Sunday 3rd June 2018, 1500 Kick Off
Kárpátalja vs Tibet
The Build Up
Match day three of the CONIFA Paddy Power 2018 Football World Cup saw me (and Tibet and Kárpátalja…) head to Bracknell Town’s Larges Lane, on a glorious Saturday in early June. Before I got in the car and set off towards Berkshire, I had a look at the previous results in Group B, and was surprised to see that Kárpátalja had bested the much fancied Abkhazia side in Enfield the day before.
A 2-0 victory in that game, thanks to goals from Zsolt Gajdos and István Sándor, and an opening draw against Northern Cyprus, meant that Kárpátalja sat top going into the final round of matches, where they would face bottom side Tibet. Kárpátalja – a side representing the Hungarian minority in Carpathian Ruthenia (part of Ukraine…) – were called up as a late entrant to the tournament, in a move (if not circumstances) reminiscent of Denmark for Euro 1992. When Felvidék were unable to assume their place in the competition due to “internal organisational issues”, the Hungarian side were awarded the spot as a wildcard replacement.
Having joined CONIFA in 2016, Kárpátalja beat Ellan Vannin on penalties to finish 5th in the 2017 CONIFA European Football Cup, but have since been inactive. With roughly 156,000 people to draw on, they represent the 7th largest Hungarian diaspora in the world, and in György Sándor have a player who was likely to hold my interest – the midfielder had a gameless loan spell at Home Park in 2008. Now, as brother of player/manager István, he is one of the key players for the Magic Magyars.
Facing them today, and able to finish third at best after defeats to Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus, were Tibet. Representing the cultural region of Tibet, the team play under the nickname “The Forbiddens”, and can trace their roots back to the famous Forbidden Team of 1936. Indeed, when Tibet played their first official international – against Greenland – the Chinese government threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with Denmark. The Tibetan National Sports Association, which runs the team, is based in Dharamsala, India, and the team includes many players who are part of the large Tibetan diaspora exiled in India. None of the players representing Tibet today hail from the Chinese-administered region, due to the obvious political difficulties that could cause.
Despite losing both their opening games, Tibet have won the affections of many neutrals, in part due to the enthusiasm of their fans. The wild celebrations after Kalsang Topgyal’s consolation against Northern Cyprus being a case in point. Currently ranked 13th in the CONIFA Rankings, Tibet’s appearance in London is their first at a CONIFA tournament, having been issued a wildcard qualification. Dispatched to the various Greater London Boroughs and Home Counties’ parishes with a blessing from the Dalai Lama himself, Tibet’s participation in this competition is a victory in itself.
On arrival at Larges Lane, I – along with everyone else – was greeted by a large Tibetan buffet, laid on by the excellent fans of the Tibet team, which is an absolute first at a football match for me.
As the teams came out onto the pitch, the national anthems were played, thankfully without the mix-up experienced at yesterday’s match, where Tamil Eelam’s national anthem was played instead of Cascadia’s at first. The Kárpátalja anthem was well respected, as the red-shirted players clasped their hands over their hearts, whilst the boisterous Tibet fans belted their anthem out with full vigour.
It took only two minutes for Kárpátalja to both establish an effective pattern of play, and take the lead. When right winger Robert Molnar got on the ball, his pace got him past the Tibetan full back, before he whipped a delicious ball across the six yard line. Arriving at the back stick was Roland Szabó, the 24 year old winger from Hungarian club Nyirbátori. I heard mutterings of offside behind me, but from my angle I couldn’t see. Crucially – neither the referee nor the linesman did either, so the score was 1-0.
Three minutes later, Tenzin Samdup made his first of many athletic saves, when MTK Budapest youth player Ronald Takács tested him from the edge of the area. With a number of bodies between him and the ball, Samdup had to react quickly and did so. On nine minutes Molnar was in the thick of the action again when his fine ball from the right caused danger. Both Szabó and Takács had a stab at it, but neither were able to finish.
The Tibetan players had shown a real tenacity and willingness to get forward and to press early on, but as the wing backs pushed forward there were large gaps in behind, which Molnar on the right and György Sándor on the left were only too happy to exploit’
With quarter of an hour played, Takács got into the area and turned inside Samdup as he rushed out. When the Magyar striker took his shot, a Tibetan defender reacted well on the line to clear. As the ball dropped, another Kárpátalja player went through, only for Samdup to come out and smother well.
