Sunday, 10 June 2018

09/06/18 Review: Tibet vs United Koreans in Japan

Tibet 1-1 United Koreans in Japan (CONIFA World Cup, 11th/12th Placement Match)
St Paul's Sports Ground

The final day of the CONIFA World Cup meant that it would be last chance to check out a new ground and as it isn't often I'm in Central London I thought I'd see what St Paul's Sports Ground in Southwark, just south of the Thames and a over the river from Isle of Dogs and Millwall- whose Lionesses side play here alongside Fisher FC of the Southern Counties League Premier. Today's match in Rotherhithe would be to decide who takes home the 11th place accolade and it would be competed by two Asian outfits whom I'd already seen in the tournament before, Tibet and the United Koreans in Japan.

Goals not guaranteed here
Although this one would surprisingly produce the highest amount of goals I'd see across three matches on the Saturday and it was arguably the most flowing game of the day, I wasn't holding too much pre-match hope as I'd seen both sides play so far knowing that UKJ, despite only losing one game in the whole tournament, had only scored one goal to this point aside from their five against Tuvalu. I had seen that goal, a stoppage time Su Hyeon Mun thunderbolt against Panjab in Slough, but didn't expect them to knock in too many against a nothing if not exciting Tibetan squad. My sole experience of them so far had been from the same day of football as seeing the Koreans, and the Mount Everest men lost 1-5 to Kárpátalya despite putting up a decent fight against the Finalists. I arrived at St Paul's just 15 minutes before kickoff and was fairly impressed with the ground that had opened its gates to the World Cup today. The quaint and modernised facility is nestled in the heart of the capital and has a picturesque view of London's banking industry overlooking the bordering greenery- certainly one that looks in glorious form under the sun-kissed blue skyline.

The 2009 formed club must be chuffed with their setup
My prediction was for a one-goal game in this one and due to their impressive tactical play I decided to side with the United Koreans as the match began. Tibet kicked things off, playing from left to right but within the first minute the opening chance would fall to their opposition. Tong Soung Lee, of Staines Town's youth team, took his early strike well but it went just past the post of Sangye Gyatso on this occasion. Watch out, this is gonna become a recurring theme. UKJ would continue to show early intentions of scoring and after Monroe Mustangs player Yoo Jun Kang had a shot, we would then see Captain Min Cheol Son test Sangye with a free-kick. Already Tibet were looking like a goal would have to come sooner rather than later and on the 20th minute surely enough they would get their wish as Tenzin Yougyal finished off a very nice tiki-taka style play just inside of Hyo Geum Lim's post. Tibet 1-0 UKJ. Although Tibet almost doubled their lead just after scoring, the play would eventually settle back into it being all in the United Korean's favour and after Yong Ju Shin rounded Sangye he had the goal at his mercy, only to hit a tame finish which was initially blocked before five players including the scrambling keeper got involved in a goal-line pile-on that led to the Ref blowing. Further chances would come and go for UKJ from pretty much every build-up move in the book, but the game went into half-time with Tibet's fans in higher spirits than even more usual.

Well done, team Tibet
I ummed and ahhed about a brew but with a poor mixture of shrapnel in my pocket and a lack of enthusiasm to drink a hot drink on this sweltering day I settled on an OJ squash carton and some fresh flapjack to settle my half-time hankering. Whilst in the queue I did hear some disgusted fans checking that they'd heard right when a staff member said that there was no alcohol on site for today's game, but with a long day ahead for once Pint of Football wasn't too disappointed not to be sampling the local beer.

My new Blog name, "OJ and Flapjack of Football"
I took up the quiet corner of the ground as the second-half commenced, but it didn't stay unpopulated for too long as the sides started to arrive for the 3pm game. First up the American-Canadians from Cascadia began to pile into St Paul's and as they surrounded me I soon became a listener of their commentary as UKJ continued their march for an equaliser. The North Americans were soon discussing how they were amazed to be witnessing the Koreans playing in such a low-ranked placement match, having clearly seen enough to be impressed with their tactical and footballing skills. It is true that the UKJ side were very good footballers and on play alone perhaps one of the top four in the competition, but if you cannot score goals then you will not get anywhere near the medals. As the game entered the final 20 minutes the Cascadian players, of whom a fair chunk are based in the UK, got chatting about the real perk of being a footballer- the chance of being on Football Manager or even FIFA! As one guy reminisced about his season with Dagenham & Redbridge as a 49 rating player, another told the tale of how he wished he earned as much as what his wages were in the most recent edition of FM. On the field, UKJ had gone a bit closer and struck the bar through Tong Jun Lee.

Why hello there
With now just 6 minutes left it was looking like for Korea to score they would have to rely on a miracle, or a Tibetan own goal! Thankfully for Yong Hak An the latter would be enough from a set-piece and as a header ricocheted about in the six-yard box it would eventually land in the net and set us up for a penalty shootout. Tibet 1-1 UKJ. The shootout started well for UKJ as Min Cheol Son scored, as did Kalsang Topgyal before going into the Ref's book for his topless celebrating. That would be as good as it got for Tibet though and as Yong Ju Shin and Sun Ji Kim both slotted home, Hyo Geum Lim saved two Tibetan strikes, meaning that with a 3-1 advantage all that Staines' youngster Tong Sound Lee had to do was finish things off. The delay for him to hit the ball seemed like hours, but the 19-year old had the balls to do the job and he scored the winning penalty to seal a decent end for the Koreans. I couldn't stick around too long with the 3rd/4th Playoff just over an hour away Enfield, so I followed my oh too familiar route back to the car ready to get my foot down and head to the tournament's biggest two matches. Next up, Padania versus Székely Land for the bronze medal!

