An obscure team of ethnic Hungarians is one win away from the alternative World Football Cup title following an eye-catching run to the final — just weeks after being called up as a late replacement.
Karpatalja, representing ethnic Hungarians in modern-day Ukraine, will take on Northern Cyprus in Saturday’s final at the tournament for the globe’s outsiders and unrecognised nations.
The event in London has proved a colourful counterpart to the FIFA World Cup, which starts in Russia next week, with exuberant fans, music and also a stormy walk-out by the Isle of Man.
Karpatalja’s run to the final is all the more remarkable given that a few weeks before the tournament, they were not even in it.
They were a late replacement for Felvidek, the side for ethnic Hungarians in modern-day Slovakia, who pulled out.
“We came here with less time to prepare so it was a difficult start but we work as a team and work very well,” midfielder Ronald Takacs told AFP.
“It’s an amazing feeling. We came here not just to play football, we came here to reach the final.
“Northern Cyprus are a very good team, they play good football — but we are not afraid.“
The 16-team 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup is for associations outside the game’s global governing body FIFA, including cultural regions.
Northern Cyprus will count on strong local backing as the biennial competition reaches its climax at the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium in Donkey Lane.
The final is close to the heartland of London’s Turkish Cypriot community, which turned the stadium into the team’s bastion during the group stages, decking it out in flags and lining the pitch.
Saturday’s game is expected to draw several thousand fans once again to the stadium, which is the quaint 1950s home of seventh-tier north London side Enfield Town.
Right Said Fred, Grobbelaar
In the semi-finals, Northern Cyprus twice came from behind to beat Italy’s Padania 3-2, while Karpatalja overcame Szekely Land — representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania — 4-2.
“Now we’re in the final, we’ve got to go and win it. We’re not going there to come second,” insisted Northern Cyprus striker Billy Mehmet, who scored twice against Padania including the 84th-minute winner.
“We’ve got a great team spirit,” said Mehmet, who captained the West Ham academy side in his youth.
“Even in the hotel, we’re all together, everyone’s always having a laugh and banter. There’s no cliques. We fight for each other on the pitch, which is exactly what you need in these competitions.“
Striker Tansel Ekingen said Northern Cyprus were “buzzing as a team“.
“We always believed we could win the cup and we’ve got one more game to prove it,” he said.
The two finalists met on the tournament’s opening day on May 31 and drew 1-1, though Karpatalja topped Group B after beating reigning champions Abkhazia 2-0 and wildcards Tibet 5-1.
The tournament has thrown up memorable scenes, including Tibet blessing their opponents on the pitch and the near-continuous singing and dancing surrounding Zimbabwean side Matabeleland — for whom former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar turned out, aged 60.
There was pop duo Right Said Fred’s tournament anthem, the hippy vibe around North American Pacific coast newcomers Cascadia and the joyous atmosphere of teams such as Abkhazia and Tuvalu who otherwise would never get a chance to shine on the international stage.
But there was also controversy when the Isle of Man walked out in protest over the late registration of a player by Barawa, after the Somali side derailed their title bid.
CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind told AFP that Ellan Vannin — the British dependency’s name in its Manx Gaelic language — had been provisionally suspended from the confederation pending a decision on the incident, due in January.