FIFA describes itself as a non-profit organisation, ‘For the Game. For the World.’ However, with the gap becoming ever bigger than it ever has been across the world between the large club sides and smaller ones and talk not going away of a new European Super League that will only benefit the large clubs, it’s very difficult to see this. 

On the national side of things, the top countries also benefit. 

Nations such as Micronesia have tried to join multiple times but have been turned down due to FIFA’s confusing and off-putting process. The qualifying stage for smaller nations is also painstakingly long. Two play-offs and three group stages and then potentially another two play-offs spread over three years is how a nation like Pakistan would have to qualify for the World Cup. Whereas England for example, just have to play 10 games in just over a year in one group. 

England should have an easier qualifying route because they’re a better side than Pakistan. However, it’s clear to see that FIFA doesn’t want smaller nations to qualify from Asia and Oceania as it wouldn’t be as lucrative as another side from Europe. Therein lies the problem. The only members that benefit from FIFA are the top ones.

Alongside other problems such as allegations of corruption and talk of slaves building stadiums for their major showpiece in 2022, FIFA has been bombarded over the past decade with negative stories with many fans and plaudits of the game fed up with the governing body of football.

Ultimately, FIFA quite frankly couldn’t care about what state the game is in as long as there is still money to be made and deals to be done with lucrative advertisers and broadcasters. With the next World Cup two years away in a country that, according to Human Rights Watch, leaves migrant workers vulnerable to systematic abuse. It’s absolutely terrifying and clear to see what FIFA’s main intentions are. 

FIFA aren’t doing their job properly, Football should be used for change and to inspire. Not a vehicle for sports washing and passing brown envelopes around whilst squeezing all of the profit to the richest members. 

Luckily, there are some organisations affiliated with the game that realise the power they have. Take for example CONIFA. CONIFA, or the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, describes itself as the football federation for all associations outside FIFA. 

CONIFA understands the power that football can bring and the World Football Cup is a fine example of this. Hosted every two years, CONIFA brings together minority groups, sports-isolated territories and de-facto states together in the name of football.

Matabeleland, the western province of Zimbabwe. Competed in the 2018 edition of the tournament. Under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, Matabeleland suffered decades of human rights abuses including genocides and massacres. The national team was set up to provide a focal point for the identity and pride of the nation. 

I caught up with the former manager of the side, Justin Walley, to understand how Matabeleland was brought together because of football. 

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Hi Justin, When you originally took the job of Matabeleland did you realise what it would prevail in terms of bringing together a region through football? 

When I took the job on, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what I was going into. I saw it as an opportunity to improve the lives of an impoverished community in Zimbabwe. I saw it as an opportunity to coach and to take on the role that was an incredible opportunity to play at a World Cup.

I went into it very much not knowing what to expect. I didn’t read too much of the news before I left. I knew that I couldn’t travel directly to the country so I had to go through South Africa. The Zimbabwe Government could’ve perceived it in a different way. They could’ve thought I was a foreign agent to foment troubles. The situation was worse than I expected. Inflation was really bad. There were fuel shortages.

Nobody was attending our matches. We had to use a public pitch with only two footballs and no goal nets.

Did you know about the difficult history the region had?

 Yes. I knew about the mistreatment, the bush wars and the genocides committed under Mugabe in Matabeleland which shaped the history of the region as a result.

How was Matabeleland brought together because of football during the WFC 2018?

It wouldn’t be true to say we united the region. We were laughed at. People thought we weren’t legitimate at first and were part of a political movement. No one thought we’d actually go to London. What happened though was that we ended up putting Matabeleland and Zimbabwe on the map. We sung the Zimbabwe anthem and if you google Matabeleland you just see the genocide. However, we were a very positive story. Whatever happens in the future, we’re on the road to making a positive impact.” 

How did the tournament impact on the lives of the players that made the trip to London?

