Tibet 1 United Koreans in Japan 1 (UKiJ win 4-1 on pens) (9th June 2018)
In less than a week, the real World Cup, the one with the stars, the money, the expensive tickets and the wall-to-wall coverage will start, but this little one was turning out to be a great little warm-up act.
Fisher’s ground, in Rotherhithe, isn’t the sort of place I’d normally rush to. If it wasn’t for the small seated stand at one side, and a small terrace unit at one end, both of the cheap-as-they-come flatppack type, it’d be easy to confuse it with a municipal sports facility.
Rotherhithe itself, once a staunchly working class area of dockers, has undergone full-scale gentrification, with little of what used to be here, and now looks a place of little yuppie houses and riverside apartments. As such, when Fisher moved into a ground in the area, they were let in subject to certain restrictions.
One of these is limiting the alcohol licence to just 28 games of the season. This wasn’t one of those 28 days, so it was just standard tea-bar fare all round, plus the odd bit of cake. Drums were also banned, which would apparently annoy the Panjab fans later, as they like a drum or two.
Perhaps the strangest was the banning of the PA system for this match, meaning the Tibet players not only had to stand to attention for their national anthem, they had to actually sing it as well. The Koreans managed to have theirs played over some kind of device, possibly a phone or a tablet, which made it just about audible.
One thing the ground did have, and very much part of the reason for me venturing via two slow stopping service trains to get here, was a fine backdrop of the towers of Canary Wharf, a mile into the distance, looming up behind one goal.
The other was a chance to see the Tibet team and fans, who seem to have been adopted as the team of choice wherever they go. One group of Bristol Rovers supporters has been to most, if not all of their games, despite there being no obvious connection between the northern half of Bristol and Tibet.
The Tibet fans weren’t quite as numerous as they were at Bracknell the previous week. Maybe five consecutive defeats had dampened the enthusiasm of a few, but there was still a healthy contingent there in their colourful red & blue shirts, even if the singers would have to lubricate their vocal chords with orange juice or coke instead of beer this time around.
I’d actually selfishly wanted Tibet to lose their placement round games, as I’d fancied the shorter trip to Bedfont, at the end of Heathrow’s southern runway, for the 15th/16th play-off clash. My thinking was also that they’d have a good chance of beating Tuvalu, and I’d quite like to see a Tibet victory.
They did actually indeed lose all of their play-off games, but the first of those was against a Turkish London Select XI due to the Isle of Man team pulling out in protest. This meant that Tibet were given a 3-0 walkover and entry into the 9th-12th bracket, and could not longer be at Bedfont.
Their next game saw them rather cruelly taken apart 1-8 by Kabylia, who I’d also see the previous weekend, where only a bit of luck, and poor finishing, had seem them avoid a lumping by United Koreans in Japan, who Tibet were playing today. It seemed a complete mismatch was on the cards.
Certainly, UKiJ were the better team but not perhaps to the degree I’d expected. UKiJ were also showing exactly the same failing I’d seen the previous week, looking strong, getting the ball out to the wings well, but being absolutely hopeless at turning those promising positions into good chances. Their habit of straying offside was also on show as well.
Tibet were showing “plucky” resistance, akin to lower division club playing more illustrious opponents in the cup, but were offering enough to suggest their equivalent of a “cup shock” wasn’t impossible. And on 20 minutes, they got their “shock” lead, when a cross wasn’t cleared, and the ball was tucked in to the great delight of the crowd, and not least the Tibet players themselves.
They could have gone further in front against a rattled UKiJ side, but it was the Koreans who had the next best chance of the half. A through-ball for once didn’t see the offside flag raised. Instead, the UKiJ forward went round the keeper, but took the ball a little too wide. The shot towards goal was on target, but by taking the ball wide there had just been enough time for a defender to run in and cover. Despite this, it was still equal shades of luck and judgement that saw the ball strike him, and not go in. The ball just bobbled in the six yard box and a knot of players dived in, literally, like Rugby forwards piling on top of a loose ball.
Through this crowd of players, the ref decided to blow for a random infringement, with a Tibet defender in pain, on the floor. After a short stoppage for treatment from the Tibet physio, a grey-jumpered man who clearly feels any ailment can be cured by a 2-lire bottle of water – any other equipment unnecessary – play carried on.
Half time saw Tibet go off very happy. Also happy were a bunch of Tibet kids, allowed onto the pitch for a kickabout in one goal. Perhaps less happy was a younger one of those kids, who took a shot from one of his friends that had rebounded off the crossbar right into his face, knocking him off his feet.
After half time, UKiJ slowly started to impose themselves, and the Tibet attacks got rarer and rarer. “They are a lot better on dirt” said one young Tibet fan, explaining to a local why results had not matched pre-tournament hopes.
Towards the end, with UKiJ really pressing for the equaliser, it was a question of whether Tibet could hold out. For all their pressure, UKiJ were still frustratingly wasteful in the area, so it must have been heartbreaking for Tibet to know that when UKiJ did equalise, with just six minutes left, Tibet scored the goal for them. A corner came in, and the Tibet defender, whatever he was trying to do, only managed to put the ball into his own goal.
There were one of two scares that UKiJ could finish the tie before the 90 minutes, but in the end it went to penalties to decide the tie.
The first three penalties were all scored. When then Tibet player scored his, he ripped off his shirt in celebration, only to pick up one of the least consequential yellow cards ever. The fourth was also taken by Tibet, and the UKiJ keeper dived full-length to his right, to tip the shot over the bar.
UKiJ scored their third, but it was another poor one from Tibet for their third, and it was also saved. This left UKiJ’s fourth kicker with the chance to win the tie. Nearly everyone was willing a miss, but he made no mistake, high to the keeper’s left, and UKiJ had clinched eleventh place.
Not even this heartbreaking finish was enough to dim the enthusiasm of the Tibet contingent though, as they posed for photos with their fans, and celebrated like victors. It’s just a shame I never got to find out what they’d be like with an actual, rather than a moral victory under their belts.