in November, that he'd like to watch his team (Spurs) play my team (Fulham) at Craven Cottage, this season. So I duly bought ludicrously over-priced tickets (at seventy-five of your English pounds each - it's an "A-game", y'know!) as part of his (and my) Christmas present. Another perfectly good game originally scheduled for a regular Saturday 3 pm slot, slightly spoiled by the overridingly complicit commercialism of the Premier League's servile re-scheduling of matches for TV. I still thought we could make a day of it, however, by having a relaxed Sunday lunch together, taking a stroll around South-West Central London, and visiting a gallery or museum before finally making our way to the game. It sounded like a nice idea to have some quality father-and-son time together, doing blokey stuff. At the time of initial planning, I had not reckoned on picking up a nasty and aggressive virus, over Christmas - and still being rather run-down, as a result, for dealing with a demanding Dad day. This is another negative aspect of the planning required, for fans actually attending our modern game, in the flesh. Long gone, those days of deciding last-minute, on the day, whether or not to go along to watch your 'boys'; simply handing over your shillings at the turnstiles, with everybody else.

Cal is a former student of History and Law. So a trip to a museum coupled with this fixture was especially resonant for him. As a historian, I hoped he would particularly appreciate spending some research time at the historic Craven Cottage stadium (home to London’s oldest professional club) with a fine view from our "Riverside" seats of England’s oldest surviving football league stand (the Johnny Haynes stand, opposite ours, on the Stevenage Road). The current Riverside Stand is expected to become “History” soon, itself. It is scheduled for redevelopment at the end of this season. Assuming the club's board don't wince and baulk at the proposed cost, in the face of a potential return whence we came, to The Championship. Whichever way the stand redevelopment plans go, the situation seemed to suggest that Callum could be amongst the last Spurs fans ever to sit in it, to watch his team play. Does it get any better than that, historically speaking?

Our classic (but expensive) view of footballing history ... possibly in more ways than one, come the end of this season.

We started with a Sunday steak lunch on Sloane Square, with a sunny, postprandial stroll to the venue for our cultural dessert: the National Army Museum. After which we also took on an 'amuse-bouche', in the shape of The Phene (Cal's choice: a posho's pub, as featured heavily in the low-brow TV show, "Made in Chelsea" ... Hugh Grant was NOT in the building). We then disdained the District Line and took a lift to the Fulham ground with Mohammed, from Mogadishu. He is an uber-Uber driver who, now, comes highly recommended. This last cheat saved us a good chunk of time and allowed us to soak up some 15 minutes of pre-match atmosphere inside the stadium, before the main event got going, under early evening floodlights.

Later, that old devil moon (see photo, below) would turn itself into a super-sized blood orange, under the influence of a total solar eclipse. Giving the 24/7 rolling news media an uncontroversial item with which to briefly sate their appetite for frenzied, repetitive and uninformative "news" coverage. For now, though, they would have to squeeze as much mileage as possible from the potential permutations of London's latest Premier League derby match. The questions for Fulham fans were: could our team eclipse (see what I did, there?) its pre-match billing and carry their A-game into play against 3rd-placed Spurs? And did they even have an A-game? It has been hard to tell, in recent months. Although the inflated face-value price of our tickets claimed that they indeed did, on paper at least.

Despite him not being renowned for his love of Fulham FC, Callum's and my journey brought to mind some historical, hundred year-old words, from anglophile Yankee wordsmith T.S. Eliot:

"Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky ...
Let us go and make our visit."

We had gone and made our visit; our pilgrimage to the shrine of London's earliest professional football. As had Tottenham Hotspur; both their team and a larger number of their fans than was strictly allowed. They did so, however, without the preferred company of the likes of 'Arry Kane, Son Heung-min, and Moussa Sissoko. Despite this, some punters, whom I hoped were being overly-optimistic, were still predicting a 0-4 scoreline - and Fulham were 5-1 ON for a home win, with the bookies. Did they not know that we had signed Ryan Babel? Many of the visiting Spurs fans had found a way of infiltrating the Riverside Stand seats. Crowd segregation at Premier League football grounds is clearly NOT, in reality, as well managed as it might claim/seem to be, on paper. In the unlikely event of a 4-0 scoreline, could there possibly be some old school, North vs. South London argy-bargy on the cards?

Some choreographed pre-match waving of big flags: what's that all about?

In a pre-match interview with The Observer newspaper, former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel stated he believes he has unfinished business in the EPL and wants to help Fulham survive. The 32-year-old had joined Fulham just that week on a short-term deal, until the end of the season. He has revitalised his career with Besiktas recently and won back his place in the Netherlands national squad. He says he still has "a burning ambition to prove some people in this country wrong". Let's hope he can deliver on that threat / promise. The same article states that Babel’s only previous experience of a relegation dogfight came in 2016, when he scored four times in five starts to help Deportivo La Coruna avoid relegation. Which would be a great model to follow. If he could only repeat that feat in our cosy little corner of South-West London, then I'd be perfectly happy.

The usual pre-match pretence of Premier League friendship and fair play ... before reality, inevitably, bites!