11th Place finish for UKJ

Saturday, 9 June 2018

07/06/18 Review: Northern Cyprus vs Padania and Kárpátalya vs Székely Land

Northern Cyprus 3-2 Padania (CONIFA World Cup, Semi-Finals)
Colston Avenue [Match 1 of 2]

Following on from the adventures of my earlier Blog, a two game feast over at Sutton United's Gander Green Lane, I left the readers hooked on the edge of their seats as I did the unthinkable and departed a game early in an attempt to make it to Colston Avenue for the two CONIFA World Cup Semi-Finals- I may well have missed the final goal of Panjab's 5-0 win over Barawa, but was it worth it? Well, kind of. Dragging along fellow groundhopper Henry, we drove our way through Sutton and into Carshalton watching as the traffic added precious minutes on to our arrival time, knowing that if that game kicked-off on time we'd at least miss the first five minutes by this point. We arrived at 5:05pm and darted inside to see that although the game had already kicked-off, it had only done so but three minutes ago. The game that I'm talking about, of course, was the first of two that Carshalton would host this evening as Northern Cyprus took on Padania in what was arguably a battle between the best two sides to grace the tournament in many people's eyes. So far the Italian Padanians had conquered Group C in spectacular form with a 6-1 win over Matabeleland, an 8-0 trouncing of Tuvalu and a 3-1 against one the next Semi-Finalists in Székley Land, before defeating the number one ranked side Panjab in the Quarter-Finals. Northern Cyprus had started off the tournament in a shaky fashion and only just scraped through Group B after draws with Kárpátalya, also in the other Semi-Final, and current champs Abkhazia sandwiched a fairly unspectacular 3-1 win over Tibet. In the Quarter-Final they came into their own as they trounced the hosts Barawa by eight goals, but having only seen their results on paper I decided to back Padania for this match, predicting a 2-1 victory in this all-European affair.

Lovely ground for it too
In a week of exploring London's non-league scene I am delighted to say that I've continued to take in some magnificent sights of the capital city and in the time I've been here I have visited such a large variety of styles, capacities, levels and age of ground, which is what it's all about. Before the start of the World Cup, I had seen only four grounds inside the M25 and I had been impressed with pretty much all of them in one shape or another. Ship Lane was a stone cold classic and I was sad to see Thurrock's team dismantled after this season's conclusion, I obviously loved my trips to see Dulwich and Clapton at their respective legendary venues and on reflection even Wadham Lodge Stadium had a bit of something about it too. Carshalton's ground is another one to add to that great list now along with all of the CONIFA grounds I'd hopped over to during the tournament. And yes, I'm even including Haringey's Coles Park in that list.

To be fair, you could have plonked this one in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and he'd be happy
From what I'd seen upon arrival, the first ten minutes were pretty flavoursome and it genuinely did take me a moment to adjust from seeing the likes of Tamil Eelam and Tuvalu playing to watching some actually very good players. No offence. The opening chance that I was witness to came from Kenan Oshan's fairly memorable miss in the 10th minute, as the Turkish-Cypriot number 19 ran in, saw an on-rushing Marco Murriero, panicked and then curled the ball over the keeper's shoulder and over the bar in the process. The cagey and aggressive game continued to keep your eyes glued to the pitch, but I also couldn't help but notice the one Italian ultra absolutely singing his heart out to "Que Sera, Sera" whilst working his way through a large bottle of wine, so I decided to go and stand next to him as I knew the scenes would be emotional if Padania scored.

Quel che sarà sarà
The first goal of yet another thriller came in the 30th minute and when the Italian team got their first chance they were lethal with the finish. Padania's Riccardo Ravasi had already notched his opening tournament goal in the game I saw between them and Tuvalu, but the Grumellese Calcio forward had no issue with grabbing the game's opener as he converted to begin the passionate outburst from the Padania bench. N.Cyprus 0-1 Padania. Padania's lead would last only for a matter of minutes though and with a former Republic of Ireland Under 21 striker leading their line, Northern Cyprus could not be kept at arm's length for too long. Billy Mehmet, born in London and raised by West Ham United's youth academy, has lived out quite an illustrious career that started in Scotland with Dunfermline Athletic and St Mirren, before the bald forward made his way around the world to Turkey, Australia, Singapore and a couple of other nations, amassing over 100 career goals in the process, so it was needless to state that he would have a part to play in such a big occasion for Northern Cyprus. The number 99 forged his way into a shooting position after a clever turn before applying a tidy finish to an overall worked goal. N.Cyprus 1-1 Padania. And as if that wasn't enough leading into the break, we would be treated to one more goal as Giacomo Innocenti was given the ball on a silver platter and made absolutely no mistake in perfectly placing his finish out of Hasan Piro's reach. N.Cyprus 1-2 Padania. The game was certainly worthy of goals and although some would argue that Northern Cyprus had bossed the match so far in places, you cannot deny that Padania had a touch of class to their play and despite being forced off the ball quite a lot, they did use it well in possession and unlike the Italian National team it wasn't a display full of sideways passing. Mind you, England vs Costa Rica would be shown in the clubhouse during the second match here, so if that was what you fancied at least you could get a taste of your own delights.

