“Football or salsa?” asks the car park attendant. “Football or salsa?”
Staff working at the FIFA World Cup semi-final are unlikely to confuse fans arriving at the Luzhniki stadium for local Latin dance enthusiasts arriving for their weekly session in the clubhouse, nor are the team buses likely to get stuck in a too-narrow leafy lane outside the ground, but although today’s match is also a world cup semi-final, here on an overcast and muggy day at Carshalton Athletic FC, South London, we could not be further away from FIFA’s grand show.
The mostly male fans filtering through the cash-only portakabin turnstiles are a mixed bunch, but a trio of young, burly men wearing Hungarian football tracksuits stand out.
Inside, a couple of hundred fans are scattered around the ground. The teams emerge to light applause and a few cheers, and stand in line for their anthems, but these are not international teams and this is not the World Cup.
This is the entirely separate World Football Cup, organised by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) for countries outside of FIFA, stateless people and ethnic or regional groups unrepresented by their official countries. Held every two years, this is the tournament’s third edition, nominally hosted by Barawa, a port town in southern Somalia. But as the Barawan team is based in the UK and primarily made up of members of the British Somali diaspora, the matches are being held in London.
The path taken by today’s teams to this semi-final illustrates the range of teams in the tournament. Karpatalya, in red shirts and white shorts, and Székely Land, in their all-pale blue away kit, represent ethnic Hungarians from regions in south west Ukraine and central Romania, respectively. To reach this stage, Karpatalya overcame Northern Cyprus, still largely unrecognised by the international community, Abkhazia, a disputed region between Georgia and Russia, and Tibet, which controversially remains part of China.
Székely Land meanwhile, lost to the northern Italians of Padania, but overcame Matabeleland, a marginalised region of Zimbabwe, and Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific nation, to make the semi-final.
Northern Cyprus won today’s first semi-final 3-2 against Padania and await this evening’s winners in the final, to be played three days from now in Enfield, on the edge of north London.
The first half an hour or so is played at a high tempo, but neither team can get a grip on the game. The tackles are crunching but not malicious and the few chances sail over the bar. Much of Székely Land’s best work comes through their left winger, who has the team’s star and moon symbol cut into his hair.
Less than two weeks after the Champions League final, Székely Land’s keeper, Pavel Adrian Horvát nearly has his own Loris Karius moment, gifting the ball to an opposing striker just a few yards out, but is bailed out by a defender’s goal-line tackle. It is a sign of what will be the difference in the match.
The game comes to life when one of the tough tackles goes wrong. A Karpatalyan is floored and tempers rise. From the free kick, there is an extra spring in the step of the red shirts and soon enough they have their Maradona moment, as midfielder György Toma slaloms past three defenders and places a slick finish past Horvát.
The ecstatic Ukrainian-Hungarian coaches hug and punch the air, while one of the older assistants whips out his phone to make a quick call and share the news with a beaming smile on his face.
Across the pitch, Karpatalyan keeper Bela Fejer Csongor runs 80 yards to join the players’ celebrations. Maybe he is still out of breath two minutes later when he clatters into an onrushing attacker and gives away a penalty, gifting Székely Land an immediate chance to equalise. Even in the moment of controversy, there is still enough camaraderie for him and the felled striker exchange an apologetic high five.
Csongor redeems himself seconds later, diving low to his right to palm away the penalty, then springing to his feet and hurling himself back across to the opposite post to bundle the ball away from a striker attempting to score from the rebound.
On opposite sides of the ground, standing out among the amused but detached English fans, the two most vocal sets of supporters recognise each other as fans of Székely Land and exchange chants. Those in the main, mostly seated, stand, wave a blue flag with the sun and moon symbol, while on the terrace opposite are the men in Hungarian tracksuits.
At half time, the group with the flag wander round to the terrace, exchanging pleasantries and forming one group of about ten men all singing Hungarian songs.
Eleven minutes into the second half, Horvát has his second Karius moment, allowing a low, long-range shot to bounce over him. Despite having more of the possession, his team are now 2-0 down. The genial Karpatalyan coach is straight back on his phone, still smiling.
Székely Land persist with playing passing football, with captain Csaba Csizmadia, a statuesque centre back with slicked back blond hair who won 12 caps for Hungary, firing passes out from the back.
Minutes after the goal, a Székely striker spoons a simple chance over the bar. It does not look like the Romanian-Hungarians’ night. When they do hit the target, Karpatalyan keeper Csongor shows great bravery to throw himself at the feet of the attackers and snuff out the danger.
The Székely fans don’t seem downhearted; they light three flares, red, white and green, forming a Hungarian flag made of smoke.
The game seems to be as good as over when the Székely left-back is caught in possession and gives away a penalty. Karpatalya’s number nine, the blonde Gergo Gyurki, coolly sends the keeper the wrong way to make it 3-0. Another phone call on the celebrating bench, while the Székely Land coach hangs his head.
Belatedly, his team goes route one and sparks a fightback: they score from a deep cross with less than 15 minutes to go. Then, more spectacularly, their big centre forward Barna Bajko drills home a second from the edge of the area two minutes later.
The neutral fans’ detachment has evaporated and the whole crowd is really into this dramatic finale, bellowing instructions at the players and hoping for one more twist.
But despite the Székely urgency, more chances go wide, to a soundtrack of groans, and tempers start to fray. Referee Mark Clattenburg, once of the Premier League and a bigger name than any of the players, is forced to deal with a contretemps between their dug out and the fourth official.
As the Székelys push for a dramatic equaliser, they leave themselves over-extended at the back and a breakaway puts Karpatalya 4-2 up in the 90th minute. The goal kills the game and the energy, despite a couple of late set pieces.
When the final whistle comes, the camaraderie returns. The Székely fans shrug and cheer, and both sets of players exchange hugs and handshakes. The victorious Karpatalayans form a huddle with their phone-happy coach, bouncing up and down and waving their arms.
There is one last poignant moment of inclusion and understanding. The beaten Székely team stand shoulder-to-shoulder, facing their small group of supporters. Players and fans then sing together, solemnly and in Hungarian. Their compatriots in the Karpatalyan team stand respectfully to one side and the couple of hundred English fans watch in silence. When it is finished, the players applaud and turn to leave, but the fans burst into song again. The players return and join in, but this time they are accompanied by their Karpatalyan opponents.
Satisfied, fans and players applaud and part ways. But while the punters file out through the gate, dancers still salsa inside the clubhouse, and locals in the bar watch replays of Danny Welbeck’s goal for England in a World Cup warm up game, the echoes of Hungarian voices hang over the stadium.
Two days later, they ring out over Enfield too, as Karpatalya beat Northern Cyprus on penalties in the final.