Sky Sports exclusive: Aldershot Town’s Haji Mnoga and Ilkeston Town’s Ben Starkie tell the tale of how they came to represent Tanzania at senior international level and what it would mean to play for Adel Amrouche’s side at AFCON 2023, which starts in the Ivory Coast on January 13
Away from the glamour of the Premier League and unpredictable excitement in the EFL, English non-league football is unrivalled.
Be it the Jamie Vardy, rags-to-riches, journey that still proves to be a source of inspiration, or the FA Cup giant-killings that come year after year, there is so much life in the National League and below, and so many vivid stories waiting to be told.
With that in mind, meet Haji Mnoga and Ben Starkie.
Mnoga is on loan at Aldershot Town of the National League from Portsmouth, while Starkie plays for Derbyshire-based Ilkeston Town of the Northern Premier League Premier Division, on a dual registration with National League North side Alfreton Town.
The pair are both 21 – and since March 2022, both have been fully-fledged Tanzania internationals. Now, they are just weeks away from potentially playing at AFCON 2023.
- Which EFL players could be heading to AFCON? | AFCON fixtures
- Download the Sky Sports App | Stream Sky Sports with NOW
“It’s one of the best memories I’ve got,” says Starkie as Mnoga nudges him, smiles and asks him to tell the story of how they met.
“For a whole year, we were talking and playing Xbox most days and then, one weekend, I had an away game down in Cambridge and Haji was staying close to my game, so said he was going to pull up and watch me.
“That day, I scored two and with my last one, I went round the ‘keeper and scored and Haji was next to the goal. I just ran up to him and celebrated with him and since that moment we’ve been tight. We speak on the daily and now I get to travel with Tanzania with him. It’s the dream.”
Their journeys at club football have been similar, but their international paths differed somewhat.
Starkie – who qualifies for Tanzania through his mum, Happy – received his first call-up for the U17s a few months after missing out on a scholarship at hometown club Leicester, with whom he had been for six years.
Mnoga – whose dad Suleiman played for Zanzibar, the archipelago off the coast of Tanzania – however, earned one England U17 cap playing alongside Liverpool duo Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho in a friendly against Hungary in February 2019.
“I went on holiday to Tanzania and Zanzibar every couple of years,” says Mnoga. “I’ve been there, lived it and I was prouder to represent Tanzania more than I was England.”
On March 24 2022, then-Tanzania boss Kim Poulsen handed the pair their senior debuts in a 3-1 win over the Central African Republic.
More than 18 months on, Starkie says it has given him a new outlook on football.
“The love for football in Tanzania is a different type of love. They just live and breathe football. I’m not saying we don’t in England, but the whole culture around football is completely different.
“The love you receive is crazy and the atmosphere in our stadium [Benjamin Mkapa Stadium] is nuts. It’s not a small stadium [60,000 capacity] and most of it was full when we played Morocco. I’ve never experienced a packed-out stadium in England.
Tanzania’s results under Amrouche
- Uganda 0-1 Tanzania – March 24
- Tanzania 0-1 Uganda – March 28
- Tanzania 1-0 Niger – June 18
- Algeria 0-0 Tanzania – September 7
- Sudan 1-1 Tanzania – October 15
- Niger 0-1 Tanzania – November 18
- Tanzania 0-2 Morocco – November 21
“Even after the games, there are often little bajajes [Tanzanian version of a tuk-tuk] following the coach and pulling wheelies!”
Poulsen left in March and the man in charge now is Adel Amrouche.
The Algerian, 55, is greatly experienced on the international stage, having taken charge of Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Kenya, Libya, Botswana and Yemen before taking the Tanzania job in March.
He conducts his team talks in English, which are then translated. “Our Swahili is getting better, which is helping the team gel even more,” says Mnoga.
Under Amrouche, the pair are thriving.
“I really like him, because has more of what we’re used to with the European football side of things, but he’s also just a really nice, genuine guy,” Mnoga continues.
“He is always trying to help people and his goal is for the team to do well so that the players can go on to do well. He takes a lot of pride in doing well, but he also takes a lot of pride in producing players, almost like you would in an academy.
“If you look at our recent game against Morocco, our aim was to win. He had the whole changing room believing we could. To be fair to us, we did play well, even though we lost 2-0. We went into the Algeria game in September thinking we could win and then we drew, which secured qualification for AFCON.
“Everything feels so much different now compared to when we used to go, even down to the standards of the food and hotels. The whole experience it feels a lot more professional.”
Starkie agrees. “He’s a good coach to be around because he’s passionate and, as a player, that’s what you want. He’s got his standards and he doesn’t want anyone to drop below them. He will push you on and on.
“The team has come together under him really well and everyone has knuckled down, focused and we all know what the goal in hand is.”
At the start of January, the pair found out they were part of the provisional Tanzania squad of 31 players. Though submitted by the deadline of January 3, the final squad list for the tournament – which will be held in the Ivory Coast between January 13 and February 11 – is yet to be made public.
Joining them are fellow non-League players Wealdstone’s Tarryn Allarakhia, Boreham Wood’s Mohammed Omar and Telford United’s Twariq Abdillahi.
The pair smile in unison as they are asked how much they are looking forward to the prospect.
“All the opportunities I can get now will just help me get to the level I want to be at quicker, which is why AFCON was at the top of my list when I had a conversation with my parents about my plan,” says Mnoga.
“That was my dream and it hasn’t actually taken that long, so I can start looking at bigger things. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s happening now so I want enjoy it. It’s the biggest tournament in Africa.”
Starkie knows this could represent a chance to further his career at a higher level, too.
“It’s the biggest platform for both of us to potentially play on to boost our chances of making it to the level we hope to one day play at. You’re against the top talents in the whole of Africa and there’s not really a better opportunity that could come at this point in time for either of us.”
The Taifa Stars – as Tanzania are known – have only competed at AFCON twice in history and have picked up a solitary point from their six games – ironically from a 1-1 draw with the Ivory Coast in March 1980.
Not to say it has been lacking in the past, but there it seems there is a real hunger and ambition to not only get that first ever win on the board, but to put Tanzania on the footballing map.
Tanzania’s AFCON Group F fixtures
- Morocco vs Tanzania – January 17, 5pm UK time
- Zambia vs Tanzania – January 21, 5pm UK time
- Tanzania vs DR Congo – January 24, 8pm UK time
“It’s going to mean a lot for the people back home,” says Starkie. “Our aim is to give them the best performances we can and to get as far in the tournament as we can.
“It’s about showing what Tanzania has to offer in terms of talent. It will be an eye-opener for the people back home as we’re a different group from before and we can compete with the bigger countries in Africa. We’re not necessarily seen as the underdogs or the little country anymore.”
One thing is for certain: This determined young pair will not be taking anything for granted if they earn a chance to play in the Ivory Coast next month.