15.5 C
New York
Sunday, May 19, 2024

Haji Mnoga, Tanzania’s non-League defender on the ‘surreal’ experience of playing at AFCON

“Everyone here is ready to prove people wrong. Our record points total in this competition is one. The manager keeps saying people’s expectations of us are so low, so what do we have to lose?’

Haji Mnoga is talking to The Athletic the day before the biggest moment of his career. The 21-year-old full-back, who plays for National League Aldershot Town on loan from Portsmouth (who are in the third tier of English football, two above his loan club), has taken a quick break in between lunch and training before Tanzania’s opening game of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) against Morocco.

This is Tanzania’s third appearance at the tournament and they are the second-lowest side in the FIFA rankings (121st). They lost all of their group-stage games at the 2019 edition and conceded eight goals.

Morocco are one of the favourites after becoming the first-ever African team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup. They have a global superstar in Achraf Hakimi, while their squad also contains Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri, Manchester United midfielder Sofyan Amrabat and Yassine Bounou, who won the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) Goalkeeper of the Year award last month.

Mnoga defended diligently against Real Betis winger Abde Ezzalzouli and Tanzania were only trailing 1-0 heading into the final 13 minutes. Yet they conceded twice late on following Novatus Miroshi’s red card. Morocco were always going to pose a tricky challenge and Tanzania’s focus will switch to Zambia and the DR Congo. Mnoga and his team-mates want to keep their dream going for as long as possible.

Mnoga was born and raised in Portsmouth. His father, Suleiman, comes from the island of Unjuga, which is located in the Indian Ocean just off the east coast of Africa and, along with Pemba Island, forms Zanzibar. In 1964, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika, on the mainland, to create Tanzania.

Zanzibar have their own football team and Suleiman represented them. They have never appeared at AFCON and were only accepted into CAF in 2017. Four months later, their membership was revoked as FIFA rules do not allow two football associations from the same country to be admitted.

Suleiman moved to the United Kingdom around 30 years ago. During his childhood, Mnoga would visit Zanzibar with his father, mother, sister and three brothers every couple of years.

Coach Adel Amrouche is a demanding presence (SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images)

To reach Zanzibar, you have to catch a seven-and-a-half hour flight from the United Kingdom to Dubai and then fly for a similar length of time to the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam. You can then fly directly to Unjuga, but Mnoga would often travel by boat.

“Zanzibar is beautiful,” he tells The Athletic from Tanzania’s camp in the Ivorian coastal city of San-Pedro. “Everything is tropical. It has the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen and I got to see dolphins.

“There are a lot of tourists and people often go there for honeymoons, but where my grandma lives in town you can see the poverty. My dad would bring over clothes, footballs and boots to give people. It helped teach me a lot of valuable lessons about not taking anything for granted.”

Mnoga joined Portsmouth’s academy before he turned 10 and progressed through their ranks. When he was 16, he received call-ups at the same time from England and Tanzania’s youth teams. He decided to represent England at under-17 level and came off the bench in a 0-0 draw with Hungary in February 2019. Steve Cooper was in charge of England and Mnoga’s team-mates included Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott, Tino Livramento of Newcastle United and future USMNT midfielder Yunus Musah. Three years later, he made his debut for Tanzania’s senior side in a 3-1 victory over Central African Republic.

“I wanted to represent England and Tanzania at youth level,” Mnoga says. “I was looking at how my career was progressing and said to my dad I want to play for Tanzania. He knew some of the people in the federation and reached out to them.

“I came with two other players (Ben Starkie and Adi Yussuf) from England which made things a lot easier as I spoke little Swahili. That was one of the first times when players had come from outside Tanzania to play, which was a big thing. It was surreal. The stadium was packed and it was only a friendly.”

Mnoga made two appearances for Tanzania in their qualifying campaign for AFCON. He missed one camp through injury and on another occasion stayed at home to look after his newborn daughter, Nova, with his partner Maisie.

The defender returned for their crucial final qualifier against Algeria in September. Algeria had won all of their five games and were playing at home. Tanzania needed a point to finish second in front of Uganda and Niger. Mnoga had the small task of marking West Ham United winger Said Benrahma, but held firm along with his team-mates to earn a 0-0 draw.

“I rose to the challenge, kept him quiet and I take pride in that.” Mnoga tells The Athletic. “(Benrahma) didn’t shake my hand at the end of the game. I’m happy he was annoyed. That’s how you know you’ve had a good game.”

This is Mnoga’s first international tournament. He impressed against Morocco and will probably be responsible for marking Brentford forward Yoane Wissa when they face DR Congo next Wednesday. How does he raise his level and cope with the pressure? The defender reveals he learned a valuable lesson when he made his debut for Gillingham in September 2022 and got sent off after 10 minutes for two separate fouls.

“It was my first time playing in League Two and I tried to do too much,” Mnoga says. “I thought I had to win every tackle. Now I try to revert to the basics. Keep the ball, make good decisions, defend properly and everything else is a bonus.

“I try to remain as emotionless as possible. When I get excited or nervous I don’t play my best football.”

Mnoga made his debut under Kim Poulsen but Adel Amrouche took over as head coach last March. Before AFCON, Tanzania lost a World Cup qualifier to Morocco and a friendly to Egypt. Mnoga believes Amrouche has made them much more competitive and difficult to beat though.

“The coach is a massive influence on everyone. He has his fun, jokey side but when he wants you to work he will make you work hard, which is good because he bleeds into the team positivity and fight. You can tell with him after the games where we lost it hurt him as much as if he was playing. He doesn’t want players here to participate. Everybody is here to do a job — to win.”

Mnoga flew to Egypt for Tanzania’s pre-tournament training camp on January 2, which means he missed Aldershot’s 4-1 defeat against Championship side West Bromwich Albion in the third round of the FA Cup a few days later.

Aldershot are 10th in the National League, the fifth tier (Ben Roberts Photo/Getty Images)

The full-back’s last appearance for his club was in a 3-2 derby victory over Woking on January 1 in front of 5,000 people. On Wednesday in Ivory Coast, he represented his country in front of a crowd of a noisy crowd in San-Pedro.

“Me and (Starkie) talk about it a lot,” Mnoga says. “Ever since we got called up, and even when I was young, I wanted to play for Tanzania at the Africa Cup of Nations. We sit there in disbelief.

“It’s crazy to be able to come here at 21 and achieve this with a good friend of mine. We’re in a completely different country, we’ve never been here before. The only way to describe it is surreal. We deserve to be here and we always believed we could get here. Now we see it as an opportunity for us to kick on with our careers.”

(Top photo: Jay Harris/The Athletic)

Read the full article here

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Articles