No Tanzanian has ever played in Europe’s top five leagues.
The East African nation has more Olympic medals, two, than footballers who have played in Europe’s Big-5, zero.
But that could be about to change.
Mbwana Samatta, star striker of the Tanzania national team, joined KRC Genk in January and is doing very well – he has averaged a goal every other game this season in Belgium. Bigger clubs are watching him closely.
He made his name with Congolese powerhouse TP Mazembe. His goal scoring exploits caught the eye of scouts from CSKA Moscow and Lille and he nearly joined Marseille before signing for Genk.
There are also high hopes for Faridi Mussa, a hugely promising 21-year-old winger, who was recruited by Tenerife this summer to play for their B team. This is a big step that could turn into a giant leap if he transforms his undoubted potential into something more tangible.
Mussa moved to Spain from Azam FC – a club who are establishing themselves as one of the most forward thinking in Africa.
Only founded in 2007 they are making great progress, have a burgeoning youth setup and have performed well in continental competition.
They won the league in 2014 but Mussa was unable to help them win the Tanzanian Cup in his final appearance for the club – a 3-1 loss to current league champions Young Africans.
There is no real precedent for Tanzanian players to follow.
In 2010, Haruna Moshi left Swedish side Gefle IF after failing to impress, while a decade earlier Renatus Njohole was more successful – playing in the Swiss top flight for Yverdon Sport between 1999 and 2001.
Others have come close; Mrisho Ngasa, a winger Free State Stars in South Africa, had a trial with West Ham in 2009 while more recently Thomas Ulimwengu, a forward with Mazembe, was linked with AS Monaco and Hamburg SV in 2011.
Talented Tanzanian footballers have moved to other African clubs regularly. But this has not converted to genuine interest from European teams.
Exposure has been a problem. Historically Tanzania have struggled at international level.
They are currently ranked 132 by FIFA and have never qualified for a World Cup. Their only appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations came in 1980.
Tanzania will host the 2019 Africa U-17 Cup of Nations and Danish coach Kim Poulson is overseeing a wide-ranging programme to structure the nation’s youth setup for success in that tournament and beyond.
The Tanzania Football Federation have targets to get more young players active in organised competition. Lack of infrastructure and investment have hampered the growth of football in the country. Part of the package Poulson is implementing will look to remedy this by creating more regulated regional tournaments.
The main challenges for Tanzanian football are not to be found on the field however.
Approximately 28% of Tanzania’s 54 million population lives below the official UN poverty line of $1.25 daily income.
Malnutrition and disease are genuine problems, especially for children. Tanzania’s population is young – the average age is just 17 – and is set to increase dramatically in the coming years.
UN statistics predict that the population will double by 2050 and increase to nearly 300 million by the year 2100.
If the predictions prove correct Tanzania will be one of the ten most populous nations on earth. Much bigger than Brazil, Germany, France, Russia, Spain, Japan or the UK.
Tanzania has ambitious economic growth targets and, although poverty remains a grave concern, it has made great strides in recent years.
The population is urbanizing rapidly and, as the game of the city, there are clear opportunities for football to play a positive role in this development.
And where there is growth potential for football you will surely find avaricious European clubs.
There are few nations never to have been represented in a major European league.
Smaller and poorer countries have seen their footballers make it to the Promised Land, why not Tanzania?
Current Tanzanian footballers are victims of historical prejudice and unfamiliarity.
Tanzania have not had any Big-5 players in part because they have not had any Big-5 players.
Without the alumni link there is no old-boy-network to help grease the wheels of recruitment. European clubs stick to what or who they know and the self-perpetuating cycle continues.
Despite their rapacious appetite for the next big thing some clubs remain slow, or reluctant, to venture into uncharted territory.
Sadly some African countries, even in the 21st century, remain exotic and intimidating markets.
But that is hardly an excuse for wealthy clubs these days.
The scale and reach of European club’s scouting networks is huge.
True, it is difficult, costly and time consuming to establish trustworthy relationships in new environments. But the money in Europe’s big leagues means this is not a forceful argument.
As the game nears globalised saturation this short sighted thinking will soon be overtaken by the never-ending desire for new talent.
Technology has removed barriers that would have traditionally prohibited scouting a country such as Tanzania. A breakthrough cannot be far away.
Success breeds success. It also breeds confidence and trust.
Football clubs like to copy each other. All it will take is for one Tanzanian trailblazer to make it and more will inevitably follow.
Whether it is Mbwana Samatta or Faridi Mussa who is that pioneer remains to be seen. They are within touching distance and the wait will surely not be too long now.
Once the leap has been made the eyes of Europe’s top clubs will focus more sharply on one of football’s few remaining untapped markets.
It will soon be impossible to ignore Tanzania. The clock is ticking.
One more thing . . .
If a club from Europe’s Big-5 leagues wanted to make a lasting and significant contribution to football in Tanzania they might consider playing an active part in its development.
Wishful thinking perhaps when top dollar is always the bottom line, but there has to be more that rich clubs can do to help the game grow than simply recruiting players for the most competitive price possible.
This would not have to be pure charity; surely it is in the interests of those at the top of the food chain to nurture the genuinely impoverished grassroots. More thriving football environments means more quality players for clubs to look at and the overall quality of the game improving as a result. Everyone benefits.
Sponsor a tournament, send coaches, invite coaches, invite teams, visit on a pre-season tour, build pitches, build football schools . . .
This is blue sky thinking but without action change is painfully slow and lives are negatively impacted.