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Apr 14, 2014

Azam FC a breath of fresh air in Tanzania

Irony is one way to describe the news that Tanzania's oldest football club, Young Africans, have been displaced as Premier League title-holders by one of league's newcomers, Azam FC. The seven-year old team has only been playing in the top flight since the 2008-09 season and claimed the crown with a 2-1 win over Mbeya City at the weekend which puts them out of touching distance of the chasing pack.

Azam's achievement is more than just the story of the vast distances a start-up can travel in a short space of time; it is also a nod to what big business can do for professional sport in Africa. It was founded and is owned by manufacturing group, Bakhresa, who deal in everything from food and beverage to transport and petroleum and who extended their investment to a football club in 2007.

The team was started as part of the company's corporate social responsibility and it is little more than a footnote on the official website, which states that the primary goal of the club is to "bring cheers", to Tanzanian fans. The reality is that Azam have done much more than that.

In just their fourth season in the Premier League, they finished in second place to make clear the threat they could be to the establishment. They had big-name players from the region on the books -- including the late Rwandan captain Patrick Mafisango -- and then they went on to bolster their ranks ahead of this season. Uganda's highly-rated forward Brian Umony is part of their squad, as is Kenya's much-lauded midfielder Humphrey Mieno and a local legend. Winger Mrisho Ngasa joined them from Young Africans for what was reportedly a record transfer in Tanzania.

They went through the first half of the season unbeaten in 13 games. Of those, they beat both big clubs -- Young Africans 3-2 in a thriller and Simba 2-1 away from home, but they also drew six of those matches, including one a 3-3 final with Mbeya City. That led to the axing of English coach Stewart Hall. Hall was in his second stint with the club but they appeared to part ways because they wanted to grow at a quicker rate than he could manage.

Hall was dispensed with when the league took a break, which gave the club time to find a suitable replacement. In December, they unveiled Cameroon’s Joseph Marius Omog as their new coach. Omag earned praise for his work with Congolese side AC Leopards, with whom he won the league twice with, in 2012 and 2013, and took to the main draw of the CAF Champions League last year.

Azam's increased urgency was obvious. They won the first four matches of the second half of the season, two of them by margins of 4-0, and all of them without conceding. They drew against Young Africans and Tanzania Prisons, but then beat Coastal Union 4-0 to get back on track that saw them collect five more wins, including a second over Simba for the season. With a goal difference of plus-35, Azam clinched the title with a game to go and the indication is that club's growth is only just beginning.

Azam FC's official site hints that the club is securing future success because of the emphasis in infrastructure. Bahkresa are building a sports facility for the club which will include a sand pitch training ground, an artificial turf playing ground, swimming pool, gym, accommodation facility and stadium. They say other local clubs have been "afraid to undertake" similar improvements, but there is a strong chance that they simply have not been able to afford to.

Whatever the reason, having another big player in the Tanzanian league is welcome. Not since 1999 has a club other than Young Africans or Simba won the title. Breaking that hegemony is as important in developing the game as starting a new club and giving young players an opportunity.

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