London (AFP) – Karpatalja won the alternative CONIFA World Football Cup 2018 on Saturday in a remarkable triumph for a side drafted in as a last-minute replacement shortly before the tournament kicked off.
The team, representing ethnic Hungarians living in modern-day Ukraine, beat Northern Cyprus 3-2 on penalties after a goalless draw to win the biennial competition for football’s unrecognised nations and other outsiders.
The 16-team tournament was staged at non-league grounds around London and the final at Donkey Lane drew thousands of spectators, including flare-firing hardcore Hungarian football fans.
The 10-day competition has proved a colourful, more grassroots counterpart to the FIFA World Cup, which starts in Russia next week.
Karpatalja were a late replacement for another side representing Hungarians living beyond the country’s modern-day borders.
Felvidek, now part of Slovakia, pulled out just a few weeks before the tournament began.
“We were planning a holiday for everybody and they called us to say we could come here,” midfielder Alex Svedjuk, who scored Karpatalja’s third penalty, told AFP.
“It was like a holiday present and that we have won is so excellent.
“We didn’t expect this but we are very happy.”
Carpathian Ruthenia, in the far west of Ukraine, was mostly in Hungary before World War I. It is home to around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians.
“I hope it puts Karpatalja on the map. Now people will know where Karpatalja is,” said Svedjuk.
– Tibet to Tuvalu –
CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, is the non-profit, volunteer-run federation for teams outside FIFA, the sport’s world governing body.
With a wider interpretation of international identity, its 47 members include sovereign states, nations, minorities, isolated dependencies and cultural regions.
Among the teams taking part in London 2018 were reigning champions Abkhazia, wildcards Tibet, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Eelam, Somali exiles Barawa, Pacific sovereign state Tuvalu and the crowd-funded Matabeleland of Zimbabwe.
Northern Italy side Padania came third, beating Szekely Land, representing Hungarians in Romania, 5-4 on penalties after another goalless draw in the earlier bronze medal match.
Turkish Cypriots streamed to Donkey Lane from their nearby heartland in north London, while a double-header of games featuring Hungarian sides drew crowds of impassioned Magyar expats, who celebrated on the pitch with the winners.
The match was refereed by former English Premier League official Mark Clattenburg, who oversaw the 2016 Champions League and European Championships finals.
“It was an incredible situation because we only knew a short time ago that we were coming to the tournament and we did not practice enough,” Karpatalja forward Gergo Gyurki told AFP.
“But I think early successes built up the team for the final. It was great teamwork.
“It’s a very great thing for Karpatalja because we are really small.
“But we played from our hearts to win the tournament for our people.”
– Blessings on the pitch –
The competition has thrown up memorable scenes, including Tibet blessing their opponents on the pitch and the near-continuous singing and dancing surrounding 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 which otherwise would never get a chance to shine on the international stage.
But there was also controversy when the Isle of Man quit the tournament in protest over the late registration of a player by Barawa, after the Somali side derailed their title bid.
CONIFA president Per-Anders Blind said the 2018 World Football Cup had exceeded the organisers’ expectations.
“There have been great atmospheres and we have seen magical games with a lot of emotion,” he told AFP.
“This tournament has definitely turned everything upside-down for us — in a positive way.
“Now we can show ourselves to the rest of the world. Especially our members that are here. For them, it’s so important to tell their story.”