FIFA often boasts about having more member nations than the UN. But what about those sub-national regions that aren’t recognised by FIFA and don’t get to make the leap that Gibraltar have made and compete against the established nations? In recent years there has been a growing interest in these football minnows with books like Up Pohnpei leading the charge. The CONIFA World Cup last Summer gained plenty of attention as the minnows of the world competed against each other in London.
One Football, No Nets is set in this world where football meets questions of regional sovereignty. The book tells the story of Justin Walley’s attempts to take the Matabeleland side (a region in Western Zimbabwe) to the CONIFA tournament. Walley, a British man coaching in Latvia, was determined to try his hand at international football management and swapped his relatively comfortable live for the unknown in Africa. He devoted more than a year attempting to forge the team into shape and manage the logistics (and finances) of getting them to London.
The story is told in an in-depth diary format. At times the logistical challenges appear insurmountable with limited resources, poaching of players and visa problems. Walley goes to all possible lengths to drum up support and funding for the team – including enlisting the help of the legendary Bruce Grobbelaar.
The book is at its best when giving insight into the struggles of daily life in Zimbabwe during the final days of Robert Mugabe’s long period in power. Walley captures the paranoia, fear and cautious optimism present in the country on the cusp of historic regime change.
If the book has one weakness, it is that players’ own stories and personalities don;t feel fully developed. Ultimately none of them remain memorable in the way that, for example, the lady who Walley lodged with does.
The case for why Matabeleland should have a team separate from the Zimbabwe national team is never made quite clear in the book. I’ve read that the region is culturally and ethnically distinct in many ways from the rest of the country, but Walley doesn’t dwell on this in the book. Throughout the story he seemed very cautious about expressing sentiments of regional sovereignty which would have provoked the anger of the Zimbabwean authorities (and understandably so!).
There is an additional final chapter which at first glance appears unnecessary but is just too entertaining to have been left out. Walley covers his time as a fan at the World Cup in Russia during which he became a mini-celebrity and foreign brand ambassador for the region of Tatarstan.
Overall, the book is a pleasure to read. Walley writes with openness, honesty and humour about the challenges he faced in trying to fulfill his, and the players’, dream. It is quite a personal book and your reaction to the book may very will mirror your feelings about the author. For me, Walley comes across as one of life’s dreamers – a man determined to experience the world rather than simply pass time. As I type this in my office at lunchtime while looking at Walley’s twitter feed showing him enjoying a trip to Brazil, I can’t help but admire and envy his courage, free spirit and sense of adventure. An interesting man and an interesting book.