Mbwana Samatta is the son of a policeman but pays little attention to the law of probability. Good thing, too, otherwise the player who grew up kicking rolled-up plastic bags around the streets of Dar es Salaam would not be preparing to lead the line for Aston Villa at Wembley. More than 10 family members will be watching from the stands in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final and millions of his fellow Tanzanians will be cheering him on from farther afield. From Birmingham to east Africa, fans have invested a lot of hope in this 27-year-old. And that is how he likes it.
Samatta says he always wanted to be someone on whom folks could rely. At first he thought he should become a soldier – “Just to be someone for the people, they could look and say: ‘Because of him, we are safe’” – but instead he achieved something far more improbable by becoming, following January’s £8.5m arrival from Genk, the first Tanzanian to play in the Premier League and the centre-forward whom Villa want to fire them to their first major trophy since 1996. Sure, Villa are underdogs but that does not matter to Samatta. Talent and strength of will have taken him a long way.
The second-youngest in a family of seven children, Samatta has played football for as long as he can remember but by the time he was 17 he knew that he, like his five older brothers, would probably have to give it up and get a proper job. He planned to enlist in the army, even though his footballing ability had attracted the chairman of the local club in Mbagala, the district of Dar es Salaam where he grew up. He joined Mbagala Market in the Tanzanian second division. The wages? None.
“I was playing football but not really thinking that football is going to take me somewhere,” he recalls. “I played something like two years in the second division and then a company called Mohamed Enterprises came and bought the club [and changed its name to African Lyon] because they were thinking the team could make it to the Premier League. When they bought the team, they started paying salaries. That was the time I started thinking: ‘This can be serious.’ It was just something like £40 or £50 per month but I was thinking: ‘If you get a salary, that means it’s a real job. So I can do this. Let’s see where it takes me.’”
Soon it took him to Tanzania’s biggest club, Simba SC, for whom he scored 13 goals in 25 matches, including one in an African Champions League tie against the Congolese giants Tout Puissant Mazembe. They swiftly made a move for him. He left his home town for the Lubumbashi base of TP Mazembe in 2011, where expectations were sky high. “Before they signed me they had played in the Club World Cup final against Inter Milan so everybody in their team was very known in Africa. I was just a boy from Tanzania. It was really a bit difficult. But I think my legs helped me. Just getting on the pitch and scoring goals. I scored in my first game.” Then Mazembe sold their main striker, Alain Kaluyituka, to a club in Qatar and Samatta stepped into the gap.
“It turned out that the players liked me, and the fans also liked me – they wanted to see me play. Because I’m fast and score goals.” With Samatta Mazembe won four successive domestic titles and lifted the 2015 Africa Champions League, with the striker scoring penalties in both legs of the final. “I knew the team looked at me and thought: ‘This is our main man, he will do something.’ So there was not very big pressure to score a penalty in the final. If you feel like you’re confident, you take it.” But the pressure was cranked up when he joined Genk in January 2016.
“When I was in Belgium, I realised that in Africa it was a little bit easy to play. It’s not aggressive. In Belgium it’s aggressive. The defenders they come at your legs kicking, pushing. In Africa, even if I was not 100%, I could just play. But [in Belgium] if you are not 100%, you are dead. You can’t do anything. I just said to myself: ‘I have to improve a lot. I want really to show it, I don’t want to fail here.’” He says it took him six months to adapt. But once he did so, he thrived.
His goals helped Genk win the Belgian title in 2019 and persuaded Villa that he could help rescue them in January when their previous striking import from the Belgian league, Wesley, got injured.
Samatta says he heard of Villa’s interest two days before the transfer was completed. “It was always my dream to play in the Premier League,” he says. “In Tanzania it is our favourite competition. I liked Manchester United because of David Beckham. Then came Cristiano Ronaldo but I switched sometimes to Thierry Henry because I liked how he played. And Didier Drogba, that was the guy I looked at most. I wanted to play like him and I tried to adapt and copy his running and stuff.”
His first match for Villa was the Carabao Cup semi-final triumph over Leicester but Samatta admits he found the going tough even before that. “Since I joined the team in training I had a feeling like: ‘If I had to be 100% in Belgium, here I have to be 200%.’ It’s not easy! In training they were running over me every time. I couldn’t get it. I was thinking: ‘Wow, this is tough. But I will make it.’”
In his next game he scored. His goal in a 2-1 defeat at Bournemouth was Villa’s first from a header all season, a particular pleasure for the striker who rates his aerial prowess as a key strength. But he was still not satisfied with his performance. He seldom is. “When the game is finished you go home and try to analyse it. What did I do? What do I have to improve?” His answer to the last question was: “A lot of stuff. But mostly my sprints. If I did 10, I have to get to 20. And where I position myself and how can I help my teammates to find me easily. Or how can I find space.”
Some particularly zealous Tanzanian admirers concluded that Samatta’s teammates needed to raise their game. The player felt embarrassed when he saw lots of his compatriots contacting other players on social media to order them to give their hero better service. “It’s like now the club and some players are receiving a lot of messages and I just asked them to leave the players alone. It’s me who comes from there [Tanzania], you don’t have to message everybody! Let them concentrate. It’s crazy! I don’t really like it.”
While Villa are counting – on Sunday and in their fight against relegation – on Samatta adapting rapidly to English football, City’s attack could be led by the most prolific foreign scorer in England in the modern era. Samatta acknowledges Sergio Agüero’s excellence but takes more inspiration from others.
“Before games I used to always watch videos of top strikers. Every time it used to be Didier Drogba. Then it was Harry Kane. I’ve watched him a lot; how he positions himself. And most of the time when he gets the ball he’s just thinking about shooting.”
Like Kane, Samatta is the captain of his country. He has found other ways of helping his people feel good. A few years ago he set up an annual charity match with one of Tanzania’s most popular singers, Ali Kiba, using the proceeds to fund education projects. “I was just thinking: ‘OK, I’m doing a job and getting paid but what can I do for society?’ We try to repair problems with schools and give it to people who don’t have anything.”
The Guardian Sport