Half-time pint, may as well
If you thought the first-half was tense, it was only going to grow as the second began and with Northern Cyprus chasing the game I had a feeling that a third Padania goal would be enough to see them through. Contrary to this though, it was all-out attack from the Cypriots and when Salih Say nodded a corner just wide of Marco Murriero's post in a moment that brought momentary silence to Colston Avenue. Murriero had kept up a good record of saves in his tournament so far and in the 80th minute he produced a great one from yet another corner. Unfortunately for the Calcio Derthona shot-stopper though, Halil Turan was there to tap the ball home and send the pockets of red shirted fans into raptures. N.Cyprus 2-2 Padania. The roof may not have been completely raised yet at the home of Carshalton Town, who had their fair share of celebrations this season whilst winning the Isthmian League Southern Division, but thanks to an amazing Northern Cyprus break we were about to say a phenomenal end to what had been the game of the tournament in my opinion. With just five minutes of regular time left, Northern Cyprus pulled out a lightening quick silky smooth break, which eventually culminated in the ball from the left coming to Billy Mehmet and the shiny headed striker tucked it home to the absolute glee of everyone in attendance, well almost everyone. N.Cyprus 3-2 Padania.

Only a 96th minute red card for a Padania side featuring ex-Lazio defender Marius Stankevičius could sour the match further for the Italians and as the Ref blew the final whistle it was time for Northern Cyprus to celebrate even more than they had been for the past ten minutes as they could finally say that they were in the Final. With that game resulting in a five-goal thriller, to add to the twelve we'd seen in Sutton earlier, surely the final Semi couldn't be any better.... could it?

On to the next one!

Kárpátalya 4-2 Székely Land (CONIFA World Cup, Semi-Finals)
Colston Avenue [Match 2 of 2]

Amazingly with 17 goals already witnessed in the day's action, we still had more to look forward to and with this Semi-Final coming between two Hungarian outfits it was bound to be a tasty tie. As all four sides left in the fight to become world champion came from Europe at this point, it was somewhat expected that there was a bit more of a fan representation and with Hungarians being quite prominent in the UK it was great to see them coming in to support Kárpátalya and Székely Land from no doubt pretty far and wide, and in particular the eastern Transylvanian Hungarians supporting the side playing in sky blue seemed to be in impressive form even before the game began. The match started a little after 8pm and in truth the opening 20 minutes seemed somewhat anticlimactic in comparison to what we'd all seen over the past three games. With few chances but some high-standard football on display, it was far from dull but also you felt a goal would help things settle.

Wave your flag, big en
The best chance in the first half an hour would come after the Székely keeper hit a clearance straight at Sandor Rozman and as the Kárpátalya striker looked to profit he could only be denied by some heroic defending by the backtracking silver fox at the heart of the opposing defence. We would thankfully see a goal before half-time and it would come from a piece of magic that even Leo Messi would have been proud of. György Toma managed to gain control in the box before pulling out a tricky run in which he dodged many an outstretched leg before slotting home for the first goal of the match. Kárpátalya 1-0 Székely. The big moment to follow would come in the 40th minute and after conceding a penalty and getting booked for taking out his opponent, Bela Fejer Csongor would then proceed to tip the spot-kick on to the post, before jumping back up to see a shot cleared off the line. Wow.

HT, 1-0
Some people would say that four matches is too much in one day, but having carried out this ultimate stamina test once before already this season during the GroundhopUK Western League weekend for Non-League Day, I can tell you that 360 minutes really does fly by when the football is as good as it had been here- especially within these Semi-Finals. With the game poised for a roller coaster of a second-half, we moved around to behind the Kárpátalya goal in anticipation of the feast. We saw the opening 15 minutes start in a similar slow and tactical vein to that of the first 45, but with Toma on form the goals were bound to keep on coming. Having tapped in from a silky display earlier in the evening, this time he tried his luck from long-range and you know what they say- when you're in rich form, they sometimes just land in the back of the net. Sure, Toma did unleash a good drive at the Székely keeper, but when Barna Nagy looked to have saved the shot there was then a sad moment for the Csikszereda Miercur man as the ball spilt through him and rolled along the 3G pitch into his goal. Kárpátalya 2-0 Székely. We could see under the stone terraced pitch-long stand opposite the main stand that the Székely lot had all crammed in together now and they were going to give their lads some final encouragement, an act that I have a lot of respect for and therefore decided to join in with.

Get your smoke bombs out for the lads
Into the final 15 minutes now and with Toma still terrorising and seeking out a hat-trick, the midfield maestro was hacked down in the box which led to a decisive penalty being awarded. Alex Svedjuk was cool and composed to guide the ball home, leaving his side with a comfortable three-goal cushion. Kárpátalya 3-0 Székely. Ever since I'd seen them beat Abkhazia on the first Saturday of the tournament I'd seen a lot to admire in the Kárpátalya side and despite one English drunkard stood shouting amongst the Székely mob "we're gonna win 4-3" I had faith that the side playing in a very Hungarian kit would see it out now. That wouldn't stop their opponents giving it a good go though and just two minutes after the penalty the crowd went wild as their side finally grabbed a lifeline. Kárpátalya 3-1 Székely. And then what seemed to be seconds later there really was hope with still ten minutes on the clock as they worked in another desperate ball which fell to a sky blue attacker to unleash a wonder striker from well outside the box and all of a sudden the comeback was on! Kárpátalya 3-2 Székely.

