Mbwana Samatta: Tanzania’s Record-Breaking Gem
The Tanzanian Premier League is back after the pandemic, and so are the fans. Although at a socially distant one-metre, supporters will attend stadiums up and down the country following the restart.
On the pitch, Simba SC are hunting for their twentieth league title. With a healthy lead over the rest, the Tanzanian giant should prevail in their quest for number 21.
Rewind ten years, and a fresh-faced 17-year-old Mbwana Samatta lines up for second-division Tanzanian side, Mbagala Market. There were no wages, no play-to-play schemes, or hefty goal bonuses. Samatta and his teammates played for the fun of it, as does the majority of the football-mad population of Tanzania.
£50 a month?
That was, however, until new ownership entered the club. A name change to African Lyon FC, and wages of £50 per month, would be enough to kickstart thoughts of a genuine career in football for Samatta.
New management were right to invest in Mbagala Market. The Dar es Salaam club secured first-division football. Following victory in the Tanzanian first division in 2015/16, Samatta’s first was now operating in the country’s top division.
The striker’s talents caught the eye of Tanzania’s best, Simba SC. However, he wouldn’t finish the season there or even in Tanzania. An impressive thirteen goals later, including a strike in the African Champions League against his future employers, Mbwana Samatta, was on the move.
The Tanzanian sealed a transfer to Congolese behemoth Tout Puissant Mazembe—a move which evolved to lay the foundations for a springboard to Europe. Four top-flight titles in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and an African Champions League, are what Samatta will fondly remember of his spell.
Racking up more than a goal every two games in the Congo for TP Mazembe, alongside a fruitful showing for the national side, provoked whispers emanating from other continents. The Tanzanian hitman registered 73 goals in 128 domestic appearances in his homeland. No wonder he was turning heads abroad.
In January 2016, Samatta won the African Inter-Club Player of The Year, awarded each year to a player plying his trade on the continent. Following his impressive personal accolade, Samatta received a call that would flip his footballing world on its head.
Tanzania’s European Exploits
Belgian outfit Genk coveted the striker and wanted to bring him to Europe on a four-year contract. A fee in the region of £720,000 was enough to prize Tanzania’s gem away. The six-figure investment would seem a bargain soon enough.
Samatta took to life in Belgium like a duck out of water. He did that which is ingrained in him; score goals. However, these finishes were not only showcased in Belgium. The Europa League housed Genk twice during Samatta’s time at the club. The Tanzanian grabbed nine goals in 11 qualifying games and a further five strikes in 19 Europa League Group Stage fixtures.
Samatta was the man for the occasion for Genk. He didn’t limit his goalscoring prowess to Belgian eyes only, and he didn’t confine his talents to the Jupiler League. Tanzania’s captain was proving himself on the biggest of occasions.
That is until Genk triumphed in 2018/19 and clinched the Belgian top-flight title, fending off competition from Club Brugge and Standard Liège. In true Samatta fashion, he registered 23 goals that year to help secure silverware, missing out on the top goalscorer by two goals.
Genk, in turn, qualified for the Champions League group stages. Samatta had reached UEFA’s flagship European domestic event.
No Tanzanian footballer had ever played in the Champions League. Samatta was in line to be the first. Think of the Liverpool team of the eighties, the countless galacticos in Spain, and AC Milan’s star-studded squads in the 21st century. There were no Tanzanians during the trophy lift, none on opposing sides, not one.
This isn’t a shocking statistic by any means. Tanzania is not known for its footballing exports. I imagine one would struggle to name a Tanzanian footballer aside from Mbwana Samatta. This could be, however, the start of things to come for the 57-million-strong population.
Samatta represents a nation, a continent, and all of those in Tanzania with a dream. He has torn up the script and paved the way for others just like him. From Mbagala Market, via Simba SC, to sharing the field with Europe’s best.
Mbagala Market to the Champions League
Genk’s Jupiler League win and qualification to the Champions League signalled to his people that you could achieve anything with real grit and determination. Nevertheless, Samatta and the Belgians still had a job to do.
Holders and six-time champions Liverpool FC were joined by an impressive Red Bull Salzburg from Austria. Napoli from Italy are the final team to join Genk in their Champions League group. On paper, progressing from Group E would be an effort for all involved, especially Genk, who were tipped to finish bottom.
First up for Genk; Salzburg away from home. Genk’s home fixtures and their two matches against Red Bull Salzburg would have been earmarked by the supporters as the two most likely games to pick up points. However, this Austrian side was special, and the Champions League was unforgiving.
Erling Braut Haaland, Denmark’s goalscoring prodigy and company, ran riot. Fifty minutes in, the Austrians were 5-1 up. Possibly a peek into what was to come in the competition for the Belgian side.
In the 52nd minute, Samatta managed to get himself on the scoresheet. A cross whipped in from the left found Samatta open in the box, roughly ten yards from goal. The Genk striker angled his body to head the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. The ‘keeper had no chance. Samatta’s ability in the air was clear for all to see as it had been in Belgium for the past four years.
Another Goalscoring Record?
