It was an international baptism of fire for Justin Walley’s Matabeleland as they were soundly beaten by current European champions Padania in their opening Group C game of the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup.
The 70-hour journey from southern Zimbabwe to Sutton United this week may have taken its toll on some of the coaches and staff for Matabeleland, but the players were still full of energy after the full-time whistle and their impressive fitness levels may see them stand a good chance in their final two games this weekend.
There was a partisan crowd at Ganders Green Lane as both sides emerged for the rather muffled national anthems; Sutton United’s speaker system struggled to do either song justice. As is very much a British tradition, a large portion of the crowd were backing the underdogs, who had entertained spectators from the moment their warm-up begun as they chanted and jogged in unison around their half of the pitch.
Matabeleland were energetic from kick-off which at times left them slightly out of position and gave the rigid back four little protection. Their first attack was thwarted by the offside flag and quickly Padania took the lead, striker Giacomo Innocenti opening his account with a simple tap in.
The rest of the half was very even with Padania’s measured play the antithesis of Matabeleland’s enthusiasm. Former Lithuania international Marius Stankevicius patrolled the Padania back line and was rarely troubled by the Matabeleland forwards, despite the fact that he was always going to struggle in a foot race with his opposition.
Three goals in the five minutes before the break took the wind out of the sails of the fans, as Gabriele Piantoni scored a brace and Innocenti doubled his tally to put Padania 4-0 up at half-time. Piantoni should have had a hattrick and won’t want to remember why he didn’t, after missing a simple open goal.
Padania made all four of their changes early in the second half to keep their players fit for the relentless schedule of the World Football Cup, and a two-minute salvo of goals from striker William Rosset and Andrea Rota made the scoreline 6-0.
The sixth goal will not be one that the Matabeleland keeper will want to see again. A ball over the top away from goal was closed down by Notice Dube towards the corner flag, but the shot stopper couldn’t prevent a corner which was quickly taken, and he was helpless to prevent the ball floating over his head and then dispatched by Rota into an empty net.
Padania did take the foot off the gas slightly at this point and allowed Matabeleland to outnumber them in attack and put pressure on their back line. After some good work from Thabiso Ndlela on the edge of the box earned his side a corner, it was taken short before being put back into the box and Ndlela was there to score his side’s first ever competitive goal. The goal was met with the loudest cheer of the day, the half a dozen or so Matabeleland ultras behind the goal leading the celebrations, and a very much deserved goal for the African side gave them something to focus on going into their next game against the Szekely Land on Saturday.
Padania ran out comfortable winners in this game unsurprisingly and for much of the game weren’t under a lot of pressure, but it was a possibly a tougher test than they would have expected and fitness may be a concern for the northern Italians as they go further into this tournament if they’re not careful. Tuvalu are their next opponents on Saturday and a win would almost certainly guarantee them progression to the next round.
The highlight of the day was Matabeleland’s goalkeeper Notice Dube and his extraordinary distribution of the ball throughout the match. Not the tallest ‘keeper in the competition, but Dube is agile and quick and can pick out a teammate 70 or 80 yards away with ease. The news this morning is Bruce Grobelaar has been registered with the Matabeleland squad, and although it may do the side’s publicity some good, it would be a shame if Dube was not given another chance in Saturday’s match.
The Matabeleland squad shook hands with hundreds of fans after the game and thanked every one of them for their support, and at the end of the day, this is exactly the sort of spirit that CONIFA want to flourish this summer. The score line suggests Padania were victorious today, but football was the real winner.