There would be one more late goal yet, but for who?
The final moments of the game brought utter desperation in attack from Székely Land who all believed at this point that they'd be clenching a shootout from the claws of defeat, but football is a cruel sport and when you pile on the attack against an on-form György Toma, you have to be prepared to bust a gut when he counters. The number 22 had made his opponents quiver all game and when he got the ball at the halfway line he found himself running in to supply a supporting cast member for the killing fourth Kárpátalya goal. Kárpátalya 4-2 Székely. Soon after this the final whistle blew and with a huge and passionate amount of respect all of the players from Székely Land joined the fans in singing their national anthem, a great moment to be a part of which was amplified further when the Kárpátalya squad came over to join in- a moment that made the spine tingle and one that summarises the point of what CONIFA aims to do. The response from all of the fans was magnificent and I'm sure that both of these nations will be supporting their respective opposition from this night as they go fourth into the 3rd/4th Playoff and the Final.
What a final image to take away from Colston Avenue

Friday, 8 June 2018

07/06/18 Review: Tamil Eelam vs Tuvalu and Barawa vs Panjab

Tamil Eelam 4-3 Tuvalu (CONIFA World Cup, 13th-16th Place Semi-Finals)
Gander Green Lane [Match 1 of 2]

It has been a while since I've attempted two games at the same ground on the same day, but to go one step further I was taking on the legendary double double during Thursday's latter stage matches, which would include a couple of games in my first ever visit to Gander Green Lane, followed by both Semi-Finals over at Carshalton Athletic's Colston Avenue. To start things off, I was in Sutton for the 12 noon kick-off between two sides I'd seen before already in the CONIFA World Cup, Tamil Eelam and Tuvalu. Before today's encounter, the combined number of tournament goals scored by these teams was one and they'd conceded an almighty 38 goals in their four games each so far. If those stats didn't fill you with confidence of a high-quality match, I don't know what could have.

Perhaps a look at the backroom staff might put your mind at ease
Gander Green Lane is one that I'd had my eye on visiting for a while and although I missed out on this season's away day with my beloved Macc Town to come down and see Sutton play, I would now at least get my chance to see what all the fuss was about as many groundhoppers have raved about what a great old school venue the U's have on their hands in South London. Of course many Leeds United fans will remember an all-time low for their club visiting and losing at Gander Green Lane in one of the many famous FA Cup days Sutton had the chance to host two seasons ago, culminating in a last 16 glamour tie against eventual winners Arsenal. Today's tie would be far from glamorous, with two nations battling for at best the 13th place honour, but in Tamil Eelam and Tuvalu the National League Premier ground would at least have the thrill of hosting a decent game for those fans already missing their club being in action every week.

Blood, don't make me get old school
As mentioned already, this match would not be the first in which I had the privileged of seeing either of these teams, as I was at the Opening Ceremony game across at Bromley whey back last Thursday for Barawa's 4-0 victory over the Sri Lankan Tamil side and having also seen them in my last game before this one, a crushing 0-6 defeat to Abkhazia at Parkside, I was hoping to finally see them at least score a goal- I'd predicted a 3-2 Tamil win beforehand, surely they had to grab some goals at some point, right? Meanwhile I had only seen Tuvalu once and in a mismatched Group C game it would be in a very one-sided 8-0 victory for Padania, a side I'd be seeing in the championship Semis later that day, at my first trip to Haringey Borough's Coles Park stadium. The scene was set for a chance of redemption and as the two sides entered the fray in front of roughly 80 in attendance, the 12 o'clock kick-off was soon underway and with a very pacy start.

Who fancies an early goal?
Despite Tuvalu not looking anything like a dominant force when I saw them against the Italian stallions on Saturday, they were certainly in fine early form in this match and with the nation's all-time top scorer Alopua Petoa finding himself with the ball and totally unmarked in the 2nd minute, he picked his spot and powered the ball home to give the Oceania nationals a reason to smile and a lead to set them off on a strong opening foot. Tamil 0-1 Tuvalu. If you've read any of my entries on Tamil you should know that I've respected their early attacking intent, despite bemoaning their ability to finish their build-up play with goals, and today's match would also see them with a good chance to go forward and play fluid football. With still only 7 minutes or so on the clock, the ball would make its way to Kasthuran Chelliah and the lad, who plays his football in Holland's ninth tier, slotted an equaliser past Katepu Iosua to level things up with their much needed first goal of the games. Tamil 1-1 Tuvalu. Tuvalu looked momentarily shaken by the goal conceded and they were almost punished again as they conceded yet another penalty in the tournament and it gave Gonas Panneerselvam, who had hit the bar moments earlier with an appetising free-kick, the chance to do one better and actually hit the back of the net. The TuS Bielfingen midfielder stepped up, ran towards the ball and hit his stirke to Iosua's right, only to then watch as the Tofaga keeper dived and saved the kick, to keep the score at 1-1.

