Zach Lowy and Justin Walley Discuss “One Football, No Nets”

In September 2017, amateur British football coach Justin Walley became the “National Team” Manager of Matabeleland, an obscure international team in western Zimbabwe. As a volunteer coach, Walley had one goal in mind: leading Matabeleland to the CONIFA World Cup in London the following summer. Zach Lowy, co-creator of Breaking The Lines, chats to Justin about his journey that took him through the toppling of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, being accused of being a Kremlin spy, and everything else in his book “One Football, No Nets.”

ZL: For those of us who don’t know, what exactly is the CONIFA?

JW: It’s the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. In the most simplistic way, it’s international teams that are not in FIFA. You’ve got countries recognized by the UN such as Tuvalu, and then you’ve got states such as Tibet that some people would recognize and others wouldn’t. You’ve got different groups from around the world; one example is the Rohingya from Burma, from Myanmar, who also have a team in CONIFA.

ZL: So CONIFA basically takes a lot of these disadvantage groups like the Rohingya and allows them to play in a separate organization; they could not, in other means, play in FIFA?

JW: That’s right, FIFA’s not going to entertain the idea of most of our teams playing.

ZL: And why is that?

JW: It’s down to interpretations of teams, and of course, some of those are fuzzy. Some people have issues with teams such as Kosovo and Gibraltar being in FIFA, but that’s down to different people’s interpretations. In CONIFA’s case, it’s very often if you have a team like Tibet…I don’t think China is going to make it comfortable for FIFA to allow [them to play in FIFA].

There’s a couple of strange examples. In the South Pacific, the likes of Tuvaluv and Kiribati, you know, the United Nations recognize teams and yet FIFA haven’t taken them into the fold, which is a strange one for me, but that’s how it seems to be at the moment.

ZL: This [book] seems a fascinating tale about one man’s adventure to the other corner of the world. What was your career like prior to September 2017 when you became manager of Matabeleland, an international team in Western Zimbabwe? What was your path before this?

JW: I’ve always had a passion for the game, and I’ve always played or been involved in teams, but I didn’t make it as a professional. Around the time I graduated, in those early years, I really was looking to establish myself with a career in football. I wanted to get involved with development and marketing in the game, and with coaching.

I got involved in a couple of things back in those days, ’95 and ’96, I worked with the European Championships in England; for one of the host cities, I was the assistant director. I had an interview with Tottenham at the time as well, and I also did my first coaching badge around that time, but things just didn’t really work out for me as I’d wished.

My life just took a bit of a different direction, and you have to fast-forward quite a few years to me getting involved with a football club in Latvia called Riga United, which I helped co-found. As the years went on, I just got a bit more serious, and we developed it, and consequently, that became a more serious thing and my coaching became a more serious thing. In the years prior to going to Matabeleland, I coached men’s second-league football in Latvia, women’s Premier League football, and then I was looking for an opportunity to do something else. I felt like I’d done that for long enough, and I really fancied something a bit different.

ZL: In September 2017, you became the national team manager of Matabeleland. How did you land this job?

JW: I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in football at the time. I was exhausted, that was part of the reason I left Latvia, I had found myself in a situation where I was head coach of one team, I was also a club secretary, I was responsible for finances, I was on the board of the club, I was coaching kids’ teams, and it just became a bit too much.

I went traveling with my girlfriend, looking at different opportunities, and then, as I mentioned in the start of my book, I went somewhere alone, a monasterial place, just to have a think about what I was going to do. I came up with this crazy idea: I wanted to be an international football manager.

As crazy as it sounds, I recognized there were certain parts of the world where it’s not about the badges or the money, it’s just about willing to get involved in a setup that’s got limited resources. I began looking at possible places, be it women’s or men’s football, and I understood that with CONIFA, there were quite a few members that needed help. I almost went to the South Pacific to coach, and then I got put in the direction of Matabeleland.

I’ve traveled a lot, and I’d lived for a brief time in Africa before, and that was an advantage because you’re going to an environment not everybody is necessarily going to be able to deal with. I got offered the opportunity to go out there, it was a voluntary role but the exciting part of it was the development and also the opportunity to take the team to a World Cup of sorts the following year.

