Adam Rodgers Johns reflects on Azam FC, the new boys on the block in Tanzanian football. Does their commercial message represent the way forward for football in the country?
My scarf hangs out of the window, trailing in the wind and bearing the club motto, ‘Better Team, Better Products’. It’s several hours before kick-off and I am among a group of Azam FC supporters aboard a privately hired bus heading to an important international match in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It’s nights like this, a floodlit first-round tie against a team from Swaziland in the African equivalent of the Europa League, that Azam FC hope to showcase their self-proclaimed status as the biggest club in Tanzania.
The club was founded in 2007 by the Bakhresa Group, whose products under their signature ‘Azam’ brand, span from marine transport to ice-cream, soft-drinks to television service provision. Football in Tanzania has traditionally been synonymous with the national rivalry between historic clubs Simba and Yanga. Azam are disturbing this status-quo, attracting supporters who believe the team’s commercial model represents a positive move in the direction of ‘modern football’.
My scarf hangs out of the window, trailing in the wind and bearing the club motto, ‘Better Team, Better Products’.
Despite mass support, neither Simba or Yanga have their own stadiums, whereas Azam’s vastly superior financial resources have enabled them to build their own. It’s this stadium that they wish to present in all its glory for this international fixture: those of us arriving early are assured of receiving one of the 500 or so free tickets allocated to the club’s main supporter groups, and I’ve even heard rumours that shirts will be distributed upon entry.
We enter the stadium from the back entrance and are greeted by a brass band leading the festivities. A banner is unveiled depicting a wealthy man carrying a bundle of banknotes flanked by two penniless women on either side, representing Azam’s rivals. The text on the banner reads ‘Escape and come!’. When questioned about the banner’s imagery, the supporters responsible for its creation provide me with what have become familiar responses among Azam supporters: Simba and Yanga’s alleged corruption and involvement in the country’s politics is slowing down the development of football in the country. There is some irony in the belief that Azam, despite their shameless commercial model, are ‘more about the football’ than these historic clubs.
During the match, two familiar figures emerge to join the dancing in the stands: one dressed as a bride, wearing a grotesque animal mask and splattered in fake blood, followed by another wearing school uniform holding up the trailing wedding dress. ‘The bride’ is known to me as the chairman of the active supporter group Mpira Burudani or ‘Party Football’ which uses its own resources to choreograph support and attend matches. Following the game, in which Azam’s goal lived a charmed life and they fortuitously managed to come away with a 1-0 lead to take to the away leg in Swaziland, I decide to ride back into the city centre with this eccentric group of supporters.
We drive through the streets of Dar es Salaam, the brass band playing loudly and vuvuzela’s blaring out the windows, continuously drawing attention to our raucous parade. I later learn that the musicians fee is covered by the club, whereas the bus itself is paid for by the supporter group. ‘Party Football’ is based in an area of Dar es Salaam a considerable distance away from Azam FC. Nevertheless, it regularly pools resources to show strong support for this club to which it has no immediate connection. Such passionate support for a team whose roots are unashamedly commercial may seem strange to many football fans.
Indeed, Azam’s blatant commercial iconography may shock European football fans. Yet is it really so alien to football around the rest of the world? Clubs like RB Leipzig, which has risen in its short history from the fifth-tier of German football to finishing second in last season’s top flight, unashamedly peddle the Red Bull brand and reflect this commercial shift in the beautiful game. Similarly, the Premier League’s claim to being the best league in the world, rests as much on its financial power as on the skills of its players. The fans, it would seem, often get left behind in football’s gold rush.
Visiting ‘Party Football’ again several days after the match, it struck me that their present struggles — to obtain corporate sponsorship which would enable them to be more financial secure and to make improvements to their branch, such as having a large flag on the roadside directly outside —would resonate with fans all over the world. Azam FC itself contribute little to ‘Party Football’. As supporters of a football club whose primary purpose is commercial advertisement for the signature Azam brand, there’s a sad irony that this group of loyal supporters should have to seek commercial support elsewhere. Their passion, however, remains undimmed. A symbol of hope for fans in an era of commercialisation.