Most of these boys had never been on a plane before or abroad. It was a tremendous experience for the young men. It gave them motivation that anything could be achieved. Some of the lads have gone onto to play for bigger clubs in Zimbabwe. The players went away thinking that they could achieve anything in life. They also have a travel record for themselves which could enable them to travel more and get visas. It changes people’s lives in a different way.” 

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How important is football in changing society for good and what impact can it play in a region that has had a difficult past? 

I’m a great believer of this. This is a reason I’m involved with football. It’s a global sport loved by billions. It can be used to improve the lives of people. I had personal experience in Sierra Leone. 90% of the people involved were local Africans which was fantastic. You can’t get more difficult than Sierra Leone. Sport, in general, has that ability and football can change lives. There’s so much that can be achieved from the smallest to the biggest of projects. There’s now a Women’s Matabeleland team as well which is great.

How pleased are you that in an era of football losing its soul, an organisation such as CONIFA exists?

CONIFA is a fantastic organisation. They represent a lot of people that don’t have football. From Abkhazia to Matabeleland, it gives the opportunity to mix different groups and countries together. There’s no nonsense at the top of the game. When my Matabeleland finished their first game at the World Football Cup in 2018, they shook everyone’s hand in the stadium.

Your new role at Confia is coaching development director, how does it feel to work for an organisation that uses football to bring nations together?

It’s a real honour. The main idea for my role is to improve the amount of coaching that goes on and to work with regional bodies. My life at the moment has been thrown in the air at the minute with borders being closed.  When things settle down I hope I can give the role the time it needs. It’s about improving the standards of coaching and how teams play.

Thanks for talking to us Justin.

No Worries. Pleasure.

Justin’s book, One Football No Nets is out now on Amazon. 

Luckily, CONIFA isn’t the only organization that understands the impact that football has in bringing people together. The Homeless World Cup is an event that takes place every year around the globe that advocates the end of homelessness through football.

During the 2019 edition, I was lucky enough to have covered the event in Cardiff and it’s incredible to see the power that football has. People that have had to seek asylum, People with substance misuse issues and people who sleep rough all being given a second chance through football is incredible to see. 

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The 17th edition of the tournament started off in a car park under the Principality Stadium where the opening ceremony started. Just under 500 players each with their own stories from close to 50 nations made their way over to Bute Park in the name of football and a hopeful future. 

Alongside the football on display which was entertaining to watch with most games ending in high scoring draws, there were some fascinating talks on display with people that were committed to the cause of ending homelessness. Small Nation: Big Ambition to End

Homelessness was a talk hosted by Michael Sheen with Crisis UK CEO Jon Sparkes, and Cymorth Cymru Director, Katie Dalton.

Whilst Wales were facing off against Mexico on pitch two, Jon spoke over in the Bevan tent five metres away about how Finland’s almost managed to end homelessness and how Wales can follow. “Finland is very close to eradicating all forms of homelessness except sofa surfing. You just think, we really ought to be able to tackle something like this in a small country”. He told Michael Sheen.

This is the power that football has. The Homeless World Cup gives people a lifeline that wouldn’t have been there before. Take Hong Kong for example. Over 80% of the players involved with the homeless side have managed to find work after playing in the tournament.  

Those that want to stay involved in football afterwards can do coaching badges and play for a team that recruits all of the previous Homeless World Cup players.

Not only did the tournament change the lives of the players it also changed people’s mindset. By the end of the event, people’s attitudes had changed towards people experiencing homelessness. Members of the public in Cardiff had started to buy people who sleep rough clothes and food. Football managed to change society for good.

In an era where football is sometimes seen as evil and big tournaments are held in countries such as Brazil and South Africa that can’t afford to host them that leaves massive white elephants of stadiums in places like Amazonia and Polokwane, it is easy to forget the good that football can do. For the players of the Hong Kong homeless side or those that haven’t been able to represent their nation on a global stage before, it’s changed their life.