ZL: What do you feel were some of the major challenges you were looking at when coming to Matabeleland?

JW: Before going, I wasn’t that sure. I was going into the unknown to a great extent. We were aware that the Robert Mugabe government is not the easiest place on Earth to operate, so I was a little bit concerned about that. I was a little bit concerned, to be honest, how I would be perceived: was I there to be a trouble maker–which I wasn’t–but some people thought that was the reason for me being there or perhaps the reason of the team.

We were trying to give an opportunity to a group of young men to develop as footballers, to give them opportunities, and to give a brighter situation to a community. I went into it a little bit fearful, and at the time I went, things were deteriorating economically and politically in the country as a whole, not specifically where I was in Zimbabwe, but that was how things were.

ZL: As you were in Zimbabwe, we witnessed the toppling of the Mugabe government. How did you feel the affects of Mugabe’s descent, not just as a coach, but as a resident in Zimbabwe?

JW: He had been in power for 37 years if I’m not mistaken. Most people that I came into contact with had never known a time before Mugabe. Despite the fact that he was in his mid-90s, no one really believed he was going to go. Zimbabwe is very controlled as a country, it’s known that people are monitored, and you’re aware of those things all the time. Personally, I made sure I kept within all the boundaries and that I didn’t do anything that would upset the authorities, because at the end of the day, I was there to coach a football team, to manage and help take a group of men to a tournament in London.

When Mugabe was removed from power, there was a lot of uncertainty about how things would go. Some people were predicting a bloodbath at the time, but fortunately, the transition from Mugabe to Mnangagwa ran as smoothly as one could possibly hope for in that part of the world. I felt there was more freedom in the period after his removal.

ZL: There was never really the potential of violent unrest that could threaten your home or your life?

JW: Most of it ran very peacefully at the time; the demonstrations were peaceful, and even when he was removed from power, the celebrations were peaceful. There was no need for the military to get involved with what was going on with the people themselves, it was more a question of what could happen, what might happen. I was always in this position of, I might be leaving and running to the border that very day, but it remained peaceful. It’s only now, in the last 2-3 weeks that we’ve seen violence and looting in Zimbabwe, and there was an element to that after the elections in the summer as well, but I wasn’t there during that period.

ZL: Robert Mugabe once said, “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man.” How did you feel living in this new society; did you ever feel like a fish out of water, or did it surprise you by how easily Zimbabwe started to feel like home?

JW: I lived in an entirely black community, I didn’t know any white people. I came across white people I saw, but on a daily basis, it wasn’t uncommon that I didn’t see a single white person, and I didn’t come into contact with white people.

I was accepted into the community. After I’d been there a few days, and you become less self-conscious of yourself being a different color of skin to everyone around you, I was treated so well that I didn’t think too much about it. I had a very positive experience in terms of how I was treated and accepted by the community there.

I lived briefly in Sierra Leone before, and I’ve probably been to about 15 countries in Africa, so I was able to assimilate a bit more quickly than some people might, but ultimately, it came to how I was treated. I was treated very well, so it really wasn’t a big issue, and in the case of Zimbabwe, it’s a former British commonwealth. There’s a certain familiarity in Zimbabwe that just reminds you of home or of growing up in the ’70s and ’80s as I did. There’s certain similarities with the language especially, they speak English, but there’s also an old-school, colloquial ’80s thing going on there. On the whole, I felt very comfortable.

ZL: Did you start to feel like a child again in certain aspects?

JW: There were reminders; in Bulawayo, you walk around and sometimes it looks like it’s sent in a time warp of these ’80s. You see these brands like Woolworth who’ve gone from the UK to here. You see advertising boards up and the fonts are very much an ’80s or early ’90s font. A lot of the infrastructure has not been updated since that time. A lot of the stuff that reminds you of the past, some of it is very nice in a way.

