'We had 17 players in the back of a truck' - Meet the man carrying the hopes of Matabeleland

Justin Walley
Justin Walley has the huge responsibility of directing their dreams as he returns home carrying the hopes of a nation searching for their own

Justin Walley was a long way from home.

The 47-year-old coach from the small market town of Hinkley in Leicestershire was used to seeing his staff placing cones and talking through the afternoon’s drills ahead of training sessions.

But his staff were nowhere to be seen. They were somewhere across town, at differing stages of a six-hour wait to withdraw some money from the bank.

“There was a chance that you may not succeed in getting your money at the end of it,” Walley says.

Matabeleland training 2

Matabeleland training

With the Zimbabwean government on the rocks, the country's financial services fell into chaos, and drastic restrictions were imposed on day-to-day banking. The banks had set a $14-per-day limit on withdrawals

The CONIFA World Football Cup was less than a year away and the Matabeleland coach could barely even begin their preparations. The size of the task facing an Englishman in Zimbabwe was as clear as ever.

Walley’s journey to Matabeleland began following a chance encounter with CONIFA board member and football shirt collector Jens Jockel, who contacted Latvian club Riga United in search of a jersey. Jockel was a CONIFA board member and Walley was secretary and a founding member of Riga, a club founded in 2007 for both locals and immigrants.

Matabeleland Justin Walley

“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 delighted to be offered the job as head coach.

Matabeleland match

“Then there was the 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,” reveals Walley.

And the facilities posed a challenge, too.

“The pitches, on the whole, are shocking. 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.”

Justin Walley Barbourfields Stadium.

And they have been infinitely worse for the Ndebele people. Marginalised, persecuted and massacred in their thousands under the brutal Robert Mugabe regime, a few bottle-tops hardly posed much of an obstacle to the enduring spirit of Matabeleland.

And this year they’re set to show their incredible resolve and unwavering pride to the world when, at 15:00 on May 31, the Matabeleland Football Confederacy (MFC) kick-off their opening match in the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup against Padania in London.

And Walley now has the huge responsibility of directing their dreams in London this year, as he returns home carrying the hopes of a nation searching for their own.

Teams, fixtures and everything you need to know about the CONIFA 2018 World Football Cup