Keeping the "literary" theme going, club captain Tom Cairney features in an interview and his own notes in (and on the cover of) the match day programme. If he were to play against Spurs, it said, he would be making his 150th club appearance, on his 28th birthday. So, naturally, he did ... NOT play. His dialled-in contribution to the programme, however, was built upon the shoulders of giant clichés. Including: "we had a word at half-time"; "we tried to play more football"; "a win in a game like this could turn our season around"; [Babel has] "given the boys a real lift ... someone with his pedigree"; "hopefully he can hit the ground running"; "it's the best league in the world". Bingo! That's the whole set, right there. A full card of cliché contributions.
You can read the detailed match reports and what passes for sports 'journalism' on the game elsewhere, along the lines of: "battling Fulham" and "heart-breaking defeat" (e.g. at the FFC website; or in BBC coverage). The true tale of the game though was, in essence, simple enough to read: one team NOT taking its chances and failing to concentrate on the task at hand for 90+ minutes. The same team too content to sit back and try to protect a ever-vulnerable one-goal lead. An air kick (Tim Ream); a failure to read the flight of the ball, or even to get off the ground, to intercept a threatening cross (Denis Odoi); and a failure to track back in the dying seconds (Joe Bryan) were all Spurs needed, in the end, to upset the apple cart, spring the locks and "get out of jail free". When Fulham had, in fact, had the chances (including a blatant, stonewall, shirt tug of a penalty on Mitrović) and should really have got themselves 2 goals ahead in the first half - and "out of sight". You see, the Fabulous Football Pharaoh can do hackneyed clichés with the best of them, as and when he feels the need.
Oh, the result? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The narrowest of 1-2 defeats for Fulham, having deservedly lead for a large chunk of the game. At least it meant there would be no North vs. South London argy-bargy, after all. With no third goal looking likely in the match, we had been slowly heading towards the exit just as Spurs broke down the left, in the 93rd minute. Excruciating - and an undeserved kick in the thingies after a highly commendable, stalwart, under-dog, rear-guard action. Two 'schoolboy' defensive errors = two goals for the opposition ... for the the second week running. It would seem that Fulham have just not acclimatised, still, to the increased threat level of PL strike forces. Even Spurs' relatively blunted one.

In his programme notes, Cairney had shared the view that "if we hadn't won [the Championship play-off final, against Villa] the whole team would have been broken up". There's still plenty of time and opportunity for that though, come the end of THIS season, Tom. Time to start learning lessons and turning the talk into action, eh lads?!

Photographic evidence that it really HAD been that close a game, for the most part.

With all best wishes from your Fabulous Football Pharaoh, until next time. Which may yet be prompted by fellow keen sports fan George Lewis's planned February UK work trip, from the USA. An opportunity and excuse, if ever there was one, for a surfeit of soccer action, beers, fine wines, cigars, malt whiskies and old 'war' stories. Bring it on, George!

Monday, 31 December 2018

What's Another Year?

Norwich City vs. Derby County

Saturday 26th September, 2018: The English Championship, 3 pm k-o
Attendance 26,866

A three-time Eurovision Song Contest winner, Ireland's Johnny Logan, famously sang an anthem for broken-hearted football fans and doomed youth everywhere, back in 1980: "I've been crying such a long time, with such a lot of pain in every tear. What's another year?" And, as we reach the final knockings of 2018 it is worth taking stock of the fortunes of the Football Pharaoh's favourite sides - and some others.

Fulham FC have endured a tortuous start to their new Premier League life and will consider themselves lucky / happy to be going into 2019 just 1 point adrift of safety and 17th place. They go into their new school term with the headmaster's admonitions ringing in their ears: "Must Try Harder!" - and must resolve who's going to take the penalties.

Meanwhile, Enfield Town have enjoyed a first half which almost negatively mirror's Fulham's. A long, unbeaten start to the season was followed by a disastrous November, featuring five straight defeats in league and cup competitions. They remain, however, one of the stronger sides in the league, sitting pretty in third place, on the best Goal Differential of any side. A run of form at the start of 2019 would boost hopes of a promotion. That run could start as soon as this Saturday, when The Towners take on 4th-placed Lewes, in what looks like a promotion "6-pointer". The Pharaoh had planned to be there to bring you a 2019 view from the non-league terraces - but a nasty viral infection put paid to all of that.

The Pharaoh has not, indeed, been overly prolific in his football write-ups, so far this season. A new job has created major distractions in terms of my writing brief - but it has not stopped me getting along to some notable games across the length and breadth of The Pyramid. As well as contributing to the ongoing development of Enfield Town FC's Walking Football club, which is nearing the ripe old age of one year old. These outings have included a couple of Premier League games at Craven Cottage, each of which has defied the normal glory of a Pharaonic match report. Perhaps for obvious reasons:
Saturday 27 October 2018, Fulham FC 0 - A.F.C. Bournemouth 3
Saturday 15 December 2018, Fulham FC 0 - West Ham United 2
An immaculately observed minute's silence, ahead of Fulham's last home game before the WW1 Armistice Centenary. Fulham's players, alas, remained silent for the following 90 minutes, too!

Sometimes it can be more fun / less soul-destroying watching folk messing about on the river.

Billy the Badger and Santa setting the tone, with yet another pre-Christmas give-away, at Craven Cottage. Fulham's players took their lead and followed suit.

