He may be an unknown quantity outside of Africa, but Mbwana Aly Samatta is nothing short of a star name in Tanzania. An iconic figure across his native country, the forward recently helped the Taifa Stars reach the second round of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, and he is no less appreciated on the club scene. Equally famous in Lubumbashi for his feats with TP Mazembe, Samatta lies second in the CAF Champions League scoring charts with six goals after firing the Congo DR outfit to this season’s upcoming final.
“Obviously everything’s going well at the moment,” he said. “At club level, we’re having a really good season. And, with the national team, our win against Malawi got us back on good terms with our supporters after we’d deprived them of victory for far too long.” Indeed, those fans had not witnessed a win since Tanzania beat Benin 4-1 on 12 October 2014, and Samatta played a leading role in ending that drought with a goal as he and his team-mates took a 2-0 first-leg lead in their World Cup qualifying tie, before sealing a 2-1 success on aggregate.
His knack for burying important goals was likewise evident when he struck against Sudanese side Al Merreikh in the Champions League semi-finals, Mazembe recovering from a 2-1 away loss with a 3-0 home triumph. “Scoring in those two competitions gave me a lot of pleasure. Even if the emotions were different, those goals are worth the same to me. I’m savouring them, even thoug I know they are only stepping stones.”
Samatta knows all too well that the road to success is paved with obstacles. The sixth child in a family of seven siblings, this son of a police officer had to wait a long time before pursuing the football career he had cherished for years. “In Africa, it’s like a dream to be able to play football, perhaps more than elsewhere,” said the 23-year-old. “For my father, there was no question of me prioritising football at the expense of my studies, even if lots of people said I had real potential. So, for a long time I had to be content with playing after school with my neighbourhood friends. But, after I finished secondary school, I was able to dedicate myself 100 per cent to football and really try my luck.”
Fortune soon smiled on the youngster as he was spotted by Patrick Phiri at the age of 18. A former Zambian international, Phiri was coaching Tanzanian heavyweights Simba SC and swiftly brought Samatta on board. It was not long before the new arrival repaid his faith. Samatta hit 13 goals in 25 games and won his first Tanzania cap, before being snapped up by continental giants Mazembe, who had recently finished runners-up at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. The forward’s career has not stopped progressing since. “I’m pleased to have been able to show that it’s possible,” he explained. “I’m proud of my journey so far and to be held up as an example in Tanzania, where few people have managed to have professional careers.”
Ulimwengu bond, European ambitions
The list is certainly not a long one, and just two Tanzanian players have managed to make the grade in European football: Haruna Moshi in Sweden, and Renatus Njohol in Switzerland. “Football has never been able to go professional back home, which is also one factor limiting the national team’s development in the continental game,” said Samatta, who came close to beginning his own European adventure when he joined up with CSKA Moscow earlier this year. “I attended CSKA’s January training camp in Spain, and I was close to signing. Naturally, it would have been a great opportunity for me, but it wasn’t the right time. I haven’t drawn a line under Europe, but I have a contract to respect with TP.”
He has unfinished business to take care of too, with Mazembe vying for a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015. Having already piled up 60 goals for Les Corbeaux (the Crows), the striker is hungry to add to his collection in the Champions League final and lead his club into the global event. “It would be incredible,” he said, lingering long over the word. “It would be the reward for a lot of hard work, but above all a huge source of pride for me and the club. It would also be historic for Tanzania.”
Given that Samatta shares attacking duties with fellow Tanzanian international Thomas Ulimwengu, that probably qualifies as an understatement. “He’s fantastic,” said Samatta, his compatriot having also found the net against Malawi and Al Merreikh. “I’ve been playing with him since I started out with the national team and our relationship is excellent. We’re like brothers – there’s only year between us.”
That heightened understanding could prove vital for both club and country in the next few weeks, with Mazembe set to face USM Alger in the Champions League showpiece and the Taifa Stars drawn against Algeria in the second round of World Cup qualifying. “Algerian football is quite simply the best there is in Africa at the moment,” noted Samatta. “There are clearly reasons to fear them.”
Perhaps, but both opponents would be advised to treat the prolific marksman and his key accomplice with the same respect.