By Nuri Aden
Tanzania, the land of Mount Kilimanjaro and Serengeti. Of Maasais. And the Spice Islands of Zanzibar.
So where does "Jogo bonito", or the beautiful game that triggers a billion emotions, fit into the picture of one of the most picturesque countries of Africa? Or the lives of Mbwana Samatta and Novatus Miroshi, for that matter?
Welcome to a new Tanzania. To Dar es Salaam and the iconic Benjamin Mkapa Stadium. It's October 20, 2023.
The state-of-the-art venue is packed to the gills, with 60,000 fans witnessing history being scripted as the local Simba Sports Club takes on the fancied Al Ahly FC of Egypt in the inaugural edition of the African Football League (AFL).
The stadium, and the entire country watching the live telecast, heave a collective sigh as the continent's top club takes the lead just before halftime.
But Simba's Kibu Denis soon heads the ball home, and everyone's delirious. Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, FIFA chief Gianni Infantino and Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger, now the global body's chief of football development, break into spontaneous applause in the stands.
The match ends 2-2, a remarkable result for the local club against the Cairo giants.
In a new league
For the casual observer, Tanzania being ranked 31 among 56 African countries and 121 in the world may be nothing to write home about.
But for this East African nation — continental football minnows for ages — the climb up the FIFA ladder has been commendable even as its neighbours have dropped 10 to 20 places during the same period. And all this from a country that used to be 156 in 2016.
While Uganda is now ranked 90 and Kenya 110, Tanzania will represent the region at the forthcoming AFCON 2023 due to take place in January 2024 in Cote d'Ivoire.
The newfound enthusiasm for the game is expected to soar further with the country set to host the tournament, along with Kenya and Uganda, after four years.
"Since my visit to Tanzania last year, the progress of football here is there for all to see," Infantino said after the October 20 match. "I have been keenly discussing the game's development with Tanzania Football Federation president Wallace Karia."
The national team will fly to Cote d'Ivoire for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament as the only team from the CECAFA (Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations) region.
Girls going places
JKT Queens, a Tanzanian women's club ranked sixth in the continent, is representing East Africa in the ongoing CAF Africa Women's Champions League after trouncing Kenya and Ethiopia, regional heavyweights, in the CECAFA qualifiers.
Though the Tanzanian national team won the women's Cosafa Championship in 2021, the real breakthrough came a year later when the girls qualified for the U-17 World Cup.
This was the first-ever Tanzanian team, men or women, to make it to football's biggest stage. In the tournament, the "Serengeti Girls" more than held their own, beating powerhouse France 2-1 and holding Canada 1-1 to qualify for the last eight.
Last season, Tanzanian league champions Yanga FC, bitter rivals of Simba, stormed into the final of the CAF Confederations Cup.
Simba, which has rapidly climbed to the 13th spot in the continent, was the country's only representative in the African Champions League and made it to the quarterfinals. Simba and Yanga are the only East African teams in the CAF Champions League this season.
The Yanga-Simba rivalry inflames passion and sparks an online race for dominance. Simba has over 4 million followers on Facebook, and Yanga has half of that.
On the microblogging platform X, 1.4m fans follow Simba and 281,000 Yanga, while on Instagram, 5.5m vouch for Simba and 2.8m for their rivals. This high volume of fan engagement is attracting unprecedented levels of sponsorship.
Money flowing in
The Tanzanian league's title sponsor, NBC Bank, recently signed a five-year sponsorship deal worth 32.6 billion shillings.
In 2021, the league inked a 10-year television broadcasting rights contract for 225.6 billion TZS. It also has a broadcast agreement with state radio, TBC, for 3 billion TZS.
With football now a rage in the country, club owners are investing billions to transform the game's standard.
Simba's Mo Dewji has pumped in 6 billion TZS, while Yanga owner Gharib Said Mohamed has followed suit. As a result, the league's valuation has shot up to 300 billion TZS.
President Hassan has been an active stakeholder in the game's growth — rewarding teams for winning matches and even referring to football during parliamentary debates.
Sound of music
In Tanzania, football is entwined with the music industry. The likes of Ali Kiba and Diamond Platnumz attend matches and compose songs for the clubs.
Songs have been dedicated to Mbwana Samatta, African Player of the Year 2016, and the first Tanzanian to play in the English Premier League.
The country’s most famous football export and their national skipper now turns up for Greek giants POAK FC following stints at Aston Villa, Fenerbahce, Antwerp and Genk.
Compatriot Novatus Miroshi, 21, is a Shakhtar Donetsk player and the youngest Tanzanian ever to play in the Champions League.
Football here is rocking. And like Simba, Pumbaa and Timon, the fans can now rightfully scream, "Hakuna Matata!"