Both were games Fulham fans might have harboured hopes of harvesting something out of. But the footballing gods have not smiled kindly on either them or their now-"former" manager, Slaviša Jokanović. The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri, has taken up the reins and, to some extent stemmed the flood-tide of goals conceded - although largely at the cost of goals scored. The Good News? Since that stumble, at home to The Hammers, on a bitterly cold and wet Saturday evening before Xmas, Fulham have remained unbeaten - and have conceded just one goal in the last three games, after conceding 40 in the previous 17 games. A switch to a back five away from home and a more attritional approach in midfield may win more points - but likely few friends.

Despite that obvious performance improvement, it is still difficult to hope for much from an away game at The Emirates, on New Year's Day. Indeed, I had passed up the opportunity to see only Fulham's third win of the season, as recently as Boxing Day, in order to spend some quality time "On The Road" with former Guinness colleague Mike, en route to The Championship's match of the day. As title hopefuls Norwich entertained fellow promotion rivals, the recently renamed "Frank Lampard's" Derby County.

Fulham-Huddersfield may have entertained dubious fans with a penalty-taking squabble, following which Ranieri said he would have liked to "kill" French comedy-'footballer' Aboubakar Kamara (seriously, you couldn't make this shlt up - and the self-styled "AK47" is unlikely to hear his forty-seven guns roaring at The Emirates, next time out). Whereas Norwich-Derby had so much more to offer, all round.

Match-day programme, with curious artwork. It's a Norfolk thing!

So I set off up the A10, aiming for a car park in Royston. Passing Where?, sorry passing Ware and the Silver Ball Cafe on the London Road, at Reed, before meeting Mike outside the gents' toilets at Tesco. It's a long story, and one on which we need dwell no longer, here. A traditional Xmas fixture day was then enjoyed by all.

Or, at least, some. One hundred hungry miles were swiftly eaten up in football and work reminiscences and general catching up. All followed by a pint of Adnams and a sausage roll at the Trafford Arms, before a leisurely stroll to the Carrow Road Stadium to soak up 10 minutes of pre-match atmosphere before the big game finally kicked off. After which, there was plenty more to keep us satisfied. See the BBC's match report

It was a seven-goal thriller to warm the very cockles, on a rapidly cooling December afternoon. That despite the normal, poor and erratic standard of refereeing "at this level". After 35 minutes of attractive, possession football by Norwich, and with a 2-goal home lead, most sweep-stakes were taking bets only on how many The Canaries would end up winning by. But football is, famously, "a funny old game". She has a habit of stealing away your Christmas presents, just when you least expect it. And so it was that, out of nothing Derby conjured the most unlikely of late first-half goals. Twice! Norwich went into the half-time break looking like they'd gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson, as they left the pitch counting their ears.

A tense and cagey second-half ensued. One much more balanced than the first half had been. Both sides largely cancelled each other out. That was until the 81st minute, when Norfolk's favourite Finnish footballer (Teemu Pukki) struck his second goal of the game. Things were so exciting that, as the Norwich players celebrated, one set of floodlights failed.
"We're Norwich City - we'll play in the dark!": singing Norwich fans, hoping their 'bright' idea will convince the referee to keep the players on the pitch.

After standing around clueless for some minutes, listening to a serenade from the home fans, inept referee David Webb finally led both sides off the pitch. Light conditions were still perfectly good (far better, indeed, than at the start of most floodlit games at Donkey Lane) but the FA's arcane rules on the level of lumens required and their consistent availability left the official with little wiggle room. With nothing much better to do, and with the temperature continuing to drop, both sets of fans spent the while bouncing up and down a lot and singing some of their favourite ditties, in an effort to keep interested and warm.
The clock says "84 minutes" ... so where have all the players gone?

The home club's management will rue an expensive blown fuse. After re-emerging some 20 minutes later, to finish off the tie under fully repaired lighting, Daniel Farke opted for some strategic substitutional changes - which back-fired richly, like an over-cooked plate of seasonal Brussels sprouts. Bringing on a defensive midfielder (Trybull) for the booked Vrancic and the forgotten man (Jordan Rhodes) for two-goal hero Pukki seemed to unbalance the home side. First it lost them their narrow lead. Then it resulted in an injury time winner from the visitors. A couple of great, late efforts saw Rhodes unluckily hit the bar and Todd Cantwell's fierce volley turned away to his left brilliantly by Scott Carson. Fat Frank said he'd never before been involved in a match like it. I suspect he'd happily take a repeat every remaining weekend of the season.

Due to the floodlight-induced delay and the overturned lead, we made our way later than anticipated amongst a subdued home crowd, back via the long walk of shame to my car. There followed the long drive of shame back to Tesco's car park in Royston. Mike searched all known media sources, without success, for a final score that better reflected the balance of play and his hoped-for win. But there were no more Christmas presents to be had. Not even in the virtual world. Norwich would not end 2018 at the top of the table, then. And with Leeds losing at home to Hull, they could have done, had the floodlights just stayed on.

With such a lot of pain in every tear. What's another year?

