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Most people don’t know where Matabeleland is – it’s a name they may have heard over the years, but unless you have a decent knowledge of Africa, and in particular, Zimbabwe, you’re likely to struggle in putting a pin on the map.
But Matabeleland’s football team is travelling to London at the end of May for the CONIFA World Cup, that’s an acronym for The Confederation of Independent Football Associations, which is basically an organisation for national teams not under the auspices of FIFA.
If Matabeleland tests your understanding of geography, then many of the other 15 nations taking part will also get you scratching your head: Padania, Tuvalu, Kabylia and Ellan Vannin are among the participants. The last of that list is, in fact, the Isle of Man!
What makes Matabeleland more intriguing is that an Englishman is coaching the team, one Justin Walley. Brits have long acted as standard bearers of the game down the decades, but Hinckley-born Walley is one of those “have coaching badge will travel” characters that turn up in the unlikeliest of places.
Based primarily in Latvia, Walley has an interesting CV, including starting-up a team, Riga United, which currently plays in the Latvian second tier. He’s also coached women’s teams and spent time in Sierra Leone.
He was asked to get involved with Matabeleland after attending a CONIFA meeting in Switzerland. “I was interested in this competition straight away, it is the sort of thing that appeals to me,” he says. “Initially, I was going to coach a Pacific Island team, but it didn’t work out. Then the Matabeleland job came along.”
Walley has pulled-off something of a coup in getting former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar interested in the project and he will act as a brand ambassador as well as goalkeeping coach. Raising the profile of the Matabeleland team is important for they will go to London as one of the poorest and most under-resourced outfits in the competition.
“Some of the teams have more coaching staff and far better training facilities, such as North Cyprus. They’re like a FIFA-member organisation,” says Walley.
One of Walley’s problems is getting decent pitches to play on. “There are some good pitches, and they cost money to use, but most are quite diabolical with glass, rocks and beer bottle tops strewn across them. It’s a real challenge,” he says.
Walley divides his time between preparing for the on-pitch activities and raising money to make the journey as comfortable as possible for his players. He’s been in the UK spreading the word about his team and trying to secure sponsorship – visas, flights, new kit and boots are a priority – but he’s under no illusion that Matabeleland will not be among the favourites, even though he has some players who he feels could play at a reasonable level in some European leagues.
“We kick-off against highly fancied Pedania from Italy and then we face Székely Land and Tuvalu. We were placed in the fourth pot for the draw, which means we were among the lowest rank teams, but we are determined to enjoy the experience,” he says. “We believe we can surprise some people.”
The CONIFA World Cup starts on May 31 and the final is on June 9. Matabeleland’s fixtures are as follows:
May 31 3pm: Padania v Matabeleland at Sutton United
June 2 2pm: Matabeleland v Székely Land at Haringey Borough
June 3 6pm: Matabeleland v Tuvalu at Haringey Borough
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