ZL: You’ve lived in a number of countries, but what were some unique aspects of Zimbabwean culture that made you feel at peace? Are there any certain things you’ll always remember from that/

JW: In many ways, the potential is there for Zimbabwe to be the finest country in Africa, and I think once upon a time it was, it was in a better place than South Africa is. There’s a sweetness to it, an old-school vibe of it, it’s a very nice, pleasant, comfortable place when things run relatively smoothly. The problem is you’ve got an economic and political situation which is not the best, and especially the economics. When people don’t have the money to put food on the table when there’s fuel shortages, it makes life difficult. In a way it’s a familiarity with an old Britain of the ’80s.

ZL: Was your financial life ever complicated by living in a more financially volatile country than Britain?

JW: There were no payments because I was a voluntary coach. There’s no ATM machines to take cash out, only domestic cards, but they stopped working and there was a limit of $10 a day, so I went in with euros and dollars and some pounds. I had to change that up into the bond dollar, which is the currency that’s used there alongside the U.S. dollar, and just use my money and see how far it would go.

I stayed with a family, and most days, I didn’t spend too much money, I just tended to go to football training, go for a walk. The money I had had to last for the period of time I was there. When I started to run out of money, I actually managed to get a wire of money sent from me from abroad into the country. $200 was sent from the U.K., and that was the only way I could have enough money to get through that period.

ZL: You were once accused of being a Kremlin spy. What was that like?

JW: If you fast-forward to after the CONIFA World Cup, I went to Russia for the FIFA World Cup, purely as a fan. I was still doing social media with Matebeleland on Twitter. I had a fairly decent following of engaged followers, some of my tweets went viral, and then I got messages from a couple of journalists suggesting that the nice things I was saying about Russia I was saying because I was an Russian asset.

ZL: And these were from which outlets exactly?

JW: There’s an organization called StopFake, a Ukrainian organization, and there was a journalist who was convinced I was somehow on an all expenses-paid trip by the Kremlin.

ZL: I was in Russia for 10 days at the World Cup and I had no complaints. I thought the security did a great job, I thought everything was in time, I couldn’t have expected a better-run tournament.

JW: I call a spade a spade, I’m not the most politically correct person in the world, if I don’t like something, I tend to tell the truth. I had a lot of fun, and I was positive about things I thought were positive. But some people either don’t believe it because they just see a country like Russia as always being bad, or they have their own agenda, they want to use you and spin what you’re saying and politicize it.

It was very surreal and it turned into a comedy because I had a lot of people engaging in those conversations and making fun of those people. The idea that I had been recruited by the Russians to go and coach in Zimbabwe was one suggestion that was really hilarious.

ZL: You’ve been all over the world. You’ve promoted AIDS education in Africa, you’ve worked in Latvia, and it seemed at a certain point, you had been burnt out. Would you say that Matabeleland, where you were working as a volunteer, was about rediscovering your passion in the game?

JW: I just wanted to take a project on where I could help people, but it was also beneficial to me in the sense that I was achieving something I felt was positive. In a purely football sense, to be able to take a team to a World Cup was an incredible experience as well. I like adventures, so it ticked a lot of boxes for me.

The whole CONIFA experience is a positive one–having all those different teams in London playing together was fantastic. I’m really honored that I had that opportunity, although I was completely exhausted at the end of it.

ZL: There was a certain point where you were double-crossed by a higher-up in an Oceania federation. What was that like?

JW: It just was disappointing because I was planning to go there to help out with the team. I had big plans along with my friend Tony, we were going to go as joint international managers, and I think we could have achieved great things.

We were all set to go and then we were, I guess you’d call it betrayed, by the person setting it all up. We didn’t go, and it was very upsetting, very disappointing, very annoying at the time, but fortunately I was able to move on. I got the opportunity with Matabeleland, which I suspect was an even more exciting role, and Tony had a child a little after that. Our lives went very differently to how they might have been.

ZL: Your players barely had any food, they were cramming into trucks and driving far distances to get to matches…what were some challenges that you saw these guys face? Do you feel they were unique in their ability to resist these challenges whereas perhaps other teams you’ve coached have not shown that kind of resilience?

JW: If you compare it to most parts of Europe, [the Matabeleland players] live in a different kind of world, they have challenges that most people couldn’t imagine. That’s their lives, they got on with it, they love the game, and they wanted to succeed. Obviously, some of the young men never made it to London, in some cases because they didn’t have the right attitude to get in the final squad. But those lads are dedicated to the game, they have dreams of making it in the game, and whatever happens in their lives, those of them that got to London can always say that they represented their community on an international stage.