All the best for 2019 from The Football Pharaoh

Friday, 31 August 2018

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step" - Lao Tzu

Enfield Town vs. AFC Hornchurch
Saturday 18th August, 2018: The Bostik Football League - Premier Division 3 pm k-o
Attendance 443 

ETFC Walking Football Club tournament participation - Saturday 11th & Saturday 18th August, 2018

It seems Mr. Tzu (quoted above) might well have been presciently referencing the developing sport of Walking Football, c. 2,500 years ago. Recently, a representative squad of Enfield Town Walking Football Over-50’s went “On The Road”, like Jack Kerouac, for their first away tournament. It would have been remiss of the Pharaoh NOT to join them, to explore some of the lower, or at least newer, reaches of The Beautiful Game.
Just 7 months after the foundation of this new, community sports outfit, housed comfortably within the Enfield Town family of clubs, they found themselves "going to St. Ives", in Cambridgeshire; where they reached the final of the 6-a-side plate tournament, in a competition featuring a range of longer-established and well-organised sides. Despite losing in their final, ETFC managed to rack up a couple of excellent wins, including one which featured the biggest winning margin of the whole event: a comfortable, slick and 'sexy' 5-0 victory over Huntingdon. To be sure, it was a long journey to St. Ives and back, both metaphorically and literally; but the Towners were relatively happy with their first away foray. No silverware quite, perhaps; but there were lots of learnings taken and some tidy football was played, at times. As Jack Kerouac himself might have said, about our road trip: “Live, travel, adventure … and don't be sorry.”
ETFC Over-50's Walking Football Squad, basking in Plate Final glory - and the St. Ives sunshine

Thanks go to our ETFC 'parent' club, for continuing to take the development of their Walking Football section seriously; supporting us with recent features in the club's match-day programme AND on their website.

A week after our St. Ives trip, it was time for a 'double-header', of sorts, at the QEII Stadium. A noon kick-off saw fans of AFC Hornchurch take part in a 4-team round-robin 5-a-side mini-tournament against their hosts, Enfield Town Walking Football Club – before the ‘main event’ of the day kicked off at 3 pm. That was to be Enfield Town vs. AFC Hornchurch, in their Bostik Premier League fixture. Both of these 1st XI’s were unbeaten, after their first two league games of the new season, going into the fixture; and both maintained that status. Unfortunately, the young whipper-snappers of The Towners' Bostik League XI gave up a precious 2-0 lead, late on (after some perhaps injudicious and defensively-minded substitutions?).
Liam Hope (" ... hope, hope" 🎵 - in white, centre) easily beats his marker to the ball in the 51st minute; and clips a neat, right-footed shot in at the 'keeper's near-post, to extend his club record goal-tally: Enfield 2 - Hornchurch 0 ... for now!

Club fans felt they had been ‘mugged’ by the visitors; but credit to a disciplined Hornchurch side who had come with a sound game plan - and executed it uncompromisingly. A two-goal lead had always felt precarious. Once Hornchurch had pulled one back (from a late free-kick) the home side's nerves had been exposed; and an equaliser had seemed almost inevitable (see full match report, here). Enfield’s more mature club-mates, however, had given a very strong account of themselves, earlier in the day, during their round-robin event. So perhaps honours were a little more than shared, overall?

ETFC club vice-chairman, Paul Millington, had entered an invitational team; and ETFC Walking Football had put out two more sides, with a scratch team from Hornchurch Supporters Club rounding out the four participating sides. Each team played 3 games; and there were 6 matches in total, played across 2 pitches. All of the fixtures were played in the right competitive but friendly spirit; and Enfield were able to provide two volunteer referees from within the club (many thanks, again, to Nick and Steve for officiating).
Twenty men - and no boat! Hornchurch & Enfield players happily mingle for a post-event snap-shot.

ETFC “A” (made up of the core of the previous weekend’s St. Ives tournament side) won all three of their ties and headed the table. Paul M’s team managed a win and a draw and finished 2nd. ETFC “B” racked up two draws, to finish 3rd. While Hornchurch recorded one draw. The visitors, however, had improved as the tournament wore on; finally starting to get to grips with some unfamiliar rules. They will surely give a far better account of themselves if we are able to organise a repeat tournament, when ETFC visit Hornchurch, for their return Bostik League fixture – currently scheduled for 16th February.

Final Round-Robin Tournament Table
Enfield “A”                                              9 points
Paul Millington’s Invitational              4 points
Enfield “B”                                             2 points
Hornchurch Supporters                       1 point

The Enfield squad members and invited guests are listed below. Many thanks go out to all those who came along and joined in the fun, including spectators - and Hornchurch Supporters Club, of course.

Bruce Palmer
Cem Ahmet
Chris Kalli
Des Harney
Sal Syed

ETFC “Invitiational”
Paul Millington
Leon Aresti (GK)
Dave Bryant
John Dolan
Dave (Hornchurch Guest)

David Exley
"Dusty" (Kevin)
Igy Principato
Tommy Moss

“There is nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

Walking Football … coming to a pitch near you soon. If not sooner. Our Over-60’s side will be competing in a tournament at Southbury Leisure Centre, at the end of September.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

"How Would You Sum Up His Nutshell?" - Gary Richardson (inserting foot into mouth, again, on Radio 5 Live)

Bill Lawrance vs. Des Harney 

Thursday 16th July, 2018 

A supposed "Friendly" fixture, played at Colne Radio studios, Wivenhoe, Essex - 8 pm k-o

