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The CONIFA World Football Cup, which took place in London earlier this year, is a football hipster’s dream. Where else could you see Kárpátalja, a team made up of ethnic Hungarians who live in Ukraine, beat Northern Cyprus on penalties in the final at a non-league stadium?

It was a pure celebration of football, a chance for unrecognised countries and minorities of the world to get their names out, as well as for players with no previous hope of playing internationally. Despite the light-hearted, almost jokey way in which most fans refer to the CONIFA and its tournaments, it’s important to remember that most of its members have had to overcome difficult journeys on their road to London – and not just literally.

For Matabeleland, coached by Englishman Justin Walley during the tournament, that journey has been a long one, not just for the team itself but the entire region. There are many reasons why the team’s fans and players celebrated so hard when they earned their first ever competitive win, a 3-1 trouncing of Tuvalu in Haringey, and history is one of them.

Making up the western half of Zimbabwe, a tad bigger than England, Matabeleland is home to the Ndebele people, descendants of the South Africa Zulus and a minority in Zimbabwe. For decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ndebele fought against British rule, but ultimately succumbed in the 1920s before becoming part of white-ruled Rhodesia in 1965, when Prime Minister Ian Smith declared independence from the UK.

Oppressed and discriminated against by the Rhodesians, the Ndebele, along with the majority Shona people, began to fight back.

Even before independence, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) had been formed, but as with most groups caught in the heat of prospective revolution, splinter groups formed. In 1963, Robert Mugabe formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

These groups formed an uneasy alliance as during the war against Smith’s government in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but ever since ZANU’s founding, the two had grown apart. ZAPU received training from the Soviet Union and started recruiting more from Matabeleland, while ZANU was supported by China and recruited from Mashonaland, the eastern half of the country.

Tensions between the two weren’t helped by neighbouring South Africa, who constantly played up post-revolution paranoia. Zimbabwean independence in 1980 should’ve been a happy time, but in reality the bad times were far from over.

Attempts to unite the armed supporters of ZANU and ZAPU into one army weren’t going well. ZAPU supporters, worried about persecution by the newly-elected Mugabe, deserted the army, and the two parties came to blows in 1980 and 1981 in Bulawayo, Matabeleland’s capital.

Mugabe wanted these dissidents crushed and created the 5th Brigade, trained by North Koreans. He christened it the Gukurahundi – a Shona word meaning ‘the rain which washes over the chaff before the spring rains’.

Sadly, it became obvious where this was going.

In 1983, the 5th Brigade moved in North Matabeleland, declaring a curfew and holding public executions. Eyewitness accounts tell of ordinary Ndebele, even schoolchildren, shot without reason.

After pulling out in April, the 5th Brigade moved to the South the next year. Though acting in a more clandestine fashion, their methods were no less gruesome. Thousands were sent to be tortured in detention facilities, while others starved as the government ended drought relief.

Figures are shaky, but around 20,000 died in Matabeleland in these years.

Peace was eventually found in 1987, when ZAPU and ZANU merged to form today’s ruling ZANU-PF party, but this didn’t do much to satisfy those in Matabeleland who were persecuted for years. Death certificates were never issued, bodies were never found, and Mugabe never admitted to what actually happened.

“To this day, the populace of Matabeleland and the Midlands do not dare to talk openly about the Gukurahundi massacres,” says Jabulani Nyathi, chairperson of the Save Matabeleland Coalition: “People remain angry but because they live in fear they cannot vent their anger.

“Many bear visible scars from the beatings they endured and many lost loved ones they have never mourned properly.”

Though records have been released since, revealing Mugabe’s intentions to crush the dissidents that caused him so much trouble after independence, this isn’t enough.

Answers for historians, sure, but no answers for the victims.

Times are happier now, despite Matabeleland’s disadvantaged status in comparison to the rest of Zimbabwe, and football has a part to play in that. In 2016, Busani Sibindi and Busani Khanye founded the Matabeleland Football Confederacy (MFC), supported by the Save Matabeleland Coalition (SAMACO), in order to develop football in the region.

“Football is a universal language that is understood by everyone and easily brings people together,” says Sibindi: “The Confederacy was founded to fill in the structural void that has left the people of Matabeleland disenfranchised in most areas of their lives.

“The primary purposes of the Confederacy is to promote talent development and create opportunities for the people of Matabeleland, promote their distinct culture and identities internationally, bring the people of Matabeleland together on a common platform, and help them heal the wounds of the trials and tribulations they have had to endure.”

