Himid Mao has been through it all with the Tanzania national team. He has, after all, played for the Tanzania in its entire national set up, in all age categories, until becoming a mainstay in the senior team, which has qualified for it’s first AFCON since 1980.
While Mao’s durability is a testament to his footballing ability standing the test of time – and the test of the opinions of fans and different coaches – it has come with its own share of heartache with the passage of time. This has ranged from failing to qualify for AFCON youth tournaments, Olympics, and countless AFCONs. Oh, and let’s not mention the World Cup.
“These things hurt but they have built me and other players,” says Mao. “We were failing to qualify since from a young age. Every year we failed somewhere and we gained from those experiences as we got older. I played with [Mbwana] Samatta, with [Thomas] Ulimwengu and a couple of others in the youth teams. That journey has helped us.”
It’s not the only type of journey that has helped them. There hasn’t been a time when so many Tanzanian players have been brave enough to embark on their own journeys abroad, insofar that it’s becoming harder to keep track of them all.
Historically, Tanzanian players saw signing for Simba and Young Africans, the country’s two biggest local clubs, and, in more recent times, Azam, as the pinnacle of their careers.
That mentality is not as sturdy as it once was. Mbwana Samatta and Saimon Msuva are stars at Genk and Difaa El Jadidi, respectively. Mao himself, a top-of-the-range midfielder for years in the Tanzania Premier League, moved to Egypt Premier League to sign with Petrojet last summer while promising striker Yahya Zayd and Shiza Kichuya (cut from the provisional squad) soon followed him to Egypt’s top flight.
“The leagues players are moving to tend to be more developed,” admits Mao. “And there’s more you learn as a player.”
He feels more and more Tanzanian players playing abroad has made the team’s style of play more diverse and therefore increase their unpredictability.
“A lot of our players were playing inside Tanzania in previous years,” he remembers. “We used to all play in the same league and played the same kind of football.” That meant when they met the eclectic styles of African international teams they rarely came out on top.
“The act of players moving abroad, whether near or far, has helped us gain something. When we meet up as national team players are coming from different directions, those playing in Tanzania also add something, and we get a good mixture.”
Locally, Azam’s connection has also worked well for Tanzania’s team chemistry. Azam was founded around 11 years ago with a commitment to develop and promote youth. The fruits of their labour, 11 years later, are now becoming more and more apparent, particularly for the Tanzania national team.
Mao is one of those fruits. And he’s not the only one: Around 50% of the players in Tanzania’s 23-man squad either spent their formative years at Azam or played for them at some point at senior level. Mao believes the Ice-Cream Makers’ contribution can’t be understated and others teams should follow suit.
“They really invested in their academy and our national team has benefited hugely. A lot of players came through their academy or their senior team. I praise them for how much they invested because it has really helped our football.
“I believe if more teams in Tanzania invested in their academies or even in senior teams, in coaching and management, it would really help the ability and confidence of our local players and really help our national team. It shouldn’t be 1 or 2 teams doing it but five teams minimum. That would really help our football.”
That Azam connection and exposure abroad has helped Tanzania’s football so far, but the players have equally helped themselves. Ultimately, Mao believes qualification came from the joint effort of players and the backing they had from everyone in the country.
“I believe we as players decided we would do something. We believed this was our chance. TFF [Tanzania Football Federation] and the government all had one song which was for us to qualify. That has built our confidence that we can do something.
There were the fans, turning out in huge numbers to push the Taifa Stars over the finishing line in their must-win game versus Uganda.
“We thank all our fans, those who came to support and those watched from home. Seeing so many fans gave us a lot of strength to go and battle to qualify. When we were on the way to the stadium seeing so many fans made us feel like we had a debt to them.”
The debt has been repaid. Now, with qualification unlocked for Mao after several times of trying, the AFCON is open and it’s time for business.