My nutshell is perfectly sound, Gary; but many thanks for asking! You can check for yourselves AND get more than your fill of anecdotes from Enfield Town, Fulham FC, Rwanda, the Caribbean islands, the Fenner's Cricket Ground, this summer's FIFA World Cup, Italia '90 - and MUCH else, besides - as your favourite sporting Pharaoh moves into the no-holds-barred, combative, dog-eat-dog arena of live radio. Listen to this special edition of the famous "Box 39" show at the following link: Hear "The Fabulous Football Pharaoh" - Un-boxed, Unmasked & Dangerous(?)
"Ambushed", at the tail-end of a recent 'road trip' and during what had hitherto been anticipated as a purely social visit to Colchester, The Fabulous Football Pharaoh was compelled to give up many of the deepest, darkest, well-kept secrets from his secretive sporting and professional past. Darn those unsurpassed, incisive and wily interviewing skills of Colne Radio's most investigative reporter. In fact, on reflection, on no account should you listen to the wide-ranging and entertaining radio show to be found at that link. If you do, I may have to kill you ... before I lose my Double-O licence!

Bill was recently described to me, incidentally, as "a young, cool biker dude" ... by somebody who clearly didn't know him very well - eh, Emma?! Meanwhile, for avid Football Pharaoh fans, more detailed coverage of Enfield Town Football Club's exploits is on the verge of re-commencing. Just hold onto your thingies for a little while longer and you WILL be fully satisfied - or your money back!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

World Cups: Two for the Price of One (manifest corruption optional)

Székely Land vs. Padania - Saturday 9th June, 2018 

The CONIFA World Football Cup 3rd/4th Place Play-Off: 3 pm k-o

Karpatalya vs. Northern Cyprus - Saturday 9th June, 2018 

The CONIFA World Football Cup Grand Final: 6.30 pm k-o (delayed)

Welcome to Hell? Hardly; but Welcome to Enfield!

Most readers will already be aware [new readers are always welcome!] that it’s been one heck of a lengthy season of domestic football, for the Pharaoh, this year: starting on Tuesday 1st August, at Heybridge Swifts; and ending on 
Saturday 26th May, at Wembley Stadium (see my range of previous posts, below). From the sublime to the ridiculous, you could say; or possibly the other way around. Fewer of you, perhaps, will realise that I've also continued my commitments into a hectic summer of ongoing international soccer, too. 
The QEII's biggest ever crowd soaks up a carnival-esque occasion.

Football World Cups? They're two-a-penny, around here. With FIFA's (allegedly) corrupt media-fest waiting in the wings and already flexing its mighty PR muscles - and with the sound of the England team aircraft’s jet engines idling on the tarmac in Russia, ready for their expected, routine, early exit - many punters could be forgiven for remaining blissfully unaware that the World Football Cup has, in fact, already been competed for; and won by a little-known, ethnic population enclave, which isn’t even a “proper” country. All of which may take some explaining. So here goes ...

Ever heard of Karpatalya? No, I hadn’t either, until just a couple of weeks ago, when the CONIFA football circus 'came to town'. To Enfield Town, in fact, to be more precise. I hope you're ready for a lesson in international geo-politics? No, I wasn’t either; but this is a story that's well worth exploring. Karpatalya, it turns out, is not a new carpet super-store, on the nearby North Circular Road. The Karpatalya football team, rather, represents a Hungarian-speaking ethnic minority who live in Carpathian Ruthenia (aka Kárpátalja – or Transcarpathia) – in what is today south-west Ukraine. You've got the basis of at least a whole week of secondary school Geography lessons, right there.

Ever heard of CONIFA? No, I hadn’t either; but their World Football Cup is a bi-annual tournament for non-FIFA affiliated international teams (“The Confederation of Independent Football Associations”). The organisation proudly claims to be “the leading body for national representative teams outside FIFA” for football, futsal, and beach soccer; and it brings together such unlikely waifs, strays, outcasts and FIFA pariahs as Tibet, Cascadia, The Isle of Man, Matabeleland, Padania and the Chagos Islands, to name but a few. These teams may appear to have little in common; but they do share a deep love of The Beautiful Game and the absence of internationally-recognised nation status - plus quite a few of them do also sound like near-neighbours of Narnia.
Here, then, was a superb chance to travel to the far-flung corners of the footballing world without even having to leave the London Borough of Enfield - the capital of global sport! Anyone turning up on the off-chance of seeing Brazil play Germany in the competition’s grand final, though, would have been disappointed – plus a few thousand miles and few weeks off-target. Anybody turning up to witness a high level of individual skill played in a friendly venue / cauldron of cosmopolitan culture (and colourful atmosphere) would, however, have been in for a treat. As many, indeed, were!

