CONIFA 2018 a symbolic moment for Matabeleland’s footballers

Zimbabwe's national football team have never qualified for a World Cup, making Matabeleland's participation in CONIFA 2018 the first time the country has been represented on the intercontinental stage...

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In February 1980, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party swept to power in Zimbabwe after a landslide election victory. Two months later, the Prince of Wales formally recognised the country as an independent state, with Mugabe sworn in as Prime Minister.

It marked the end of nearly a century of colonial rule and the beginning of a 27-year period in which Mugabe ruled supreme, graduating in 1987 from mere premiership to de facto President-for-life.

Mugabe’s reign was frequently brutal, not least when it came to eliminating political opposition. In 1983, the infamous North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade carried out an event known as Gukurahundi, massacring 20,000 citizens in Matabeleland, a region in the west and south-west of Zimbabwe. By simply murdering thousands of the area’s native Ndebele people, among them many supporters of the ZAPU opposition party, Mugabe, a member of Zimbabwe’s majority Shona ethnicity, aimed to consolidate his grip on the region.

Beyond Gukurahundi, Mugabe, whose regime fell a matter of months ago in late 2017, marginalised the Ndebele throughout his time as leader. But now, with Zim’s political executive having changed hands for the first time in decades, Matabeleland’s Ndebele may sense that the time is ripe for a reawakening. At 3pm on May 31, the Matabeleland Football Confederacy (MFC) will kick off their opening match in the 2018 CONIFA Football World Cup against Padania in London.

Zimbabwe’s national football team have never really come close to qualifying for a World Cup – and were in fact expelled from qualification for Russia 2018 because of unpaid debts – making Matabeleland’s participation the first time the country has been represented on the intercontinental stage. CONIFA is resolute in emphasising that its membership is apolitical, but there’s little doubt that first game will be a poignant moment in many of the MFC players’ lives.

Taking charge of the squad for the tournament will be Justin Walley, a 47-year-old coach from Hinckley in Leicestershire. Walley’s initial encounter with CONIFA – he is now the confederation’s Africa Director – began while he was secretary of Riga United, an international football club in the Latvian capital.

A German shirt-collector, Jens Jockel, who also happens to be a CONIFA board-member, got in touch asking for some kit, and he and Walley quickly became acquaintances. Not long after, the Englishman ended up offering his coaching and administration services at a CONIFA AGM in Switzerland.

“That was 13 months ago,” says Walley. “And I was very impressed with how transparent and open everything was – if you wanted to talk to the General Secretary, you just went and did it…

“I was looking for a fresh coaching opportunity, and I had the idea of working with a poor or developing football federation, either as an assistant manager or as part of a management team. I started looking at options, and thought about CONIFA, where a lot of the roles are voluntary.”

Walley discovered that Matabeleland were in the market for a manager, and threw his name in the hat. He believes the confederacy wanted outside expertise in the knowledge they would soon be pitted against European sides, and was happy to oblige when offered the gaffer’s job. Soon, however, the problems that go with managing a team from a troubled and often poverty-stricken region became apparent.

Politics and economics, as might be expected in Zimbabwe, occasionally wreak havoc with the team’s preparations.

Towards the end of 2017, with the government on the rocks, the country’s financial services fell into chaos, and drastic restrictions were imposed on day-to-day banking. The banks set a $14-per-day limit on cash withdrawals.

“That sometimes required queuing up for five or six hours,” says Walley. “With the chance that you may not succeed in getting your money at the end of it…. So you ended up with a situation where some of the coaching staff, instead of preparing for training, were queuing up in banks…

“And then, of course, we had a political crisis in autumn, with Robert Mugabe leaving power. There was a military coup, with the army on the streets and the police removed for a number of weeks. We lost training for a whole week because of that.”

But, politics and economics aside, the MFC suffers a more general lack of resources. Bills inevitably pile up, and, for the most part, playing facilities would have to undergo a significant upgrade in order to be described as ‘modest’.

“The pitches, on the whole, are shocking,” according to Walley. “They’re dirt pitches, and often have broken glass, bottle-tops and rocks all over them; it’s impossible to completely clean them up. There aren’t even markings on many of them. As for equipment, at many training sessions we sometimes had two balls between 27 players…

“Going to away games, having limited finances, we had 17 guys in the back of a Toyota pickup. If the thing was to turn over, they’d all be dead. But those are the circumstances.”

And yet, despite the conditions, Matabeleland’s footballers persevere.

For the MFC, all this goes far beyond just the CONIFA World Football Cup. The organisation behind the confederacy is the Save Matabeleland Coalition (SAMACO), a network of grass-roots organisations from around the region who promote democracy and human rights.

A significant part of SAMACO’s remit is redressing the wrongs of Gukurahundi, and despite CONIFA’s strict ban on political or nationalist statements at matches and events, Matabeleland will effectively carry the flag for this movement in London in May. It seems fitting that they should do so as the embers of the Mugabe regime slowly begin to drift away.

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