These lads must have been fearing the worst by this point
As we rode on into the half-hour mark of the game it continued to be open and quite a physical contest too. Meauke "The Menace" Tuilagi was built like a rugby player and he also played like one, the number four for Tuvalu shocked the crowd when he manhandled a Tamil attacker off the ball and threw him to the ground inside the box- the flag had already been raised for offside but I'm not convinced he knew about that. Janothan Perananthan would go on to blast over before the break and Gvinthan "God Bless the Commentators" Navaneethakrishnan squandered a one-on-one chance for Tamil, meaning that at half-time the score would be 1-1 after a decent game so far. With the Ref's whistle, I decided to go and grab a refreshment and have a nosy around Sutton's clubhouse. The odd thing about Gander Green Lane's bar is that you have to enter via the tunnel, as is also true for the toilets, a slightly inconvenient feature I imagine at big crowd affairs as you wait for the first two minutes for the players to leave the pitch and then again for the last two as they re-enter. I had hilarious images of a crafty Sutton supporter getting caught-up in the Arsenal line-up entering the field for the second-half when they visited and ending up coming out looking like some sort of weird middle-aged mascot. Perhaps that's how Wayne Shaw ended up becoming a player?
Mind you, not a bad little clubhouse
Back outside it was time for the second-half and as with the first, Tuvalu looked to start on the front foot. After taking a long-range shot, which was well saved by FC Supernova's Umaesh Sundaralingam, Tuvalu would then find themselves winning a 53rd minute penalty after Petoa was brought down as he lined-up a shot in the box. Matti Hoffren Uaelesi was the man to take it and in a similar vein to Tamil's first-half spotkick, a decent save was made again. As I walked around the ground to check out the view from the stand which was being painted during the game- most non-league thing I've ever witnessed- I would find myself in the perfect position as Sosene Vailine ran into the box to pick out a crisp finish which allowed Tuvalu to retake the lead. Tamil 1-2 Tuvalu. By this point we were all set for the remaining half an hour to provide a constant stream of entertainment and it all started with a good old fashioned mass stand-off between several players reacting to a Tamil Eelam foul. The near brawl was eventually quenched with the help of the Lino running to assist breaking up the players, but obviously something was said to upset the main official as he handed out a green card to Tuvalu's captain, Taufaiva Ionatana. The spirit of Tuvalu would not be crushed though yet and as we came into the final 15 minutes a decisive break would lead to Petoa being handed a goal on a plate to which he gratefully tapped in. Tamil 1-3 Tuvalu.
Surely game over at this point, right?
In their previous outing I'd noticed that Tamil had mentally and physically stopped working for the game in the latter stages, conceding four in the last 20 minutes against Abkhazia, but the efforts this time around were very admirable and with just 6 minutes left of regular time Prashanth Ragavan would give his nation a lifeline as super-sub Nitharshan Ratnam sprang the Tuvalu offside trap to run in and pick out the striker for the fifth goal of the afternoon. Tamil 2-3 Tuvalu. As you'd expect, it was all Tamil now and as we plunged into stoppage time Ragavan squandered his next chance after beating the keeper to a stretched effort before watching it agonisingly clip the top side of the bar on its way out, but amazingly this would not be the final chance for Eelam. Ratnam had been magnificent after coming on and when he found himself in space again on the right in stoppage time, he made no mistake in grabbing an equaliser in the most unlikely of fashion to seemingly take the game to penalties. Tamil 3-3 Tuvalu. We must now have been in the 94th minute of the game and as the ball was pumped up field time seemed to slow right down as Ragavan ran in, watching the ball drop, before timing an ambitious header to perfection to plonk over a stranded Iosua and bounce on the line and up into the underside of the roof of the net. A fabulous last touch of the game that would see a late, late winner for Tamil Eelam in the most dramatic of moments I've seen in a while. Tamil 4-3 Tuvalu. Despite being a fan of Tuvalu for the day, I couldn't help but give a big cheer with the Sri Lankans as they jumped up to celebrate a win that would see them go into the 13th-14th Place Playoff game against Matabeleland. Tuvalu's tournament will now see them end with a friendly match as they are guaranteed a 15th place finish following Ellan Vannin's decision to go home after the group stages. With now an hour to wait, it was time to eat my lunch and calm down before the second game between Panjab and the hosts Barawa.
Love that winning feeling

Barawa 0-5 Panjab (CONIFA World Cup, 5th-8th Place Semi-Finals)
Gander Green Lane [Match 2 of 2]

The mid-afternoon kick-off would come after an hour's turnaround of teams and whilst the Panjab and Barawa lot were warming-up I had a further glance around Sutton's ground to satisfy my groundhopping needs. The rounded corner terraces with yellow railings are a standout feature for me and as I looked over at the basically empty main stand I couldn't help but imagine what a great ground this would be when filled to the brim. With blue seats at either side of the stand sandwiching in a red selection in the centre, the steep-roofed grandstand at Gander Green is also pretty specialist and having been built in 1951 I wonder how long Sutton will try to sustain it alongside Jenny's kitchen inside the bar. If I were to suggest an obvious change, it would be to add a crowd entrance separate to the player's and officials' tunnel to avoid the nuisance of being locked in or out of the clubhouse, but from what I am led to believe the bar is usually for members only anyway, so maybe it's not as big an issue as I think.

