CONIFA is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations and they exist to promote and support all football federations that are not associated under the FIFA umbrella. The 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup was held in London last month.
There were many fantastic stories surrounding the tournament but one of the most heartwarming had to be that of Matabeleland (a team that represents the people of regions in western Zimbabwe) winning their first ever international match.
Matabeleland’s story is an epic tale and the fact that they made it to London at all makes the story even more special. With no sponsorship or government support, they relied on crowdfunding and the sale of their incredibly original replica shirts to raise the necessary money to allow them to travel and compete. There were visa issues, a pre-tournament tour of South Africa was cancelled due to red tape and the flights to London, which had been held for several weeks, were released by the airline (as the full cost had still to be raised).
Despite the numerous setbacks the team got to Heathrow and team manager Justin Walley could at last put his mind to the task ahead, getting the team ready to play football.
Once the football started, Matabeleland were always at a disadvantage because the 3G pitches they were to play on were a far cry from the dry, rocky pitches back in Zimbabwe. The team only had one training session before they were thrown into action against Padania, one of the favourites and reigning CONIFA European Cup Champions. Matabeleland held their own until a disappointing 6 minute spell before half time saw them concede 3 goals. Padania went on to win 6-1, although Thabiso Ndlela did score Matabeleland’s first ever international goal.
In their second match Matabeleland faced another experienced European side, Székely Land. The team from Zimbabwe started excellently but were unable to deal with a 30th minute red card for their goalkeeper and went on to lose 5-0.
This brings us to a beautiful Sunday evening at Haringey. A good crowd was in attendance for the match between Tuvalu and Matabeleland and there was an air of anticipation among the fans from Zimbabwe. Despite Tuvalu also struggling in the CONIFA World Football Cup, this was a team who had beaten two FIFA affiliated teams as recently as last December (Tonga and New Caledonia) and were coming into the match with a point to prove.
The game started at a frenetic pace with both sides looking to attack and things got interesting in the 2nd minute when the Matabeleland goalkeeper went down after a late tackle by an onrushing Tuvalu attacker. Liverpool legend, Bruce Grobbelaar (who has been helping with coaching duties since the team arrived in the UK), had been named in the Matabeleland match day squad, so the crowd suggested that the 60 year old goalkeeper should be warming up!
The opening exchanges showed a stark contrast between the sides. The Pacific Islanders were strong and physical while Matabeleland played with a youthful energy and attacking intent.
In the 25th minute, some intricate passing set Goodwill Ndlovu free down the left and his perfectly weighted cross was met by Shylock Ndlovu who made no mistake from 6 yards out.
The lead did not last long. After a great touch and turn by Okilani Tinilau, he slid an inch perfect ball through to Etimoni Timuani who emphatically smashed the ball into the roof of the net.
As half time approached, Matabeleland forward Thabiso Ndlela robbed a defender of the ball before playing it across to his strike partner Shylock Ndlovu who scored his second of the match.
The history books could start to be written in the 90th minute when Thomas Nkomo was bundled over in the box and Sipho Mlalazi dispatched the penalty to jubilant scenes on the pitch, in the stands and in the Matabeleland dugout.
“Goosebumps!” said an ecstatic Walley after the match, “we’ve just beaten a country, not only a CONIFA team but we’ve beaten an actual country”. When asked what he said to the players, Walley explained that he had instilled into them the importance of a victory. “If this team continues for another 100, or 125 years, this group of players can say they were the first to get the win. They could go down in history.” Matabeleland – History Makers.
You can read more about our experiences at the CONIFA World Cup at www.awaydayneutrals.com