In just over a week, 736 footballers will descend on Russia. Thousands of high-definition cameras will record their every move, with armies of pundits crowbarring analyses and veering to hare-brained conclusions.
It might not have the bombast of its corporate cousin, but the CONIFA World Football Cup doesn’t need cash and baubles. It has been a joyous cacophony, as memorable for its collegiate atmosphere than for any of the football on display.
Tomorrow, however, the bonhomie will fade as four teams jostle for a maiden title. It’s an all-Hungarian affair at Carshalton, with diasporas from Romania and Ukraine facing off in Wednesday’s late kick-off. Kárpátalja provided the shock of the tournament in beating reigning champions Abkhazia 2-0 in the group stages, with goals from Zsolt Gajdos and player-coach István Sándor seeing them qualify top of Group B.
Kárpátalja shouldn’t even be at the finals, admitted only after fellow Magyars Felvidék withdrew from consideration. Székely Land will offer the sternest of tests, having blasted nine goals past Tuvalu and Justin Walley’s Matebeleland in Group C. Barna Bajkó and Szilárd Magyari are both on three goals for the tournament thus far, and both are capable of pouring through the Kárpátalja defence should they be given even a yard of space.
The side from Carpathia have already shown their mettle, however, beating the well-supported Cascadians in the quarter-final. After a dreary first half at Gander Green Lane, Gergő Gyurki pounced on a goalkeeping deflection to give his side the lead. Hamzi Haddadi restored parity before Ronald Takács beat the goalkeeper to the ball to restore the deficit. With three minutes remaining, Gajdos proved decisive once more, slotting home a late penalty to seal a 3-1 victory.
Székely Land’s progress was decidedly less ardous. Western Armenia were already three goals down by the time Hirac Yayan was sent off, the reward for a feisty altercation off the ball. It mattered little to his shattered teammates, who’d already conceded defeat after Csaba Csizmadia defied all of his 35 years to score a brilliant header. After another howler gifted Székely Land a fourth, the game had been rendered moot.
Robert Ilyés’ men will fancy their chances against Kárpátalja’s defence. They might have conceded just two goals in the group stage, but a draining comeback from Cascadia will have left their energy levels depleted. Ilyés will look to pressure his opponents early on, whilst also hoping that his own defenders stay focussed after cantering through the West Armenia game.
Padania are the overwhelming favourites for the other semi-final, and indeed for the trophy itself. No side scored more than them in the group stages, with their 17 strikes placing them way above their nearest competitor with 10. Arturo Merlo’s side, which represents an agglomeration of areas from Italy’s Pianura Padana, signalled their intent from the opening fixture, pulverizing Matabeleland 6-1.
The massacre continued against Oceanian minnows Tuvalu, with Giulio Valente’s hat-trick underpinning a raucous 8-0 victory. The Biancocrociati managed to restrain themselves in the final match, scoring a paltry three against a shell-shocked Székely Land.
Beaten finalists in 2016, Punjab would always present a stiffer test in the quarter-finals. Even they, however, were powerless to stop the Padania assault, with goals from Giacomo Innocenti and Nicolò Pavan sealing a close encounter at Larges Lane.
Northern Cyprus would not be denied their own 8-0 victory, crushing a talented Barawa side at Enfield Town on Monday. Hitherto, Mustafa Borataş’ side had been somewhat of an underdog, labouring through qualification behind Kárpátalja in Group B. A 3-1 rollover of whipping boys Tibet had been their highlight of the tournament, right up until they laced a skinful past the despairing Barawan ‘keeper at Enfield Town. Six different scorers found the net, with seven goals arriving in the second half after Ugur Gök had opened proceedings 15 minutes in.
Despite the handsome result on Tuesday, Northern Cyprus retain their underdog status as they head into a mouthwatering clash with Padania. Innocenti, Merlo’s roving number 10, will look to feather passes for tournament top-scorer Valente. Having conceded in every game except the quarter-final, the odds of Borataş’ side keeping a clean sheet are achingly slim. They must aim to stay compact in the opening stages, hoping to capitalise on any complacency from a side that can call on former Valencia and Lazio star Marius Stankevičius on the wing.
Whilst the results are far from predictable, the atmosphere that has characterised this tournament is certain to pervade the afternoon’s proceedings. From the garrulous opening ceremony to the spectacular attacking football, the CONIFA World Football Cup has reawakened the essence of football’s soul.
One of these four sides will surely be shortly be crowned the winner, but the real victors are those who tune in to see how the sport should be celebrated.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45