By Rhys Hartley
Iâ€™m one of the lucky ones. My partner likes football. She doesnâ€™t love it as much as I do, but she enjoys it and is happy for me to play and watch pretty much whenever I want.â€¨â€¨ However, I would have been pushing my luck if Iâ€™d have arranged our new year holiday around Tanzanian football.
For months weâ€™d been talking about getting away for Christmas and New Year and signing off this difficult 2020 on a high note. Weâ€™d narrowed our list to Tanzania as one of the only countries in the world which allowed tourists in without a test or quarantine and were set for 17 days in the sun to see out the year.
Sheâ€™d started a new job in September, so had to work a few of our first days on Zanzibar, which gave me the perfect excuse to go ground-hunting.
Iâ€™d looked at the Tanzanian Premier League fixtures for when we were on the mainland and it seemed Iâ€™d be out of luck there. All hopes rested on Zanzibar, the autonomous island with its own football federation.
The Zanzibar Football Federation
The ZFF has been responsible for all football on the island pretty much ever since it was established in 1926, with the â€˜nationalâ€™ team making periodic appearances in continental competitions. Its application for full member status was rejected by FIFA in 2005 and it has shifted between being a full member and associate member of CAF (the African confederation) since then.
Today, it can send clubs to continental competitions but not its national team. They have, though, competed in the â€˜unofficialâ€™ World Cup (for unrecognised nations and diaspora teams) but seem to have been forced to withdraw since gaining its current status in CAF. I guess Iâ€™ll save my rant on FIFAâ€™s mantra of â€œfootball for allâ€ for another day.
Anyway, information on the league was scarce. No Soccerway page, Twitter was intermittent and the only results I could find on Google were last seasonâ€™s table and an article from the end of November stating that the league â€œshouldâ€ go ahead from the beginning of December. What were the chances of there being a match on in my two and a half days in the islandâ€™s capital?
In search of football that doesnâ€™t exist â€“ officially
Off I went on the second morning of our trip in the 35-degree heat to find the ground. I walked past the busy central market and avoided the attention of those wanting to sell me something by looking as though I knew where I was going. I got to the edge of the centre, and greenery opened up full of grubby football pitches â€“ like Hackney Marshes but destroyed by the lack of rain and not too much of it.
As I reached the main road, I spotted the floodlights and made a beeline towards them. Graffiti adorned the walls surrounding the ground â€“ â€œChina Aid,â€ they proclaimed. This was a little different to the threatening slogans Iâ€™m used to in Eastern Europe.
On closer inspection there was a sign next to the graffiti in both Chinese and English. Mao Zedong Stadium, it proudly stated. Who knew the big man was a fan of African football?
I wandered around and found out that the complex consisted of two football grounds and some basketball courts. Greenery abounded, with light and dark paint across the concrete behind both goals and an astroturf pitch that almost fooled me for a second that it was the real thing.
The place was deserted. I didnâ€™t expect there to be a game at 11 in the morning on a Wednesday so I asked the security guard who was hanging out of what looked like the dressing room window. â€œWhen is there a match?â€ â€œTen,â€ he replied. â€œTonight?â€ â€œYes.â€ â€¨â€¨Result! I would get to watch a match â€“ my first in Africa since the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.
I rushed back to the hotel to tell my girlfriend the good news. After all, WikiTravel had going to a football match as the only thing â€œTo Doâ€ in Stone Town, the capital (there was plenty more under â€œTo Seeâ€ to be fair).
So, after an early dinner, we traipsed our way to the Mao Zedong Stadium once more, ready to see whether this would rank up there as one of the best footballing experiences ever. Thatâ€™s why we go on holiday, right?
There was no usual pre-match build-up. In fact, the cafes and snack shops lining the streets were full of fans enthralled by the Arsenal match on TV, seemingly unaware that there was a match about to kick-off up the road.
Maybe thatâ€™s because there was no match. We got to the ground to find it completely dark and locked up for the night. What on earth could the guard have meant? â€¨â€¨We found another guard, this time in military uniform and holding a gun, and asked him the same question I had posed earlier in the day. â€œTen,â€ was his answer again. His English was very broken, so I assumed the guy earlier had just got confused, so we headed back into town with me resolved to get up early and make kick-off the following morning.
