It is hard to remember a happier football event than the 2018 Conifa World Cup, played in London by non-affiliated nations, and little question that the most memorable participants, against fierce competition, were Matabeleland. While finishing 13th out of 16, the fans at Haringey Borough and elsewhere turned corners of English fields into, for the afternoon at least, a joyously vibrant suburb of Bulawayo.
After news and documentary coverage at the time, their struggle against fearsome odds simply to get to London gets the fuller coverage it merits in a compelling diary from team coach Justin Walley.
They faced the simple logistics of football in an impoverished society, summed up in the title and Walley’s recall of a day when “We are training here because of our normal pitch is $9 [£7] per day. Khanye has got four balls (one of which is flat), seven cones and no bibs for us to use. We hope to be playing countries and ex-Serie A footballers in a few months’ time.” This reflects the wider stresses of the final days of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, as he tells a Conifa meeting: “Six hours at the bank to pull out $20 cash… is the kind of daily issue that is holding us back... along with the military coup.”
Walley, a seasoned traveller, is restless both physically and mentally, his references to “The Fear” seeming to denote not only the paranoia of life under Mugabe – there is a memorable section on the day of his fall – but something more personal. He is good on description and, in particular, atmosphere, but perhaps less effective on individuals. He clearly, while concerned that their sheer niceness was a footballing disadvantage, cared deeply about his players. But none, unlike his indomitable Bulawayo landlady Ethel, quite emerges as a fully formed character.
That they got to London at all was extraordinary. Fundraising was evidently a nightmare: “Everybody pulls out in the end.” The section in which goalkeeping coach Bruce Grobbelaar’s pulling of presidential strings obtains a last-minute reversal of the block rejection of UK visa applications has the quality of a thriller, even though we know the outcome.
The boot-faced racism of the UK Home Office is as miserably predictable as only one (West Brom) of 40 English clubs he asks about watching a training session being bothered to reply. But there are happy contrasts in Chris Wilder’s individual response and the welcome offered Walley’s squad in London by Hendon FC.
A ruthless editor could have helped, and might have deemed superfluous the postscript on his experiences as a fan at Russia 2018, but the sheer strangeness of his rise there to unlikely media stardom justifies its inclusion. “Write a book” and “Be an international manager” started life on Walley’s bucket list, but there is enough to suggest that he merits another go at both. Huw Richards