It took five more minutes for Tibet to create their first decent chance. A well delivered free kick on the left hand side was met by a dominant header from Tenzin Choepak. The big 22 year old got up well at the back stick and his firm header on target was well saved by Béla Fejér, fetchingly sporting a lurid yellow vest. As his save fell at the edge of the area, Tashi Semphel, looking like a Himalayan Marouane Fellaini, lashed a shot from all of thirty yards, which flew about a foot wide of the post.
Semphel was subbed off seconds later, possibly having injured himself taking the shot. Five minutes later, Tibet fashioned their second chance, when Pema Lhundup went close. Some nice interplay in midfield culminated with a high, looping ball into the box. With Lhundup’s eyes firmly fixed on the dropping ball, out came Fejér to punch clear, but taking a substantial lump of Lhundup with him.
After a very one sided first ten minutes, the game seemed to be evening up, as Tibet were looking calmer on the ball. However, no sooner had I thought that, but another Molnar cross fell to Takács. As he cut inside, he was tripped by his Tibetan marker, and manager István Sándor stepped up to take the penalty. Strolling calmly up, the centre back checked his run, then slotted the ball calmly to Samdup’s left hand side.
Three minutes before half time, Kárpátalja made it 3-0, when Takács got his name on the scoresheet. A flowing team move, where the Hungarian side massaged the ball from side to side patiently ended up with Takács in the box, and despite pressure from Dawa Tashi diving in, the young MTK striker held his nerve and toe-poked into the bottom corner.
Three nil at half time, and it was hard to argue against Kárpátalja deserving it. They were well drilled, and using the width to great effect. Tenzin Yougyal was showing strength on the ball in the middle for Tibet, but beyond that they were finding it very difficult to retain possession.
After 55 minutes, Tibet managed another goalline clearance, this time direct from a corner. As the corner came in, BK Naryan got up well on the line to head clear. Four minutes later, Robert Molnar went close with a header from another corner.
It seemed like a matter of time until someone scored, and had a couple of half chances around the hour mark, the best of which fell to Yougyal. The real star for Tibet so far though was Samdup between the sticks – his flamboyance and apparent awareness of the camera were both effective, and highly enjoyable for those of us attending in a photographic capacity. Whilst flashy, he was dominating his area well, and coming for crosses with confidence.
On 65 minutes, Fejér reacted quickly at the other end to snuff out danger with Tenzin Loedup prowling, but there was nothing he could do on 73 when Tibet pulled one back. Some good pressure from the Himalayan side led to the ball arriving at the busy Yougyal’s feet at the edge of the area. As he lofted a shot in, it appeared to take a deflection, and dropped beyond the ‘keeper’s reach. Surely nothing more than a consolation for Tibet, but by damn the fans enjoyed it.
Four minutes later and Kárpátalja re-established their dominance with a fourth when substitute Alex Svedjuk was sent clear. With the Tibet players tiring, Svedjuk had all the time to pick his spot, and calmly finished right footed past Samdup.
A minute later and the tie was all over, when Zsolt Gajdos got his name on the scoresheet. Having been part of an effective attacking quartet along with Molnar, Takács and Sándor it was only fair that he got his moment, and when it came it was a combination of attacking prowess and defensive errors. A wonderful drilling cross-field pass by the massive 18 year old Sándor Szidor found Gajdos in space on the left, and he cut infield towards the box. Despite about three players trying to tackle him, he muddled through the tired challenges, and curled a left-footed finish into the corner. 5-1 and all over.
For the last ten minutes the game became subdued, with both teams running low on energy in the afternoon heat. As the referee blew the whistle both the victory, and the margin of it, were well deserved.
The Wash Up
After a dominant victory, Kárpátalja will head into the quarter finals as one of the favourites to go all the way. Their ability to open sides up was evident against Tibet today, particularly their willingness to drop balls into the channels for the pacey widemen to chase. Allied to a robust defensive unit, that has been well organised by head coach István Sándor, no one will fancy playing them as the tournament progresses.
Tibet, on the other hand, will go into their final match having finished pointless at the bottom of Group B, but having won hearts everywhere they have played. Their ecstatic celebrations for Tenzin Yougal’s consolation strike were a real highlight of the match, and the colourful enthusiastic support has been one of the highlights of the group stages.
Good performances from Tenzin Samdup in goal, and Tenzin Yougyal in midfield contributed to an enjoyable game, as did some neat touches from the oft-fouled Tenzin Thardoe up front. At times today their willingness to bomb forward was exposed by a ruthless Hungarian team, none more so than left winger Robert Molnar. His aggressive running and accurate crossing was a thorn in the Himalayan side all afternoon, and out of a team of good performers in the Kárpátalja red, he stood out as the man of the match.
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