When Tanzania’s national football hero Mbwana Ally Samatta signed with Aston Villa in 2020 this was far more than just another move of an African player to the top of the global game.
He was the first Tanzanian to feature in the English Premier League and his transfer sparked enthusiasm and pride in the East African football community.
It was widely hoped that Samatta would place Tanzania – a notoriously poor performer in international football – on the game’s global map. Unlike West and North Africa, the region hasn’t produced many players who perform consistently at high levels in Europe.
We wanted to know why. Our research turned up a number of structural, historical and cultural factors at play both inside and outside sports. These include colonial legacies and the absence of a functioning, vibrant youth football system. Another factor is that “making it” overseas seems less important to East African players than to their counterparts from the continent’s west and north.
Football is badly governed in East Africa. Weak financial management, poor leadership and corruption have all taken a toll. There isn’t enough money to pay key personnel or to finance infrastructure, hindering any development efforts.
In an interview with us for the research, Kim Poulsen, the head coach of Tanzania’s national men’s team, said that, in football,
corrupt and incompetent leadership has undermined East Africa at every turn.
The result is that Tanzania doesn’t offer a functioning youth football system to nurture future top players. There are a few successful private academies, but a broader strategy for youth football is lacking. This isn’t due to a lack of talent: Poulsen said that there were many gifted players “but there is no structure, so you never discover them”.
So, international success stories like those of Samatta, or Kenyan stars McDonald Mariga and Victor Wanyama, are exceptions. There are almost certainly more East African stars waiting in the wings, but they are lost because there is no careful, rigorous and long-term national talent development programme to support them.
In contrast, West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria have long benefited from their nationwide youth league systems that paved the way for success at FIFA youth world cups. Many players have served as the backbone of Ghana’s and Nigeria’s successful men’s national teams later on.
Networks and colonial legacies
Old colonial ties remain strong in some footballing countries. For instance, players from former French colonies in West and North Africa are over-represented in France. Belgian clubs often field players from the country’s former colony, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same pattern applies to the former Portuguese colonies Angola and Mozambique.
The same is not true for former British colonies. Weak footballing ties between African countries and Britain date back to the 1930s when the UK introduced protectionist policies to support its economy. Among other measures, immigration rules tightened and were also applied to professional football. Basically, and for several decades, Britain was “a no-go area for ‘foreign’ footballers” according to historian Matthew Taylor. British football did not look to its colonies for players in the same way as France, Belgium or Portugal.
Towards the end of the 1900s, the commercialisation of club football and the easing of restrictions on foreign players in the European game, alongside the success of African national teams at international youth competitions, boosted African football migration to Europe.
Players from around the continent, including former British colonies such as Ghana and Nigeria, became targets for clubs all over Europe. But East African footballers remained sidelined. This is partly because the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian national sides are consistently poor; that means their players aren’t very visible at the international level and face restrictions to enter top competitions such as the English Premier League.
Another reason can be found beyond the sporting world. This relates to general tendencies in and cultural approaches to international migration in East Africa.
Attitudes towards migration
Unlike many other African settings and predominantly in the west, social mobility in East Africa is not inevitably associated with a successful migration overseas.
Although young people in East Africa generally think very highly of Europe as a place of opportunities, this image has not triggered anything resembling the massive migration culture in large parts of West Africa. The idea of migration to Europe is seldom put into practice. Instead, international migration from East Africa predominantly takes place within the region, to southern Africa or the Gulf region.
In the absence of existing mobility networks to Europe, East African footballers prefer to make a living from the game in their region. A professional player in a top Kenyan, Ugandan or Tanzanian club can secure a relatively steady and satisfying income. This approach is not fraught with the risks, uncertainties and precarity that may come from trying to build a football career overseas.
But this inclination to stay close to home means that up and coming footballers in East Africa lack role models on the international stage. Poulsen asked: “Think about a poor boy in Tanzania: who should he look up to? To know that he should pursue football?” Samatta, for instance, left Aston Villa after a difficult half season and has not had notable success since then.
Young players from West and North Africa, meanwhile, have many homegrown players to look up to.
It seems from our analysis that the situation won’t improve for East African football any time soon. Although Samatta is back in the club where he made his breakthrough in international football, former Belgian champions KRC Genk, he has entered the closing years of his active career. No single role model seems likely to succeed him and kick through the barriers that keep the region from fielding more talent on the international stage. We would be happy to be proven wrong.
East Africa needs to build efficient and lasting structures in football. Then, one day, a national team from the region may possibly receive recognition on the global stage.