They represented Zimbabwe, and that’s a hell of an achievement, something they should all be very proud of. They went through those things you mentioned: 17 guys in a truck, at a time when we had no equipment for training. Times were hard, but we made it.

ZL: While you became a “Kremlin spy,” at the same time, you became a mini-celebrity on Russian TV. Was that a double-sided coin, if you will?

JW: Going back to what we were saying about the spy thing, I left the London World Cup and went immediately to the Russian World Cup, and was expecting to have a quiet time of things. It was quite funny because the media thing exploded and I got invited to a couple of Russian things. I’d been doing media with Matabeleland for several months, so I’d gotten more used to saying yes every time I was invited to do interviews. I just continued with the same opinion, and when I was asked in Russia, I came across fairly well, and at the same time, the social media I was doing was capturing just more and more interest.

To put it in context, I only have 3.5 thousand followers there, but I had almost 2 million views just in July off my tweets. It just tells you that something went a bit crazy there for a while. As often happens in the media, you get invited onto a couple of things, and before you know it, it’s five or six things. I don’t think my story was particularly interested, but it gathered a bit of momentum at the time.

ZL: What were some of the most challenging days you faced in Zimbabwe?

JW: There were two things. One was around the time of Mugabe’s removal, everybody was off the streets, we didn’t know where it was going to go, I was wondering whether it was safe to continue. More so, it was when we were trying to get the visas together for the players. We were due to leave to go to London and we still didn’t have the visas, and we had two or three days there where it was crazy. Getting from a stage where we had no players on the plane to getting all the players on the plane, and also not having all the flight tickets, not having all the money, that was incredibly stressful and surreal.

ZL: You met one of the most famed Zimbabwean footballers ever, Bruce Grobbelaar, and he eventually became your goalkeeping coach. How did you convince him to become the goalkeeping coach for Matabeleland?

JW: Bruce is arguably the most famous player to ever put on a shirt for Zimbabwe. He started off his playing career in Matabeleland with a club team there. We were trying to raise a lot of money to get the team to London, we needed awareness, we needed a bit of advice and expertise, and I just decided to email Bruce. If you don’t try, you don’t know. I wasn’t expecting to hear back from him, but he emailed me back the following day, said he was well aware of the project, and that he’d be happy to meet me to discuss potential involvement.

The only problem was he was in Canada and I was in Latvia at the time. We looked at our diaries and there was a possibility of meeting somewhere in England in March or April of last year. I was back in England for a while, and Bruce was around, and we ended up meeting in a motorway service station. He was driving south, I was driving north, and we sat down in a coffee shop there. I think he wanted to see whether I was genuine, whether I was trying to set him up, maybe it was a project that wasn’t quite what it seemed.

He was happy with what I had to say to him, he was happy to help us, to be a brand ambassador. And then I, a little bit cheekily, I asked if he’d be goalkeeper coach with us, and he said he’d do it. I also had the idea in my mind where I would have him as a fourth-choice goalkeeper as well and maybe give him five minutes at the end of the game, but I didn’t want to put him off by saying that to him at the time. Fortuitously for us, he agreed to get involved, and he joined us in London.

ZL: “One Football, No Nets” seems like a fascinating adventure towards chasing your dreams. What is next in your pursuit of your dreams?

JW: I’m planning to go to Brazil for the Copa América in the summer. I’ve been to a couple of Copa Américas before, but I want to spend an extended period of time out there, so I’m hoping to go out to Brazil for three months. You never know, there might be coaching opportunities, there might be something interesting to do, so I want to have a look. Then, I’m thinking to get involved with another team in a similar situation to Matabeleland, perhaps in the autumn, and perhaps look to take them to a tournament, or take them to a point where they’ve seriously developed. That’s one thought I’ve got at the moment.

There’s lots of things I enjoy doing in my life, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be football. It might be traveling, it might be music, I don’t know. I’m open to living life and doing things that make me happy. I’m currently with my mum at the moment, spending a few weeks, and that’s priceless. It’s just about being happy at the end of the day, and if you do something that helps people, that’s a two-way street. You gain a happiness from helping others.