It can get a bit cramped in there
Again these are two teams I've seen before and so far I had been somewhat impressed and I can see how they'd both made it to this stage. Panjab, ranked number one in CONIFA's rankings, are a team I've now had the pleasure of seeing four times including today. In my previous three intakes, I've seen them lose to England C at Solihull, suffer a narrow defeat in a pre-tournament friendly against Ellan Vannin and then most recently I watched them have victory stolen from them at Slough in a 1-1 draw with United Koreans in Japan. Would it be fourth time lucky for me seeing them? I suspected so, although I predicted them to only win via a shoot-out after guessing at a 2-2 draw over 90 minutes. As the game kicked-off I got chatting with a couple of lads who would be attending the final game of the day at Carshalton and in a small world scenario I met a chap called Henry who apparently I'd interacted with once before. We got speaking after spotting each other wearing merchandise from the might Bristol Manor Farm and it turned out that my only visit to The Creek back in 2017 was a game that Henry had also attended- and furthermore he had apparently actually taken a photo for me and a couple of pals holding the Western Premier League trophy. Insane!
As we were chatting about all things Western League and Bristol alike, a further coincidence came as I was telling Henry that a Clevedon Town player in Glenvir Hayer was starting the game today, only to then find out that the people sitting next to us were his parents. Good job I wasn't saying anything bad! Amongst the chatter in the stands there was also a game going on and we had to focus because a goal was just around the corner. Just under 10 minutes had passed when Kamaljit Singh, of German sixth division side SpVgg Vreden, walked his way skilfully past the Barawan back four before opening the scoring. Barawa 0-1 Panjab. Considering how well the tournament had started for the host nation, with highlights of topping Group A and grabbing 4-0 and 2-0 wins over Tamil Eelam and Ellan Vannin in the process, the notable controversy of wrongly being accused of fielding an illegible player and also in suffering a 0-8 Quarter-Final defeat to Northern Cyprus have soured the experience a bit for Barawa, who also had a sad looking sub's bench with just three named. The best chance they had of a goal in the opening proceedings was as Shaun Lucien, who I'd been impressed with in the opening game, hit a free-kick at the Panjab wall in the 21st minute. Just before the half-hour mark in the game things went from bad to worse for Barawa as Simon Noel was given a green card for diving in the box, meaning that the hosts bench was looking more than just a little bare.

Lonely lonely sub's bench
The game was pretty much end-to-end though and with both sides offering different styles of play it was at the very least an entertaining encounter. Omar Sufi went close for Barawa at one end and Taimoor Hussain thrashed the crossbar at the other, but it would remain 1-0 at half-time. By this stage a few groundhoppers were clock watching with the 5pm kick-off at Carshalton looking like a more ambitious effort by the minute- and with the second-half not starting until 4:08pm, that would leave a meagre 7 minutes between games if there was no added time. Some people decided to leave at half-time to make the 2.1 mile walk or 2.5 drive across Sutton, but a few mentalists like myself decided to leave the exact amount of time needed to commute between the games, at the risk of missing the start of Padania versus Northern Cyprus. To add insult to injury I was flawed by own preparation as I missed the second Panjab goal. Whilst having a strategic second-half wee I heard a cheer from my view of the urinals, only to then run out and see the game had kicked-off again, with a well-chipped goal apparently being scored by Maidenhead United's Nathan Minhas. Barawa 0-2 Panjab. In a day that had so far produced nine goals already in Sutton's ground alone, I wasn't too dispirited about missing out and as the game went on there were more goals to be seen for sure. Kamaljit Singh in truth could have already had his hat-trick by now but in the 65th minute he would eventually put another of his many chances away to get his second, Panjab's third, of the day. Barawa 0-3 Panjab. The lion's strength continued to see the Asian side through and with 15 minutes left Singh grabbed his hat-trick with another unmissable gift. Barawa 0-4 Panjab. With the last ten minutes upon us, I had to make the executive decision to edge towards the exit and as I was giving my new pal Henry a lift over to Carshalton, we eventually called it at 4:50pm to dash to my car and attempt to get to Colston Avenue in ten minutes. Would we make it? Find out in my next entry. One thing that was evident was that we did miss a final Panjab goal and it would be Singh who got a fourth for the match to see his side into the 5th-6th Playoff against Cascadia, who will end the tournament as one of only two competing CONIFA nations that I didn't manage to see this tournament, unless I try to catch a bit of their 3pm match at Fisher before I scoot up to Enfield for the Final. In case you were wondering, Western Armenia are the other side I've not seen unfortunately.

Maybe next time, Cascadia

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

05/06/18 Review: Tamil Eelam vs Abkhazia

Tamil Eelam 0-6 Abkhazia (CONIFA World Cup, 9th-16th Place Quarter-Finals)

Part two of my lower bracket double-header would see me head to another one of the high-standard CONIFA facilities being used in the tournament as I made my debut to Parkside in Aveley, the location for my 120th ground. So far I'd managed to tick off five new grounds during the World Cup before this one and after making a revisit to Enfield Town's Queen Elizabeth II Stadium earlier in the afternoon, I just about made it to Parkside about five minutes late for the 6pm kick-off. Had the Matebeleland vs Kabylia match not gone to penalties I certainly would have made the ambitious trek across the M25 with time to spare, but thankfully I hadn't missed a goal when I arrived for Tamil Eelam's game against Abkhazia.

