Wayne Rooney and the new frontier
Published by The Mail on Sunday (16th July, 2017)
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.
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.
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 of the game’s global superstars — back at his home club after 13 trophy-laden years with Manchester United — added to the frenzy and fascination swirling around the unique jaunt.
‘I used to be a fan of Manchester United but that was only because of Rooney,’ said Hassan. ‘Now he has transferred to Everton, I don’t know what I will do.’
‘I hope the vice-president will now be able to support Everton,’ responded Rooney, before posing for pictures with his prestigious admirer in a bid to secure her defection to the Blues.
The 31-year-old told me later he never expected to end up chatting to African politicians about football and Maasai tribesmen about their culture when he started banging balls against the wall as a boy in Croxteth. He grinned watching the warriors’ energetic leaps.
‘Football over the past 15 years has changed a lot and become more of a business,’ he said. ‘There’s a big difference from when I was last at Everton. We never did anything like this — it was all to do with football. The club is certainly moving forward.’
Rooney, who returned to Liverpool with a Maasai shield and spear, said he likes experiencing new cultures. ‘You see things you wouldn’t see back in England. It’s good to take those memories with you. Sometimes we don’t realise how privileged we are the way we live back home.’
From the second Everton landed, the fanaticism of African football supporters was evident. Airport staff lined up to film the party on phones, then we were confronted by a small army of boisterous Congolese fans of Yannick Bolasie, the star of their national team raised in London.
Most wore T-shirts printed with Bolasie’s face and Everton crest over the national flag. ‘I’m just humbled,’ he said. ‘I knew quite a few Congolese migrated here but when they come out in such numbers — I didn’t expect that. It was a surprising situation.’
The likeable winger stopped to chat and danced with one fan. Then as Everton’s bus left under police escort, his fans followed in coaches, bikes and three-wheeled taxis on a high-speed chase through the traffic waving ‘Team Yannick Bolasie’ banners.
‘The fact Everton have actually come out here is great. You can see how happy people are to see players. It is only going to boost the club’s following in Africa,’ said Bolasie.
At their beachside hotel, the team were greeted by drummers and dancers — one draped in a chunky python whose head he shoved alarmingly in his mouth. Teenager Tom Davies winced when seeing the snake, to the amusement of watching officials.
After a short stop, the players split up and headed off to community events. I went with Bolasie, Leighton Baines, Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye and young winger Ademola Lookman to visit Uhuru Mchanganyiko Primary School, who have 126 children with disabilities among their 500 pupils.
‘They have seen these players on television. For the first time their dreams come true and they see them live,’ said head teacher Anna Mshana, as she welcomed her guests — although she later admitted briefing her charges on Everton before the visit.
Bolasie seemed most at ease, stopping to chat with a blind 13-year-old using a writing device and explaining that he was a Congolese international. ‘This will make their day for the rest of their lives,’ said one of the organisers.
Three players were blindfolded to take on visually impaired pupils in a game of goalball, which involves trying to score by hurling a ball with bells down a pitch. The lively young locals won easily, their winning shot fired straight through a static Lookman’s legs.
Another group went to join Albino United for a training session. The club was formed to highlight problems faced by albinos, whose body parts are prized for magic remedies by witchdoctors leading to limbs being hacked off with machetes — and even murder.
One Everton figure was surprised later in the day to be asked by a Tanzanian football official if witchcraft played much role in the Premier League.
Back on the hotel beach, there was a cooking contest won by captain Phil Jagielka and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin for their dish of white snapper with ugali, a maize porridge.
During the short trip, staff handed out 1,000 shirts and other gifts to Tanzanian dignitaries, school children and fans travelling out for the game. Youth team coaches held clinics for young players.
But most attention focused on Rooney, escorted by bodyguards and constantly assailed for selfies. He was friendly, patient and handled himself well, even when one Manchester United fan ran onto the pitch to give him a hug during the match against Gor Mahia.
He told me that when he started he just wanted to play football, not realising players can spend more time on commercial and charitable activities than on the pitch. ‘Once you come to the realisation this is part of your job, the more you embrace it and enjoy it.’
One club veteran said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like the attention he gets now. Yet I’ve known him since he was 16 years old — and we’ve had Gazza, David Ginola and Big Duncan Ferguson at the club.’
Rooney is one of a select handful of footballers idolised globally. Fans — many travelling from other east African nations — queued for three hours in the heat before our arrival at the national stadium to catch a glimpse of their hero.
There were scores of scrawled banners praising Rooney, the crowd cheered even when he warmed up near them, his name was chanted throughout the match and rival players stopped the striker for photographs after the final whistle.
‘It’s good they come here,’ said Meddie Kagere, the Kenyan team’s forward and a Rwandan international. ‘They are a very good team and will motivate us even more.’
Tanzania is enjoying a long run of economic growth, averaging seven per cent per year for over a decade, with a fast-growing young population, declining poverty rate and burgeoning middle-class.
As in other parts of the continent, the most popular English clubs are Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. So can Rooney help convert fans to kickstart a drive into Africa for Everton while rival teams f ocus on the Far East and United States?
Chief executive Robert Elstone admitted the trip had been a step into the unknown, arranged in just four weeks despite the need to send ground staff over to fix the pitch.
‘We had no real idea what it would be like coming to Dar es Salaam but were told they were absolutely fanatical about football,’ he said.
Elstone said it was ‘humbling’ to see how much their trip seemed to mean to Tanzanians. ‘You see in Liverpool the impact players can have on people is amazing but it’s on another scale here. The people are so hospitable, so friendly and so proud of their country.’
Former player Leon Osman was sent out in advance by Everton and blown away by the country. ‘I did not know what to expect,’ he said. ‘I was nervous but from the minute I stepped off the plane everything was so welcoming.
‘We have lit the touch paper and hopefully will keep blowing on the fire. If this grows Everton could be the biggest club in Africa.’
The manager Koeman was more succinct after the match, saying: ‘We came here, Wayne scored, we won a good game and left something of Everton in Tanzania. Job done.’