There was no celebration with the scoreline so vast. You wouldn’t tell from the reaction of the Tanzanian, but he had etched his name into his country’s footballing history a little more. Not only was he the first Tanzanian to feature in the competition, he was now the only person from the country to score in it.
Samatta wasn’t here to make up the numbers. Speaking after the 6-2 Salzburg loss, Samatta reached out to an adoring fanbase back home;
“I used to watch this competition at home on television and hoped to be part of it sometime in the future. I have been working harder to achieve my target, and I am happy to have achieved some. For the upcoming players, nothing comes on a silver plate; work for it.”
Genk mustered up an impressive draw at home to Napoli in game-week two. That is a very impressive point for any side. Although guts and guile were on display to hold the visitors, the point gained would be their only point in Group E once concluded.
Samatta ended the European campaign with three goals in six—another against Salzburg and an unforgettable finish at Anfield. Samatta made a memorable debut in the Champions League, again earning admirers. This hardworking striker, equipped with a leap and an eye for goal, was relatively unknown outside Africa and Belgium. Well, not anymore.
Mbwana Samatta Eyes the Premier League
Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Eintracht Frankfurt and Lazio were all rumoured to be interested in the goal-getter. After his eye-catching performances in the Champions League, a quick look into the Tanzanian’s scoring habits in Belgium would have scouts discover 76 strikes in 191 games for Genk. Interests perked indeed.
Meanwhile, in the Premier League, a nasty knee injury to a recent signing from the Belgian league, Wesley, caused grave concern for Aston Villa boss Dean Smith. He needed a replacement and fast.
What about that guy in Belgium who nicked a goal against the European champions at Anfield?
Aston Villa enquired, and consequently, Villa got their man, beating off suitors from elsewhere. And with it, another record appeared on the horizon. A Tanzanian footballer had never graced the Premier League.
Samatta’s status in his homeland was cult-like. Think David Beckham in his prime, and triple it. The only Tanzanian to pull up trees in Europe had just cemented a move to a Premier League side steeped in top-flight history.
Think David Beckham in his Prime
This is a far cry from the boy who once played football with rolled-up carrier bags on the streets of Tanzania with his six siblings—the little boy who dreamed of playing in the best leagues and competitions in the world.
Genk received £8.5m for Samatta following their initial six-figure investment and a plethora of goals in the meantime. Samatta got to work, but the Premier League is a different beast to Belgium. It would take time to adapt, and it could take a run of games to get his first goal.
The Tanzanian finisher joined three fellow Africans at Villa Park; the Egyptian pairing of Trezeguet and Ahmed Elhamohamady and Zimbabwe’s Marvellous Nakamba. All three Villa players helped Mbwana Samatta settle into the club and acted as examples of players from his continent laying down tracks in England.
Mbwana Samatta in the Midlands
Samatta’s first appearance for the Midlands club was a 67-minute appearance in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final to book Aston Villa into the final. Samatta found the game challenging, as you would expect, but he had played his part in sending the Villans to Wembley—a date with Premier League champions Manchester City beckons.
The Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth played its part in Tanzanian history. Samatta was named in the starting line-up and was set to run out in the Premier League for the first time. In the 70th minute, a deflected shot rebounded into the air.
As luck would have it, the deflection inadvertently acted as a cross into the Bournemouth penalty area. With the onrushing Bournemouth goalkeeper seemingly intent on clearing anything in his path, Samatta rose higher than his opposing number one and nodded the ball home with his head. It was a scrappy goal. Yet, it was also Tanzania’s first in the Premier League.
Unfortunately for Samatta, it wasn’t enough to overcome a Bournemouth side who ran out 2-1 winners. Nonetheless, another record was broken.
Scoring in a final at Wembley; Check
One month later, there was one more record. Aston Villa found themselves 2-0 down to Manchester City near the end of the first half in the League Cup final at Wembley. Mbwana Samatta was picked to spearhead the attack in Villa’s starting line-up.
Forty minutes in, Anwar El Ghazi picked up the ball on the left wing. He hit a hopeful looping ball into the box and Samatta met the cross with a superb diving header. You guessed it; another record ticked off the list. Appearing and scoring in a domestic cup final in England; check.
Unfortunately for the travelling Villa fans, it wouldn’t be enough to inspire Aston Villa to a shock cup final defeat over City. The Premier League champions were too strong. However, Mbwana Samatta had proven that he could cut it at this level, especially when competing aerially, something which a host of Premier League strikers have made a career out of over the years.
Samatta’s ninety minutes in the 4-0 loss to 3rd place Leicester would unexpectedly be his and Aston Villa’s last showing for three months. The coronavirus pandemic had come at an awkward time for the striker.
Ultimately, his Premier League dream lasted only nine months and 14 matches. He didn’t show enough to the powers that be to ensure he’d be a permanent top-flight fixture in England.
One thing will remain, though, and that’s the trailblazing exploits of Mbwana Samatta that will live long in the memory of West Africans. A hero to many back home. A Tanzanian, record-breaking gem.
Mbwana Samatta: Tanzania’s Record-Breaking Gem