Written by: Alun Macer-Wright
Matabeleland are another team making their debut in major competition at this summer’s CONIFA World Football Cup in London. Indeed, their opening match against Padania will be their first international game.
The Zimbabwean region has a troubled past, with an estimated 20,000 Ndebele people massacred there by the country’s army in 1983-84. Recent research has shown that the massacre was almost certainly orchestrated by recently-ousted Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
Matabeleland consists mostly of a savanna landscape, and has an estimated population of just over 2 million in a land area similar to the size of England.
The region has often been a flashpoint for conflict, with the First and Second Matabele Wars fought against British rule at the turn of the 20th century. The 1970s brought the tumultuous era of white-minority Rhodesian rule, before Mugabe’s tenure brought its own problems for the Ndebele.
The Ingqungqulu, as they are known, are managed by a particularly well-travelled Englishman. Justin Walley spent several years working in various capacities at Latvian side Riga United, helping to build a platform which has seen 6 players from the club go on to represent the national side.
After missing out on a Pacific Islands coaching job in “devastating” circumstances, Walley considered leaving coaching, before taking on his role with Matabeleland, which he was drawn to by a sense of adventure and a chance to “impact people’s lives in a positive way”.
A common theme for CONIFA members is an underlying struggle to resource their activities, which Walley described as being a “nightmare” and “the most full-on thing I have ever been involved in”. He has been crowdfunding through various avenues to try and get the team to London, working with “a tiny budget of perhaps $25,000 for everything”.
Despite the hurdles standing in the way, Walley remains positive about the team’s “once in a lifetime” chance to compete at the World Football Cup. “I am privileged to be part of this but it is impossible for me to know how proud these lads must feel about their involvement,” he said.
Walley stressed the importance of the tournament creating a legacy for football in the region. “There will be an African cup next year and another world football cup to come in two years. I hope for many of the team it will be the first of many amazing football adventures that I am sure will enrich their lives,” he said.
Matabeleland will wear a kit for which the design was chosen by a competition run by the tournament’s title sponsor, Paddy Power. Although they will be outsiders for the title, simply making it to London will feel like a victory for the team.