The actual Matabeleland team met for the first time in 2017, only a year before the World Football Cup. Praise Ndlovu was one of those scouted for the team, and would ultimately captain the side in London: “Football has always been a childhood dream, but due to certain circumstances I never had an opportunity to be a professional player.”

The team never got the opportunity to play an official friendly, put still managed to pick up qualification points by playing unofficial matches – Ndlovu debuted against Global Maramba, a Zambian side. Qualification was secured, but it was one thing getting to London, and another thing getting to London: “The road to London always seemed impossible considering the overall cost.” says Ndlovu: “There are a lot of people who worked tirelessly to get the team funding.”

If fate shined on Matabeleland to make it to the World Football Cup, it certainly didn’t shine on their chances to make it out of the group stages. Pacific islanders Tuvalu were beatable, sure, but Padania, made up of players from Northern Italy, and Székely Land, a team of ethnic Hungarians living in Romania were uphill challenges. The latter two finished fourth and third respectively, their teams of semi-professional and professional players far too skilled for Matabeleland’s amateurs.

Among the team’s ranks, though, was a familiar face. Former Liverpool goalkeeper and Zimbabwe international Bruce Grobbelaar was brought in as a goalkeeping coach. “Everyone was delighted getting the news that Bruce was going to be part of the team,” says Ndlovu: “We were in high spirits. It was the first time for us a time being together in camp as a full squad.”

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The team’s first match came against Padania, the pre-tournament favourites. They lived up to their billing, going 4-0 up before half-time, then extending their lead to to six by the 61st minute. This thrashing didn’t stop wild celebrations from the team after Thabiso Ndela scored a consolation, though.

A 5-0 loss to Székely Land followed, confirming Matabeleland’s early exit. A match with Tuvalu still followed, though – an opportunity to get three points on the board. “We all wanted to redeem ourselves,” says Ndlovu: “A win was the easiest way to pay back the people who showed faith in the team.”

That payback came. Shylock Ndlovu netted early, and despite a Tuvalu equaliser only minutes later, scored for a second time just before the half-time mark.

An injury-time penalty from Sipho Mlalazi confirmed their first competitive win and the fact that, in Ndlovu’s words: “Matabeleland is here to stay.”

With London in the rear-view mirror, all hands are on deck at the Football Confederacy to keep the momentum going in Matabeleland. A women’s team has recently been formed, while the men are looking to qualify for the Human Rights Cup in South Africa this December.

MFC President Sibindi still sees a long way to go for football in the region, though: “The MFC is fairly young and is still to fully evolve as an institute. Our support base in the community and abroad is our biggest asset, but material infrastructure is still a challenge for us. We’re looking to fundraise for proper equipment, training grounds, and facilities.”

Luckily, CONIFA World Cup coverage has brought increased publicity: “People have started to learn a lot about the struggles that have been facing us for some time now,” says Sibindi.

Local pride is increasing, too, according to Sibindi: “After the genocide and decades of marginalisation, our people have found it difficult to celebrate their identity, to gather as people and live productive lives. They need platforms to help them restore their self-worth and dignity.

“The MFC was founded to fill the void that has left the people of Matabeleland disenfranchised for most of their lives. We have partners all over the region and we help local teams develop, especially rural teams.”

Nyathi, chairperson of the Save Matabeleland Coalition, agrees: “On the social front, the development of football gives the people of Matabeleland something to be proud of and something to unite them.

“If some of the players from Matabeleland end up playing in the major leagues of Europe, it would have a significant impact. The development of football here could create a sports industry that can benefit the region if we pursue it carefully.

“There is definitely a lot of untapped footballing talent here. Young people play football daily but there is no emphasis on the possibility of becoming a footballer. People don’t grow up idolising football players, so they don’t push themselves.”

Football has always been a refuge for the downtrodden, and sadly Matabeleland still remains behind the rest of Zimbabwe. “There is unfairness in hiring whenever new businesses open in the region,” says Nyathi. “The locals have to protest to be considered for jobs. Many have been forced to seek employment in neighbouring countries.”

Still, hope, as it tends to, is growing here thanks to the actions of SAMACO and the MFC, among others. Acronyms usually signal disagreement and war, but now they show unity in Matabeleland.

“I am full of hope for the future and I am encouraged by the efforts of many organisations’ work on providing scholarships for students at universities, building hospitals in rural communities, and simply starting businesses,” says Nyathi.

“In 10 years’ time I would like to see the cities and towns of Matabeleland restored to look like cities and towns in developed countries.”

Football might be important in this corner of Zimbabwe, but it’s only part of a bigger dream.