|No1: Mondli Mpoto of SuperSport United Academy|
The 17-strong Bafana Bafana youth squad, in Tanzania to play the first leg of their African Youth Championship qualifier on the gleaming new astro-turf of mega-rich Azam Football Club, appear in good spirits at the Sapphire Hotel in the capital.
But that in itself is a minor miracle. Many of the players have NEVER flown in an airplane before. Vuyo Junior Mantjie, the midfielder from Harmony Academy in the Free State, confessed as we left Oliver Tambo International airport on Tuesday afternoon: “This is my first flight, can you help me with the safety belt please?”
|Working hard: AmaJimbos training at Azam FC|
Our hotel is not perfect. Far from it. But it’s not far from the local mosque, where the Muezzin’s five-times-daily call to prayer wakes us up as dawn breaks at 4.53am every morning.
The food is not quite what you’d expect. Plenty of fish, lots of spices, no menu. You eat what you get. It’s hot and humid at all times. A major debate over hotel rooms and a lot of haggling over an agreed menu followed as players, officials and media attempted to access their mobile networks and the hotel’s painfully weak broadband.
The hotel proudly proclaims: “No drinking in the hotel. Unmarried couples cannot share rooms.” This is an Islamic country.
Outside, the streets are frantic. Like a South African kasi on speed. Everybody is carrying something. From wood and metal to truck wheels and food. Many wear English Premier League replica shirts, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are the most popular, though Manchester City are plainly growing as a team worth supporting in Africa.
Stuck in a tiny hotel with just one lift and mostly Arabic television (there is one, grainy SuperSport channel), the players were relieved to cross to the posh part of the city for a quick kickabout on Wednesday morning. It was brief, but relieved the frustrations of the team, led by coach Molefi Ntseki.
|Gunner: Premier League shirts all over Dar es Salaam|
Every second road in Tanzania appears to have been forgotten by the god of tarmac. Some of the roads don’t have potholes, they resemble natural ravines scarred by years of heavy rain and heavier trucks. But the traffic is nose to tail.
It took us nearly two hours to negotiate the route to the Azam Stadium, a purpose-built facility built by the local wheat-and-drink millionaire on land granted to him by the government.
And there it all changed. A footballing oasis. Brand new floodlights with the wrapping paper still on them. A state-of-the-art artificial surface, rubber rather than sand-based. No grass burns. No bobbling on the turf. The dressing rooms are like golf lockers, in dark wood with a visitor’s facility that looks like a boardroom. The tiny stadium boasts two large replay screens, a television tower and there’s a turf pitch being laid beyond the astro.
Out on the pitch, goalkeeper Mondli Mpoto from SuperSport United finds himself able to punt the ball deep in to the opposition half under goalkeeping coach Stavro Tsichlas’s guiding hand. Shaun Bishop, the assistant coach, has the outfield players singing and dancing through the warm-up.
As a training match ensues, Notha Ngcobo, the only representative from the Mamelodi Sundowns academy, scored from distance. Thendo Mukumela from Limpopo rattled the bar from fully 30 yards. Shots are flying in from everywhere. Tsichlas agrees: “It’s a good surface to shoot on.”
Today we will return to Azam, hopefully with a full blue-light brigade. The road is long but fascinating. These youngsters know they are in a foreign country, from dawn calls to prayer to sweating at night if the air conditioning fails and running up seven flights of stairs because the lift never comes.
But throughout, with the match now just over 24 hours away (they kick-off against Tanzania on tomorrow at 4pm local time, 3pm South African time) the players have been incredibly resilient. They sing in the bus, their training is joyous, fully of energy. They pray earnestly over their foreign meals.
And they’re ready for the locals, who must play the second leg in South Africa. If the AmaJimbos win this one, they’ve got the Democratic Republic of the Congo or mighty Egypt next.
Win that, and they qualify for the African Youth Championship in Niger next year. That’s the aim. Coach Ntseki insists: “We’re as ready as we can be. We won four friendlies against Botswana and Lesotho before this trip. Let’s do this thing.”
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