Book Review: One Football, No Nets
One Football, No Nets
by Justin Walley
Published by Bennion Kearny
As a study in dynamism and making things happen, Justin Walley’s One Football, No Nets is a fascinating example of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
Walley, apparently one of those restless souls who in the words of the Lemon Jelly tune, has to ‘keep on rambling’ devoted much of 2017 and 2018 whipping a national team into shape to represent Matabeleland in the CONIFA World Cup staged in London last year.
For the uninitiated, the CONIFA tournament is the showpiece event for those national associations not yet affiliated to FIFA while Matabeleland is a province that takes up the entire western region of modern day Zimbabwe, the historic home of the Ndebele people.
The book proceeds in diary form and the first two thirds of the book detail Walley’s attempts to corral the team, stage friendlies, book flights to London and a myriad of other things in order to realise his dream.
How Walley came to be considered for the role is curious and it really does seem that there is a role of international manager out there for anyone willing to take on the role. Despite initially less than obvious credentials – he starts the book in the Latvian second division – Walley’s energy marks him out as fully deserving of the position as does, crucially, an uncomplaining willingness to dip into his own pocket when money for various hurdles proves not be forthcoming. It should also be said that he clearly knows a bit or two about football tactics while it’s obvious too that he is a very fit late fortysomething who must have been a handy footballer in his day himself.
The book is at its strongest in its descriptions of Zimbabwe and Matabeleland themselves – and that Walley’s period in charge coincided with the loosening of Robert Mugabe’s grip on power makes it all the more gripping. Tales of negotiating daily life in the country are fascinating while there are also vignettes dealing with other African cities and countries including a dystopian Johannesburg and a backpacker-friendly Ethiopia.
Matabeleland is culturally and ethnically distinct and while there is a separatist movement, Walley and his cohorts clearly feel they are representing Zimbabwe as a whole to a degree, being conscious to not provoke bad blood.
That’s heartening of course – but while Walley, throughout his extensive attempts to gain publicity and funding for the project, expresses disquiet at any line of questioning becoming political, the book does skirt around the shadier side of certain groups using CONIFA as a platform.
That the tournament features Padania, a broad term for the northern Italian region and one utilised by the right wing Lega Nord of Matteo Salvini (now simply the ‘Lega’ and enjoying a share of power) is an uncomfortable element – while the presence in CONIFA of various teams representing Hungarian minorities including Székely Land and Kárpátalja at a time that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric becomes more and more extreme is also unsettling.
Indeed, while Kárpátalja end up winning the tournament, in its wake, players with Ukrainian citizenship were banned from playing the sport for life, whilst Hungarian nationals on the team were told they can no longer enter Ukraine. Walley describes ‘black shirted ultras’ as being in attendance to support the Székely Land squad and while CONIFA is overall a life affirming phenomenon, it would be wrong to be naïve about its more unsavoury elements.
But for Matabeleland and for Walley, this is a straight up triumph of the human spirit. Found wanting in their opening two games against Padania and Székely Land, they sweep to victory against Tuvalu and one certainly believes the manager in his assertion that a little more time and a little more chaos would have brought about better results. An ongoing cameo from Liverpool and Zimbabwe great Bruce Grobbelaar adds colour and the man proves himself ever willing to muck in and support the team. One also senses that this is not the end of the story – whether it is with Matabeleland for at the helm of another association, Walley will surely crop up again.