BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
BILLY MEHMET is 90 minutes away from winning the World Cup.
It is a sentence the former Dunfermline and St Mirren striker never dreamed he would ever hear.
But as Mehmet steps onto the field at Enfield’s Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, chest swelling with pride under the jersey of Northern Cyprus, that is the prize on offer. Sort of.
The 33-year-old has been in sparkling form at the CONIFA World Football Cup, the global tournament for de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories not recognised by FIFA.
Northern Cyprus have faced Tibet, for whom mere participation was a triumph, defending champions Abkhazia, Karpatalya, Barawa and Padania, an area of Northern Italy who counted former Lazio star Marius Stankevicius among their numbers, during their march to the final.
They will once again cross swords with Karpatalya in the showpiece final on Saturday evening and Mehmet, whose playing career has taken him to Turkey, Thailand and Australia, is relishing every moment of a truly unique new adventure.
“It’s something special to be a part of. It’s not just about the football, it’s about getting together and celebrating the game and the different cultures,” said Mehmet.
“There is a team from Zimbabwe [Matabeleland] and, I swear, the fans haven’t stopped dancing the whole tournament! They are always partying and it just creates a carnival atmosphere. They maybe don’t get the same platform and opportunities in Zimbabwe and are just loving every moment over here. It’s beautiful to see.
“Even Tibet, whose players face a lot of challenges, had so many fans here and they were still singing and cheering when they went out in the group stage. It’s bringing everyone together and that’s what football is all about.
“It’s the first time I have ever experienced a CONIFA tournament or represented Northern Cyprus and it has been such a fantastic experience.
“I could probably have played for this national team for a lot longer if I had known more about it! I only really got the opportunity when I joined Alsancak Yesilova, who are based in the area, last summer and was invited to take part.
“Once the opportunity arose, I couldn’t turn it down. To get to the final in my first experience of being part of this squad is incredible; a dream. You need to cherish it.”
Mehmet qualifies for Northern Cyprus – the Turkish-controlled area in the north of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital city – courtesy of his father, Nihat, who has attended every match in the tournament so far.
So, while Mehmet was born in London and represented the Republic of Ireland at under-21 level, his participation is no carefree jolly or act of opportunism. He is steeped in the culture and heritage of Northern Cyprus.
“That region has been a massive part of my life, through my dad and my family,” Mehmet continued. “It was always a special place and my dad always made sure we felt an affinity with where he was born.
“I still remember how proud he was when I joined Genclerbirligi from St Mirren and could watch me play against teams like Galatasaray and Fenerbahce.
“Now, to play for the national team from where he was born – he is absolutely buzzing. It’s a great feeling.
“It has been perfect, because this tournament is taking place in London, where he lives, and he has been able to come to every game. If it had been anywhere else in the world I’m not sure whether he would have made it.
“My brothers and family have been there too, so the idea of lifting the trophy in front of them all would just be amazing. The final is taking place in Enfield and there is a huge community from Northern Cyprus so the atmosphere is going to be absolutely unreal.”
Mehmet has every right to look back on the competition with pride, regardless of the outcome at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Backed by the financial clout of sponsor Paddy Power, the third edition of the tournament has been its most successful by some distance, garnering global interest and bumper attendances – while Northern Cyprus are guaranteed their best ever finish.
However, Mehmet’s competitive edge ensures that second spot will be no cause for cheer.
“Nobody reaches a final to finish second,” he added. “We were one of the favourites coming into the tournament and our target is to win it. We’re so close now.
“To win it would be right up there with anything I have done in my career. You appreciate things more as you get a little older and this has been one of the best experiences I have ever had. I’ve loved every minute.”