I think my girlfriend breathed a sigh of relief that she wouldnâ€™t be joining me on the same trip to the same ground once more. So, I went as I had the morning before. Surely, I couldnâ€™t be wrong again?
As I approached the ground I thought I heard a whistle and got excited. I checked the time. 10:02. Maybe it was kicking off. To my disappointment, as I got to the main gate the pitches were empty once more. However, there was a smattering of young lads outside the building between the two pitches.
I entered and inspected the pitch. â€œScotland?â€ I heard. I was wearing my Wales top, so I thought he may have got his Celtic nations mixed up. I approached, corrected him and asked about the match I was expecting to watch. He called the guard at the gate in Swahili and explained that yes, there was a game, but it was at three or four this afternoon.
â€œThree or four!?â€ I asked, â€œI was told twice yesterday that it was at ten, and thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m here now!â€ â€œAh,â€ said my new friend, â€œin Tanzania, ten means maybe four.â€ I was confused, but kept the subject to football. â€œOkay, so four this afternoon. Whoâ€™ll be playing?â€ He yelled again at the guard who stated that it would be JKU v Zimamoto. That was more information that Iâ€™d got before, so I was confident that it may be fourth-time lucky at the Chairman Mao Stadium.
I headed back into town for a beer and to wait for my girlfriend to finish her morningâ€™s work before telling her the good news. In the meantime, I looked up the deal with the time. Apparently, 7am is 1am for them, and it goes until 7pm, then the clock starts again. So ten did mean four. Makes sense, I guess.
As for JKU and Zimamoto, there were highlights on YouTube from a 0-0 draw a few days before. JKU had opened their season with a point and this was to be their second game, I assumed.
After a few afternoon beers looking out onto the Indian Ocean we hopped into a taxi and made it just in time for kick-off â€“ I didnâ€™t want to subject my girlfriend to another long walk in the 30+ heat. Iâ€™m nice like that.
We paid the entrance fee of 1000 shillings (around 33p) and made our way to the sparsely-populated stand. Some clouds had just come over so we took the uncovered stand opposite the covered one and settled in for the match. Nothing separated us from the pitch and my girlfriend was scared of the ball or a flying tackle coming her way. We sat near the top.
The dark yellows of JKU hosted the brighter yellows of Zimamoto in front of around 100 fans. There was no noise, other than one vocal fan to our left who seemed to scream instructions to the visiting side. Iâ€™m sure they heard.
Both sides played some tidy football, although they tried to stop each other with some horrible, crunching tackles. The ref was surprisingly lenient and it took 30 minutes for the first card of the match.
The first half came and went without any real chances, Zimamoto looking the most likely to score.
By half-time, we were getting peckish, but the prospect of a boiled egg in the heat didnâ€™t appeal too much, so we settled on water and some peanuts as the sun came out and burned us raw for the next 45.
Zimamoto got their reward for their better play, utilising a quick free-kick to break down the left. The winger had a lot to do to power the ball into the bottom corner, but it was a lovely goal.
That opened the game up, and JKU became even more aggressive. Things boiled over with a 22-man brawl not long after, after the left-winger was hacked down as he tried to get into the box. Three cards were dished out as the ref looked to keep a lid on it, but the visitors made use of their chance and scored from the resulting free-kick with a smart slide-in at the far post.
The hosts had their chances to narrow the scoreline, but also looked vulnerable as they piled the numbers forward. They were comfortably beaten in the end, and the subdued atmosphere as everyone trudged across and off the pitch and out of the ground summed up what had felt like a meaningless mid-table non-league game to me.
If that was the thing â€œto doâ€ in Zanzibar, we were in for a long trip, I thought to myself. Even for anoraks like me, it didnâ€™t live up to the billing. Not that it stopped me from standing in the park on the way back into town and watching the next generation of Zanzibarians as they played on the makeshift pitches.
My girlfriend seemed of a similar disposition. â€œShall we go for dinner now?â€ was all she said. I nodded, thankful of her support but also sorry that Iâ€™d dragged her along to that.
The global game shows itself
The next day, we were on the mainland. The town of Arusha is supposedly the gateway to the Serengeti and other national parks. Its bustling centre features an overcrowded bus station and a football ground.
