For full disclosure, I know the author in the sense we’ve had lots of conversations on social media before, but this doesn’t affect my review of his book.
I first purchased the work last September on the back of listening to some podcasts, and being vaguely aware of CONIFA, a sort of independent counterpart organisation to FIFA that holds its own ‘World Cup’ for nations not affiliated with the far more prominent governing body, mostly for political reasons.
The work takes place during a 12-month expanse, beginning with Walley’s appointment as national team manager of Matabeleland, an area covering three provinces on the western side of Zimbabwe. In a turn of events that becomes a recurring theme throughout the 362 pages, it was far from straightforward for him to land that role, and perhaps just as importantly, it was effectively an unpaid one.
Life in Bulawayo was (and doubtlessly continues to be) a rollercoaster; travelling to and from there is an epic journey in its own right, taking Walley the best part of three days from the UK or his base in Latvia, but once in situ, he becomes accustomed to its very particular culture and way of doing things. Indeed, the first third of the tome is still under the brutal regime of the late Robert Mugabe, and his many informants, obvious (the military police) and not.
Taking training is often affected by the prevailing and well-founded fear as much as it is by the logistical and financial problems faced by the young players, fellow coaching staff and Walley himself. Co-founders of the MFC (Matabeleland Football Confederacy), president Busani Sibidi and technical director Busani Khanye, jump off the text as larger than life characters, and the relationship he had with the two men, with its many ups and downs throughout the fraught and fractious process to fundraise and obtain visas really draws the reader into a world that bridges the gap successfully between alien and relatable.
Whilst ensconced in Bulawayo, Mugabe is dramatically wrested from power, and the atmosphere immediately preceding and subsequent to his ‘resignation’. Walley’s near-daily recounting of that major historical event demonstrates in no uncertain terms the grip the dictator had on Zimbabwe as a whole, and how decades of repression affected everyday life. His testament of the days afterwards is especially palpable, and almost makes you forget you’re reading a book ostensibly about football, but which actually manages to achieve much more than that.
Of course, that’s not to say everything immediately improves once Emmerson Mnangagwa takes office. The title takes its inspiration from literally only having a single functioning football for training, and most of the places they are able to practice are on unmarked pitches without nets. Thankfully, the situation does remedy itself, partly down to the author and the Busanis’ crowdfunding efforts (when electricity and internet access were present), a network of people back in Europe… and a certain Bruce Grobbelaar.
Growing up in the 90s, the Liverpool legend was more known to me as a figure of comedy at best (through numerous goalkeeping gaffes) and the match-fixing scandal that rocked the sport at worst. I saw him turn out for Bury in his single appearance for the Shakers at Birmingham City in 1998, and although I have heard interviews in the interluding period since, it’s this book that hugely helps to redeem him to people like me.
Walley tentatively contacts him, and once a rapport is established after feeling like he was being ‘cased’ as to whether he was genuine in a motorway service station back in England, things really take off. His contributions are huge for the project to get Matabeleland to London for the CONIFA World Football Cup, from sourcing gear to personally intervening in the visa application process when it appears that the British Home Office, not the authorities in Zimbabwe, threaten to scupper months of diligent hard work and fundraising.
Even when they do all belatedly make the journey over, events are no less dramatic. Walley is far less prepared for reasons outside of his control than his compatriots for the tournament itself. Many of his best-laid plans, training drills and recruitment went awry in Bulawayo, which undermined him from the outset, and there are plenty of entries dedicated to the effects the difficulties he faced had him (especially feelings of depression), his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend whose Schengen visa expired partway through the period described, and the MFC.
In their first outing, Matabeleland win one and lose two of their group games, playing a further fixture to determine their overall rank of 13th. Walley reflects that the ‘lowly’ position belied their true performances, especially given that their vanquishers both made the semi-finals.
The author is extremely well-travelled, having visited 150 countries and counting. This is an important aspect to remember when reading; as someone who has personally known several people in my previous life working for a large conservation charity who had a tickbox competition amongst themselves to see who could blag another new stamp here and there to their already heaving second passports, Walley honestly and skillfully avoids the pitfalls of both a kind of perpetual fatigue and cynicism from doing so, and their opposite number, a wide-eyed reverence for anywhere that isn’t home.
It’s a difficult balance to strike, and the section dedicated to his adventures and escapades in Russia for the showpiece tournament serve largely as a rebuttal to the growing mistrust and paranoia from the UK and elsewhere about the largest sovereign state on the planet. Moreover, he is at pains to point out the friendliness of the populace from Moscow to Kazan, remarking several times on the lack of fellow England supporters at games (who were mostly put off by FCO advice and constant negativity in the media), as well as the good-natured bonhomie between supporters of competing teams.
The diarised format of the prose does admittedly take you out of the immersion on occasion; on the flip side, it adds a layer of authenticity that would be harder to replicate months or years after the fact, and I found myself reading sections into the small hours several times. Even if I hadn’t spoken to the author before, he’s the kind of person I’d like to meet. His take on the world is individualistic (yet not) and unvarnished (yet carefully considered). His passions for travel, football, and just appreciating the simple things in life make him a sympathetic ‘character’, even if you parse that away from the political turmoil he was privy to at very close quarters.
I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether you care one iota about the beautiful game. It’s not a prerequisite to enjoying it, nor are the terms too technically minded to have you reaching for Google or highlighting the text on an e-reader. It is, at its heart, a celebration of the kindness of strangers, the company of a relentlessly positive outlook of a group of young men in the face of real adversity, and a frank account of personal struggles and triumphs. Make this your next purchase – it’s worth every cent, penny, or Ecocash mobile transfer payment!