Another fancy one
I described the setup at Arbour Park on Sunday as being like a "mini Fylde" and if this is the case, I suppose the inside of Aveley's Parkside ground is a bit of a mini Arbour Park. The ground has not even been open for 12 months yet and as you can see from the photos it is looking in pristine condition. With a huge clubhouse looking out on to the pitch, stocking an insane amount of choice in terms of beer, there is a main stand between the bar and the artificial pitch and to either side behind the goal you can see decent standing terraces. Across from the main stand is another impressive 200-seater to complete the 420 seat, 3,500 Capacity facility which lives just over the other side of the A13 to one of my favourite old grounds, Ship Lane in Thurrock. The ground itself may have been very impressive to look at but so far the two sides had not, with this Quarter-Final match kicking off their knockout run to try and fight for 9th place in the 16 team tournament. Abkhazia, the world champions and hosts of the last tournament, started off their campaign well with a 3-0 victory over Tibet, but after losing to Kárpátalya at my first outing to Enfield, they could then only clinch a draw against Northern Cyprus which was not enough to finish in the top two. Tamil Eelam are one of the only two teams who haven't managed a goal in the whole tournament and with defeats of 0-4, 0-2 and 0-6 against Barawa, Ellan Vannin and Cascadia respectively, I'd predicted them to continue their unwanted run and went for a 0-4 Abkhazia in this match.
With these fans, you've gotta fancy them to get back on form
When I saw Tamil Eelam lose 0-4 in their opener with Barawa I had been impressed with their first-half display and in tonight's outing the same was shaping up to be true. Within the first 20 minutes Janojan Pathmanathan went close from a silky break and Tamil certainly didn't look all that bad, but as time went on it seemed like only a matter of time before the deadline would be broken and Torpedo Moscow's Dmitrii Maskaev had a trio of chances in front of the flag wielding patrons just past the halfway line. Ruslan Akhvlediani would eventually be the man to score the opener just before half-time and his thumping finish bounced in off the underside of Umaesh Sundaralingam's bar. The Canadian-based shot-stopper could do little but run out and hope to get a finger on the striker's drive. Tamil 0-1 Abkhazia. The story of the half had been similar to Tamil's first game in that they'd played okay, tried to attack, but ultimately looked lacklustre whilst defending. The good teams will always ride out your attacks and punish at will, which is again what had happened so far- and there was much more to come!

If only the team could strike as much fear as their flag
The second-half for me was largely taken up by meeting and having a good chat with Sascha, the CONIFA General Secretary and Stadium Manager for the evening, as we discussed all things CONIFA. Needless to say that his flight over from Germany for the tournament was more than worthwhile as he was loving the success of the competition so far, as was I. On the pitch we had to wait until after the hour mark for a second goal and it was substitute Shabat Logua who struck, the number 9 had a simple job and he took it on with finesse. Tamil 0-2 Abkhazia. As we approached the final 15 minutes Akhvlediani would be given the chance to run in and seal the game with his second goal of the day, third of the World Cup, as he beat the on-rushing Eelam keeper to the ball and tapped it into an open net. Tamil 0-3 Abkhazia. Considering the game had been held to just a one goal difference before the 60th minute, Tamil had truly crumbled by now and although they didn't look like breaking their scoring drought, they almost certainly had a few more goals in the final 15 and this was started off by Ruslan Shoniya who followed Logua's lead in coming off the bench to grab himself a goal. Tamil 0-4 Abkhazia. The Abkhazian attack were making it look easy now and their competition had all but switched off completely, meaning that Astamur Tarba could tap in yet another simple finish. Tamil 0-5 Abkhazia. The rout was almost complete and with the Ref looking eagerly at his watch the 90th minute approached, but not before Shoniya could score his third goal of the tournament and finally end the relentless display with the sixth and final goal. Tamil 0-6 Abkhazia.

I think these lads need a beer after that walloping
These results meant that the two sides would know their immediate destiny, with Tamil Eelam going into the Semi-Final for 13th-16th Places in a match that they'll hopefully use to turn their fortunes around against Tuvalu- I'll be at that match myself over at Gander Green Lane and I'll be interested to see what happens in the 12 noon kick-off at Sutton. Abkhazia's win will also give them a midday kick-off tomorrow and their will be at Bromley's Hayes Lane against the tough to beat United Koreans in Japan. My other three games aside from the Tamil vs Tuvalu one will be between Barawa and Panjab in the battle for 5th Place, before I take in both Semi-Finals for the Cup over at Carshalton. First up will be Northern Cyprus against Padania, followed up by a tasty all-Hungarian affair as Kárpátalya do battle with Székeley Land. There's bound to be at least a couple of classics in there as we await news of who will be at Saturday's Final at Enfield.