We wanted to check the times of the buses to Moshi, our next stop, and were accosted by dozens of locals trying to sell us their bus. Only one was actually of any interest, as he pointed out that tomorrow there was a big game in town. â€œTeams from the two capitals, Dodoma and Dar es Salaam, play here tomorrow.â€ As I looked closer the shirts for sale outside the stadium walls were those of the Young Africans of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma Jiji of the official main city.
When Iâ€™d made the itinerary for our trip, Iâ€™d assumed that one of these sides were home. Unfortunately, we were going to miss the big game as we had a rendezvous two hours east the following day.
On our way to Moshi, we passed several buses draped in the yellow and green of Young Africans. Music blared and fans chanted pretty much all along the highway. It seemed more exciting already than what weâ€™d witnessed in Zanzibar.
After arriving at our hostel, we went to buy a few beers from a local shop. It doubled up as a bar and was packed full of locals around the small TV in the corner. It was deadly silent, each person listening attentively to every word of one of the managers as he spoke to the media pitchside.
I wanted to stay and watch with them, but Iâ€™d forced my girlfriend to watch enough dross football on TV and in person back in Serbia, not to mention in Zanzibar. We went back to the hostel, relaxed and drank our beers. The Young Africans won 3-1 to put them eight points clear at the top of the league.
Throughout our time on the mainland, we spotted plenty of green and yellow football shirts, flags in buses and taxis, and even painted on bar walls. When I was younger and Manchester United ruled England, I would have called them the â€œMan U of Tanzania.â€ The most accurate comparison I can find today is that of Flamengo in Brazil. As a fan of grassroots football, I thought that maybe the sport was better in Zanzibar after all.
More of the same
On our final day in Moshi, weâ€™d get another taste of what football meant to Tanzanians. Weâ€™d been recommended the train station as a place to watch the sun go down. Weird, we thought at first, but it made sense with the open expanse of the train tracks against the background of Kilimanjaro offering a beautiful setting for an end-of-day beer.
As we got there the sun was setting and â€˜Kiliâ€™ was just peeping out above the clouds. But the waiting roomâ€™s wooden benches were full with people crowded around the TV screen, taking no notice of the scenery. We noticed that it was football on TV and settled in to watch the last half an hour instead of the sunset with them, along with a surprisingly warm beer.
All men, they cheered and jeered as if they were at the game themselves, providing far more colour to the game than the commentator who seemed to get overly excited at shots that ended up as throw-ins.
First of all, it was a Tanzanian Premier League game between Biashara United, who have a badge very similar to that of Man United, and Tanzania Prisons. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the latter! Anyway, neither club had a connection with Moshi but everyone here seemed to care. After the hosts took the lead, the channel switched to Uganda v Tanzania.
I was sure that this couldnâ€™t be a competitive match, or even live for that matter, but lo and behold it was a qualifier for the U17 Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco next year. Tanzania conceded in the 60th minute, and an analysis of the goal began among the blokes. It was animated, and one even demonstrated what, I guess, he thought the defender should have done.
After their remonstration, they switched back to the other match where the atmosphere, in a full stadium, sounded electric; fans dancing and singing and the players feeding from it. Oh, how Iâ€™d missed it. Oh to be there! Biashara scored a second and their players ran to the crowd and started mass celebrations straight out of the â€œscenes we love to seeâ€ textbook.
They switched back to the international game and Tanzania conceded almost immediately. 2-0 with ten minutes to go. A couple of blokes left and we decided to explore the train station.
Later on, we found out that there had been a power cut all over town as the matches took place. We were the lucky ones to find a TV to watch the football. It spoke volumes that they had a backup generator to watch the football but not to keep the drinks cold and everyone seemed grateful for it.
I left Moshi and Tanzania disappointed that Iâ€™d not got to see a game on the mainland. Was football really that much better there or have the years of neglect on the international stage led to apathy in Zanzibar? Maybe Iâ€™d just caught an off-day in the Mao Zedong Stadium?
As I remember the kids playing in Zanzibar and Moshi, it seems that football is well and truly alive across the country. However, the prominence of European shirts everywhere and the Young African colours on the mainland makes me worry for the local game in the way I do in Europe.
One thingâ€™s for sure, though. Iâ€™ll try my best to make the rearranged African Cup of Nations in Cameroon next year and maybe the CONIFA World Cup wherever and whenever that may be.