Tibet fans at their fixture against Northern Cyprus, early in the tournament (source: Joel Rookwood)

I will not attempt to cover the whole tournament in detail, here. Suffice to say that there is already ample coverage on websites as diverse as Sky Sports, CONIFA’s own platform and 
The South China Morning Post. I encourage you to go and check these out. Instead, I hope to try and give 
you a taste of the final day’s action; in the hope that it might encourage you to seek out further (and more professional) information and insight. Don't be fooled. This is no 'Mickey Mouse' event. There's been plenty of coverage of all sorts, from the British press, on-line outlets and TV to a strong presence in the international  sports media. The event even had its very own wall chart. 'Nuff said!
If a 3rd/4th place play-off for a global football tournament happened on your very doorstep, you’d be a poor sort of sports fan if you didn’t pay your money and go along in support of the initiative. Some might say you’d be absolutely crazy to miss it, if you could also take in the Grand Final on the same afternoon. Well that’s exactly what happened for me, when CONIFA chose a number of non-league football venues across London to host their 2018 World Cup. With Enfield Town F.C.’s Queen Elizabeth II stadium, in Donkey Lane, selected as the primary venue, football fans descended on my corner of North London from all over the world (and, for example, Bristol, Bracknell, Port Vale, Stourbridge, Stroud and elsewhere). Making Enfield, ever so briefly at least, the nerve centre of international football.
The QEII used to be a run-down and dis-used athletics track. Now it was fully restored and rejuvenated by a carnival of international football colour; a new home to that much-referenced beast, “atmosphere”. But why choose North London, after the previous staging of the competition had taken place in the far more exotic-sounding Abkhazia, in 2016. ["Abkhazia", incidentally, is a barely-recognised break-away territory within north-western Georgia, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea; recognised only by Russia, in fact, and a small number of other crack-pot states within the UN (Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela & Nauru). And no, I’d never heard of that last “nation”, either. It turns out Nauru is a tiny island state in the Pacific Ocean, covering just 8 square miles. With only 11,347 residents (in July 2016) it’s the world's second-smallest sovereign state, after the Vatican City. Its economy is dependent almost entirely on phosphate deposits originating from the droppings of sea birds. And there could be an implicit value-judgement lurking somewhere in that last sentence; but that’s probably all you’ll ever need to know about the place. Enough of the geography lessons, now ... well, perhaps there's time for just one more quick one!?]
The Matabeleland squad (where's that?!) help in the search for a lost contact lens (source: CONIFA)

The host team were Barawa: named after a port town in south-western Somalia, with their players drawn from the Somali diaspora in the UK. So North London, with its cosmopolitan ethnic diversity, was considered as good a host venue as any. Despite winning their group, in the first stage of the finals, the ‘hosts’ finished 8th overall and could do no more than watch on from the sidelines, on the last day of the tournament's festivities.
By coincidence(?) each of the day’s big games featured a Hungarian-speaking enclave. Perhaps this fact pays tribute to the Hungarian people’s deep love of football; and the impact of inspirational figures such as England’s 1953 nemesis, Ferenc Puskás - “The Galloping Major” of that Mighty Magyars side. The 3rd/4th place match pitched Székely Land, a largely Hungarian area within Transylvanian Romania, against Padania, centred around the Po Valley region - a proposed independent state in Northern Italy.
Székely Land (in blue) take a corner, as the QEII's stylish Art Deco clubhouse seems to set sail in the background; forming a tasteful, ageless backdrop (see it also featured here:
Full details of the games do not need to be dwelt upon, here. In the first match-up, Padania started well against Székely Land; but the latter improved as the first half wore on – having the best initial clear-cut chances on goal, before Padania finally began to carve out a few of their own. The pattern of the game changed little. There was great individual flair and touch on display; but less organisation, tactics and strategy than one might expect at a major tournament. Perhaps the players had had insufficient time together to really show themselves off at their most organised best? The second half carried on where the first had finished. Some good passing, power and athleticism; but no end product. Early on in proceedings I had predicted the eventual score-line: 0 – 0; but this had been an entertaining goal-less draw.

Székely Land's #3, Csaba Csizmadia, executes a quality spot-kick, typifying the level of individual skill on show. His powerful drive accurately picks out the top-right stanchion, even before the GK (guessing wrong and going low) has reached the ground.

Given the jam-packed nature of the day’s itinerary, there was to be no room for extra-time. Instead, the game moved straight to penalties. In which the Székely side gave up an early one-goal advantage to lose with the last kick of the match, after the first pair of ‘sudden death’ kicks. All of the penalties, in fact, were excellent - except for the three that were not.

The decisive moment: Székely Land's #22, Balazs Csiszer, looks on in horror as his kick flies straight at Padania's diving 'keeper, Marco Murriero (check out his yellow-gloved left hand and arm)

Perhaps the result should come as no surprise, given the depth of experience in the Padania squad: Marius Stankevičius, for instance, is Padanian only by dint of having played out his professional career in a number of Seria A clubs in Northern Italy. Whilst also winning 65 caps for Lithuania and scoring 5 goals (against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania, Serbia, Austria & Spain). His impressive CV includes spells at some very decent club sides, including: Brescia Calcio, Sampdoria, Sevilla, Valencia, Lazio & Hannover 96. He primarily played this game in a ‘librero’ style role; which suited his level of awareness, touch and finesse. A low-rent Bobby Moore, his was a stand-out résumé at this championship; but his side could only finish in third place - and there were many other very decent players on show, too.

Traditional folk dancing: an integral element of ethnic identity?

