The Tanzanian Premier League is back, 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 on the hunt 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 was 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.
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.
The new management was right to invest in Mbagala Market with hopes of getting the Dar es Salaam club to the top-flight. Following victory in the Tanzanian first division in 2015/16, Samatta’s first club can be found in the country’s leading division.
The striker’s talents caught the eye of Tanzania’s best, Simba SC. However, he wouldn’t finish the season at the club, or in Tanzania. An impressive thirteen goals later, including a strike in the African Champions League against his future employers, and 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, is 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 saw Genk involved twice during Samatta’s time at the club. The Tanzanian grabbed nine goals in 11 qualifying games, and five goals in 19 Europa League Group Stage fixtures.
Samatta was the man for the occasion for Genk. He didn’t limit his goalscoring prowess for Belgian eyes only, and he didn’t confine his abilities to the Jupiler League. Tanzania’s captain was proving himself on the biggest of occasions. That is, of course, 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 set to be the first. Think of the Liverpool team of the eighties, the countless galacticos in Spain, AC Milan’s star-studded squads in the 21st-century, and Barcelona’s tiki-taka total-football revolution. 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 represented a nation, a continent, and all of those in Tanzania with a dream. He had tore up the script and paved the way for others just like him. From Mbagala Market, to Simba SC, and on to sharing the field with Europe’s best.
Genk’s Jupiler League win and qualification to the Champions League was a signalling to his people that with real grit and determination, you can achieve anything. 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, and Italy’s club from Naples, in Genk’s 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 unforgiving.
Erling Braut Haaland, Denmark’s goalscoring prodigy, and company, ran riot. 50 minutes in, and 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 out 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 clear for all to see, like it had been in Belgium for the past four years.
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 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. A very impressive point for any side. Although there were guts and guile 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 impressive finish at Anfield. Samatta put on a memorable debut performance in the Champions League, and again earned admirers. Outside of Africa and Belgium, this hardworking striker with a leap on him and an eye for goal, was relatively unknown. Well, not anymore.
Tanzania Eyes the Premier League
Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Eintracht Frankfurt and Lazio were all rumoured to be interested in the goal-getter. After impressive performances in the Champions League, a quick look into the Tanzanians scoring habits in Belgium would have scouts discover 76 goals in 191 games for Genk. Interests perked indeed.
Meanwhile, in the Premier League, a nasty knee injury to 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 over 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.
This is a far cry for 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, as well as a plethora of goals in the meantime. Samatta got to work, but the Premier League is a different beast to what is over in Belgium. It would take time to adapt, and 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 have helped Samatta settle into the club, as well as acting as examples of players from his continent laying down tracks in England.
Samatta’s first appearance for the Midlands club was a 67-minute appearance in the second leg of the League Cup to book Aston Villa into the final. Samatta found the game tough, as you would expect, but he had played his part in sending the Villans to Wembley. A date with Premier League champions Manchester City, was set.
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, inadvertently acting 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 1, and nodded the ball home with his head.
A scrappy goal, but 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. This seems like a continuing trend for Tanzanian.
One month later, there was another 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. Samatta was picked to spearhead the attack in Villa’s starting line up. 40 minutes in, Anwar El Ghazi picked up the ball on the left-wing and hit a hopeful looping cross into the box. 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. Samatta had proven that he could cut it at this level, however. 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 Tanzanian.
Could this stoppage in play be precisely what the doctor ordered for Samatta? Three additional months to help acclimatise the West-African to the rigours of the Premier League. Could this turn of events see Samatta claw Aston Villa out a relegation dogfight?
Time will tell. One thing is for sure, Samatta’s trailblazing exploits will live long in the memory of West Africans. A hero to many back home may just prove heroic to a fraction of football supporters in the Midlands. Let’s see…
Written by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_