ZL: Would you recommend this to other young British or just young coaches in general, trying to find their footing? Would you recommend going to another club or team in need, on a volunteer basis?

JW: Absolutely. There’s opportunities out there, and if you’re sensible out it, it’s not going to knock you back hugely financially. If you’ve not got a family, you’ve not got a mortgage, and you want to further yourself, rather than spending six or seven seasons with the local club trying to get somewhere, and feeling like you’re banging your head against the wall, maybe look at going somewhere like Matabeleland where you’ve got an opportunity to help people.

There’s teams all over Africa, who have amazing players and very grateful people, that are crying out for coaches to come in and give a bit of structure to what they’re doing. That’s a great thing to get on your CV, to prove you can do something like that. I’d say the same as a player; too many players, especially from my country of England, they don’t think of going abroad. To break through in this country is extremely difficult, but go somewhere and give it a try. Show people what you can do.

I think it’s an investment, the same as you spend four years at university and it costs you a lot of money, think about going somewhere and coaching. And if you’re going somewhere where they need help, you’re also giving a lot as well.

ZL: From your experience as a coach, what are some common errors you see in a lot of young coaches? Perhaps trying to prioritize a big move or expending your energy at the expense of your own health? What are some pieces of advice you have for young coaches?

JW: For young coaches, you have a strange perception of time. You think you want everything today, and you’ve got to remember, hopefully, life is not too short and you’ve got the opportunity to focus on where you want to go and what you want to do in the future. Say to yourself, I’m going to go there now, I’m going to go somewhere completely different and try something. There isn’t such a thing as failure really, because if it doesn’t work out for you, you’ll have learned a lot, you’ll have developed as a coach.

Don’t just look at life from one angle, that you’re stuck in a rut, you’re in one little town, there’s a club down the road and that’s all there is. That’s not the case, there’s lots of opportunities out there, but they might mean you stepping away from your safety zone to do them. If that’s your passion, give it a go, and try and push yourself to places beyond your comfort zone.

ZL: Do you expect to have an active role in getting African football to reach its potential?

JW: African football is a huge thing. It’s on that road because you just have to look at the top leagues now and see all the top professionals who have made it in the game, and the demand for those kinds of players. African football is on the up, there is development in several countries, there’s better and better coaches working in those places. We all contribute a little bit, and it’s helping people believe there are opportunities.

Africa is full of young men who see successful African players playing for the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal, and they can dream and believe. There’s an endless supply of fantastic footballers out there, so I think the potential is just starting to be realized, but it’s all unlimited in many ways.

ZL: What do you think is holding Africa back in terms of development of young players? Do you think there needs to be more investment into academies so players don’t have to go to Europe to develop, or is that just inevitable?

JW: Zach, it’s just a different world. Most African countries, people are surviving on almost nothing, there’s no real pitches, there’s no real facilities, guys don’t have real boots, people don’t even play with real footballs. They’re just incredible footballers who learned to play the game on the street. It’s hard to imagine compared to the likes of North America and Europe. It’s a completely different world, so every bit of development that comes their way takes them forward. That’s even just having a real football to play with or a good surface to play on.

We’re so fortunate in what we have in the West, and I think that’s another thing for young coaches: to be in that environment, it’s very grounding. It would make a lot of coaches appreciate what they have and not be frustrated when things are not working out for them.

ZL: What’s one thing you want people to take away from “One Football, No Nets?”

JW: I’d just say it’s to try and follow your dreams at the end of the day. None of us know how long we’ve got here. I think when I set out on that adventure, people doubted me. I think a few people laughed at me, and that’s fine, I think I would’ve perhaps done the same.

I had an incredible adventure. I made a lot of friends, and I feel like a made a positive difference, but that really only came about because I just took the gamble and tried it. I might not have been here now, telling you the story, I might not have even gotten into Zimbabwe and there wouldn’t be a story to tell, but you never know unless you try.

Write down your dreams and chase them. Don’t just say “Oh no, tomorrow.” If you’re going to do something, think about doing it today.

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