The Grand Final was played about 90 minutes after the earlier, appetiser game had finished. After some colourful and entertaining folk dance routines, on the athletics track. Kick-off was delayed by 30 minutes, as by far the QEII stadium's biggest ever attendance battled to get through just TWO old-school turnstiles. None of your soulless, fancy, bar-code reading automation here, thank you very much!  Typically representative of the politics behind the very existence of many of the teams in this tournament, the Final was played between Northern Cyprus (a state recognised only by its own ‘mother’ country, Turkey) and Karpatalya (as previously explained, a sub-region of a country which has itself recently been partially annexed by Putin the Terrible’s fascistic, jack-booted troops). When the draw for the finals had originally taken place, one group in particular had been described, almost inevitably, as “The Group of Death”; at least by those teams who’d been captured in its inexorable vortex. It did turn out to have been a particularly tough group, though, in this instance; since both the finalists had emerged from within it. Something that knowledgeable pundits had predicted, early on. So the ultimate match of the tournament took place against the back-drop of an earlier 1-1 group stage draw between the same two sides; and against a backdrop of colourful flares.
Anthems were impeccably observed; except by some boorish N. Cyprus supporters. The game was played largely in an excellent spirit; and barely needed the interventions of (2016 UEFA Champions League Final and UEFA Euro 2016 Final referee) Mark Clattenburg; imported from Saudi Arabia especially for the day – and also for the England vs. the Rest of the World celebrity-fest at Old Trafford, the following day. One of his assistants was named Andrew Parody. Luckily, he wasn't given any opportunity to offer hack headline writers the chance to flex their irony muscles.

Players from Northern Cyprus and Karpatalya line up for the pre-match ceremonies ... are they really strictly necessary? (source: CONIFA)

Bizarrely, game-play in this second match followed a very similar pattern to the earlier one. Good individual technique and build-up play was mostly coupled with poor finishing and tentative work in the final third. I soon predicted another 0 – 0 draw; and was proven right again. Even if the “Hungarians” did have to survive a massive aerial bombardment (not for the first time in their history!) inexpertly executed, during the latter stages of the second half, to make me right.

During this second penalty shoot-out of the day there were highs and lows again for both sides. Karpatalya’s Goalkeeper, Bela “three-names” Fejer Csongor was named the sponsor’s Player of the Tournament; and with good reason. He saved spot-kicks from striker (#99) Billy Osman Mehmet, then from defender (#7) Yasin Kurt; and, finally from N. Cyprus’s top-scorer, striker (#10) Halil Turan. The Mediterranean islanders had come back from 0-2 down, after the first two kicks apiece, to draw level; only to then hand the game, the glory and the golden trophy back to the Magyars again, with the last (missed) kick of the game (and of the whole tournament); and by a score of two penalties to three.
Karpatalya’s GK, Bela Fejer Csongor gets down on it in the shoot-out - again! Penalty hero AND sponsor’s Player of the Tournament.
The winners were only even in the tournament at all in the first place due to the withdrawal of qualifiers Felvidék (or “Upper Hungary” – yes, yet another Hungarian-speaking enclave; this one located mostly within present-day Slovakia) due to “internal organisational issues”. Had somebody spent the team’s bus money on Unicum, Tokaj and beer? Like Denmark, at Euro ‘92 (promoted at the expense of then strife-torn Yugoslavia) Karpatalya had been named first reserves – and had taken their unlikely global title with relish and aplomb. A tournament win even more extraordinary and unlikely in the context of the CONIFA rankings which, as of January 1, 2018, did not even feature them in the top 13 (why a “Top 13”? – don’t ask; I've got no idea!). FIFA World Cup pundits take note!
The Aftermath
Organising a sports tournament for the disaffected and the only partially recognised, comes with all sorts of man-traps and pratfalls. Prior to the event, CONIFA had had to deal with complaints from North London’s large and vocal Greek-Cypriot community, regarding the inclusion of Northern Cyprus. They had also dealt with pressure of various kinds exerted by the Chinese government, over the inclusion of Tibet (pressure which resulted in the withdrawal of some key sponsors, affecting their fund-raising from the event) – and much more besides. Tellingly, however, the organisers had stuck to their guns; and to the simple mantra that if you were a member team of the confederation and eligible to play, then you played ... and your fans let off exciting flares in your traditional colours!

(source: ETFC)
CONIFA claims to represent 166 million people, from 47 member bodies, an exotic mélange of “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories”; a not-for-profit organisation that aims to “build bridges between people, nations, minorities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football”. Theirs is a largely unenviable role: representing territories that others feel do not, or should not, exist. It is an inevitably 'political' task, regardless of their stated position on the matter; and they try to do a difficult job well.

CONIFA seemed to cover themselves in somewhat LESS glory, however, over the issue of a dispute concerning the eligibility of one Barawa player, Mohamed Bettamer. The 25 year-old London-born striker had previously represented Libya at U-21 level; and the acceptance of his late registration for Barawa for the tournament by CONIFA had not been made public. The Isle of Man side, Ellan Vannin, lodged an objection (perhaps unsurprisingly) after the apparently "ineligible" player scored one and set up the second in a Barawa's victory over them that saw them eliminated from the tournament. It also turns out that Bettamer had scored a healthy number of important goals for Staines Town in the Bostik Premier League this season (27 in total) including home and away strikes against Enfield Town. Small world, innit?! In a perhaps justifiable fit of pique, Ellan Vannin refused to participate in the play-off games for the lower-ranked sides; instead going home in a huff.

