When the vice-president of Tanzania heard Everton were planning to play in her country, she was amazed. ‘I could not believe it,’ said Samia Suluhu Hassan. ‘I stopped in my tracks and asked if this was for real?’
Like many fellow Africans, the veteran politician is an avid follower of English football. But the idea sounded unlikely: no English Premier League club had previously sent a full-strength squad to play a local team on the continent outside South Africa.
And even the most passionate Tanzanian patriot would accept their east African nation is hardly a footballing powerhouse likely to lure a top team.
Everton have returned from a successful trip to Tanzania spearheaded by Wayne Rooney
Rooney capped his return to his boyhood club with a goal on his first appearance in Tanzania
But last week Hassan found herself welcoming Ronald Koeman and his expensively assembled squad to a special dinner in Dar es Salaam. The next day, she was guest of honour as Everton beat Kenyan side Gor Mahia 2-1 before 40,000 excited fans in the national stadium.
The first goal was scored in fairy-tale style by returning hero Wayne Rooney, followed by a superb late strike from Kieran Dowell, fresh from winning the World Cup with England’s Under-20s.
Yet the result was almost academic. For the ambitious Goodison club were launching a quest to conquer an unexplored Premier League frontier.
Africa is a continent filled with fervent followers of English football and talented players but largely ignored by clubs. So this was the first of three Everton visits to east Africa as part of a £45million shirt sponsorship deal with Kenyan-based mobile betting firm SportPesa.
Tanzania boasts a huge Premier League following and Rooney’s presence drew a big crowd
Everton can expect to play in front of more sell-out crowds with Rooney back at the club
It is a smart move given the speed with which Africa is progressing. I have suggested such ideas in the past to senior football figures, only to be told such trips were impossible due to security fears, highlighting the corrosive nature of stereotypes about the continent.
So I joined the team for their landmark visit — complete with Maasai warriors, snake dancers, games of blindfold football, banner-waving fans chasing the team coach on motorbikes and even a beachside cooking contest.
And the arrival of one…