05/06/18 Review: Matabeleland vs Kabylia

Matabeleland 0-0 Kabylia (CONIFA World Cup, 9th-16th Place Quarter-Finals)
Queen Elizabeth II Stadium

A second trip of three for me to Enfield Town's Queen Elizabeth II Stadium came as I attended one of the lower bracket Quarter-Finals of the CONIFA World Cup, with the tournament looking to search for the side worthy of being the best of the worst in the battle for 9th place. Starting off my latter stages run wouldn't see me tick off a new ground, having been to this ground on Saturday for Abkhazia's 0-2 defeat to Kárpátalya, but I would at least get to see a couple of teams I hadn't come across yet in the shape of two of Africa's finest, Matabeleland and Kabyila.
The turnstiles weren't as busy as Saturday for this one
Obviously CONIFA has a tough job to squeeze all of the forty-eight matches into a matchday calendar of just six days and it means that each team is playing half a dozen times in just 10 days, but with today's match being hosted at 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon it did make for an unfortunate crowd number of maybe 50 at a push, which is a shame when you consider over 1,200 crammed in to Enfield's sports complex on Saturday evening to see Northern Cyprus defeat Tibet. Additionally, it was a shame that I didn't get to see the legendary locals that everybody had been raving about during the Group Stages for their fabulous traditional dress code and carnival style atmospheric dance rhythm. Oh well, the main thing is that I'd made it and with pretty much an hour to spare I observed a bit of the training routines being endured by the Matabeleland squad. Unfortunately these two nations were the only couple that I'd done very little research on due to their tournament squads not being published beforehand. What I do know is this south-west region of Zimbabwe has been through a lot of trying times off the pitch, as have many of CONIFA's nations, but with tens of thousands of Matabeleland civilians killed in the 80's whilst Robert Mugabe was beginning his role as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, the Central African colonialists count their lucky stars to be living in a better place these days and attending the World Cup with former Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar as their Goalkeeping Coach alongside their Manager Justin Walley, an Englishman who is also the CONIFA Africa President, certainly shows the progress that the side can make with enough practice and education. In the group stages Matabeleland lost their opening two games by five goals before defeating Tuvalu 3-1 in the ultimate basement battle of the tournament. Their North African opposition Kabylia, based in the Tell Atlas mountains of Algeria, have a lot of French and Swiss connections from the Algerian War and although there are as many as ten million recognised Kabyles, at least twenty percent of those live abroad. Their footballing efforts so far have left them with one draw and two defeats and although they got a spirited 0-0 draw out of United Koreans in Japan, they did also take a pounding in a 0-8 result on the opening day against Panjab and most recently they had a 0-4 defeat to Western Armenia on this very pitch. With zero goals scored so far by the Kabyles, I should have known better than to make my pre-match prediction of 3-1 to the North Africans!

Caution- there's a goal drought coming
As the match began there was a lot of good end-to-end attacking intent, but little in the way of actual shots on goal. Kabylia forced a couple of corners but other than that it was quite a tactical affair really- neither side wanted to lose. With 20 minutes on the clock there was a large stoppage as Kabyles goalkeeper was injured, which eventually led to him being replaced, whilst over at the other end Enzo Mezaib was set up only to see his scuffed shot go out for another corner. In terms of possession, I'd say Matabeleland were possibly on top but their best chance of the half came when Sipho Mlalazi hit a free-kick at the wall and then also rifled his follow-up strike into the same sturdy yellow shirted obstacle. 0-0 at the break.

Not for the lack of trying though
The second-half had a few more highlights in terms of shots on target and just before the hour mark Shylock Ndlovu forced a good save from the Kabylia number 1, only for their resulting corner to be poor. I got chatting to some old Enfield boys during my half-time pint and amongst the two West Ham fans and an Ipswich supporter I was involved in a good chat about all things non-league. The trio of gents were telling me of how they feel they are being priced out of their respective professional clubs and are keen to get to more non-league games. I told them about my ventures of hopping around grounds far and wide and I'd like to think I gave them food for thought regarding making football a regular and affordable hobby. They got asking me about how I was finding this tournament and obviously that set me off on a huge ramble of how great the CONIFA cause is and how fab it is for London to host it, but I was also telling them that this game had not been typical of the competition so far. In all games I'd been to there had been many loyal fans on display, plenty of goals to enjoy and of course some scorching weather. Anyone reading this report who is still debating coming to a game, don't be put off my this goalless game in a cloudy and sparsely attended Enfield stadium. The Final is gonna be hosted here and it promises to be one hell of a game!
Don't believe me? Just ask this guy
Ultimately the game was destined for the shoot-out and although Dumenkosini Ndlovu went close with a volley just before stoppage time and a further Godwin Ndlovu strike was well saved at the death, Matabeleland would eventually have to settle with the lottery of penalties. Grobbelaar, most famous for his wobbly legs penalty antics whilst in a Liverpool jersey, instantly consulted all of his players and got them ready to do all they could to take the victory in what is always a high-pressure environment. Matabeleland went up first, with Praise Ndlovu scoring, and this was met by Belasla hitting the back of the net for Kabylia. The action then really unfolded as Mlalazi hit the bar and then watched as his teammate Bruce Sithole saved a Kabyles effort to keep it level. Matabeleland would score their third whilst Hadid hit the woodwork for the opposition, but then Oscar George was denied by Kabylia's keeper and they in turn levelled things up with just one penalty left each. Both scored their fifth and then we went into sudden death and that with Musa Sthamburi having his effort saved, it was all up to Mezaib to score the crucial kick- which he did, to the delight of all in the Kabylia dugout.

A hard earned victory for Kabylia
Knowing that kick-off for my 6pm game in Aveley was just 45 minutes away, I shot straight off and headed my way over the M25 to Essex for the Abkhazia versus Tamil Eelam encounter. Would I make it on time? Not according the locals, who laughed when I said I was heading through the dreaded rush-hour traffic and on to a motorway notorious for delays. But, I'm nothing if not an optimist and so I sprinted away to find my car and yet another CONIFA match.