Winners' Joy, Unrestrained ... Briefly! (source: ETFC)

So, once upon a time, had we reached a happy, fairy-tale ending? One with everybody in the football-loving nation of Ukraine proud and pleased to plan a welcome home for their all-conquering representatives, after their glorious exertions in London? Errrm ... not exactly, no. In fact, the Sports Minister of Ukraine, Ihor Oleksandrovych Zhdanov, 
posted on his official Facebook page: ‘I call on the Security Service of Ukraine to respond appropriately to such a frank act of sporting separatism. It is necessary to interrogate the players of the team, as well as ... the deputy organizer of the “Carpathian” for the purpose of encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and ties with terrorist and separatist groups.’ Meanwhile, demonstrating once and for all that sport in Ukraine is entirely a-political, the Football Federation of Ukraine has "urge[d] the law enforcement agencies of Ukraine to pay attention to ... check their actions on the subject of propaganda of separatism and encroachment on the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine." Well I guess that could have all ended better; and these reactions are despite CONIFA's insistence that "the [Karpatalya] team has a long-standing, demonstrable history of publicly embracing the region’s dual heritage; the team’s flag and logo contain both flags, while the team wears Ukrainian and Hungarian colours on the pitch".
Ihor Zhdanov: a surprise omission from the Karpatalya squad
(source: Wiki)

CONIFA appears to be confronted with just these kinds of political divisiveness at every turn. The organisation "believe[s] that everyone should be able to represent their identity via football"; and that is worthy stance. Coupled with a commitment to "monitor developments closely"; whilst also "urging Minister Zhdanov and the FFU to reconsider their position."
The Local Aftermath
After the last throes of the match-day celebrations had finally echoed away, matters in North London looked somewhat less turbulent and controversial. Enfield Town F.C.'s finances looked decidedly rosier than they recently had done. One official acknowledged that the club could look forward to starting its next Bostik Premier League campaign “in the black” – for the first time ever! @ETFC had tweeted: "What a glorious celebration of football it’s been. Thank you to everyone who has attended! ... Crowd is approx 2,500." So large a crowd was it, that they couldn't actually count them accurately. So many spectators, in fact, that they were taking up every possible vantage point - and even sitting on the roof of the changing room block.

The previous Saturday, earlier in the tournament, The Butler’s Bar had run out of beer; and been forced to order in FIVE additional emergency barrels. Since when, lesson learned, an additional outdoor bar area had been set up, serving ice-cold cans of beer for thirsty punters wanting to avoid a queue that ran from the counter, through the main bar, down the stairs and out into the concourse.
The playing surface held up well, despite necessary heavy usage over the eight days; thanks to the sterling efforts of ground staff Dave and Glenn and others. Many of the tournament’s fixtures had been played on 3G surfaces; but Donkey Lane is your traditional mud and grass variety. One player had paid the club the compliment of describing Enfield's pitch as “the best garden they had played on all week”. I think something may have been ‘lost in translation’; but you get the gist, I’m sure.
And ETFC had also earned a significant amount of positive media coverage and praise, too; including a double-page, colour centre spread in The Guardian’s Saturday Sport supplement:

So now our focus can safely switch to rather larger nations, competing for somewhat greater glories, in Mother Russia; at "Putin's £8bn vanity project" (according to the BBC). Before I had even finished the first draft of this blog page, two major FIFA World Cup announcements had already rocked the Twitter-sphere.

Firstly, t
he USA, Canada and Mexico had their bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup endorsed. The decision was such a complete surprise that everybody simply yawned and moved on. In previous years, the tournament would simply have been awarded to the nation who had stuffed the largest number of used dollar bills into brown paper envelopes, in certain hotel suites. Now those kill-joy FBI varmints have imposed a different kind of logic on such things. The hosting decision, of course, makes total commercial sense - the only sense FIFA now understands.
As the BBC's correspondent Richard Conway pithily observed: "Money talks"! And although Neil Diamond added 
"... But it don't sing and dance; And it don't walk",
HE clearly knows very little about 21st century 'sport'.
This news was followed by a somewhat more surprising story from Spain; which took me completely from behind, studs up and late. The Spanish FA should see a straight Red Card for the challenge, surely. Just hours earlier, prescient as ever, the London Evening Standard  had offered us the priceless insight that "Spain's World Cup bid won't be derailed by bitter club rivalries", in a major, well-informed, background 'colour' piece. Right on cue, then, the Spanish FA made their bombshell managerial sacking announcement, driven to action by the skulduggery of "bitter Spanish club rivalries". The Standard went on: "Spain coach Lopetegui has no such problems ...". No, indeed; that part of the story, at least, IS correct. His problems are somewhat different. Like no longer being the national team coach. Sports "journalism"? You simply couldn't make it up! Like Neil Diamond, above, correspondent Giuseppe Muro clearly knows very little about 21st century sport.

The Tibet CONIFA team discuss the comparative virtues of a back three with t
he Dalai Lama (source: COPAfootball)

All of this - and the World Cup tournament still hasn't even started yet! Except that well-informed sports fans and world religious leaders know, of course, that it HAS already started - and finished - in little old Enfield Town. Explanation over!

All the best from The Football Pharaoh