Imagine the combined enthusiasm of Americans for the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball if it was focused on a single sport. That comes close to describing the passion people in many countries have for soccer.
Haji is a 15-year-old Tanzanian boy who has been sponsored for four years. Like many youth, he’s passionate about the sport most of the world calls football. What makes his story exceptional is that he has the skill to go along with the passion.
“I started playing football when I was still in nursery school,” Haji said. “I just loved it so much. No one really taught me anything about football. It is just a talent.”
Combined with hard work, that talent resulted in Haji being allowed to try out for the junior (under-17) squad of the Azam Football Club, one of the most successful professional soccer franchises in Tanzania and a member of the prestigious Tanzanian Premier League.
That accomplishment is all the more impressive considering the challenges Haji has overcome. Born into poverty, his parents separated when he was small. His mother remarried and moved away, leaving Haji and his sister to be raised by their grandmother.
The family’s burden was eased when Haji became sponsored. His grandmother, Tendeje, was grateful.
“Unbound has been of great help,” she said. “Were it not for the sponsorship that Haji has, I would not have been in a position to take him to school. I definitely would not be in a position to raise his school fees.”
Tendeje places great value on education and insists that her grandson’s studies do not take a backseat to his love of football.
“As much as I support his dreams in football, I make sure that I encourage him to work hard in school,” she said. “Education is the key to great success in the future. When I see him concentrate so much on football, at times I am forced to be harsh so that he can find a balance between the two.”
Both Haji and his grandmother are deeply grateful to Haji’s sponsor, Gilbert, who, along with his wife Barbara, has been sponsoring the boy since 2011.
Tendeje said, “I am so grateful to his sponsor for everything he has done for my grandson, for his encouragement to him and constant support. I truly am grateful to Unbound.”
Haji added his own words of appreciation.
“[My sponsor] encourages me a lot, though he still tells me to strike a balance between my studies and football,” Haji said. I would like to thank him for all his support and also for his encouragement and support towards my passion, football.”
That support was expressed personally by Gilbert and Barbara’s daughter and son-in-law, Jennifer and Kelly, who visited Haji’s home on a visit to Tanzania.
“I got a lot of information [about Haji’s life] when they came back from visiting Haji and his sister and grandmother,” Gilbert said. “They were very pleased with how nice and polite Haji was. He even kicked the ball around with my son-in-law. Kelly said, ‘He’s good!'”
Unfortunately, a knee injury sidelined Haji, but he hopes that soon he will be able to find a spot on a club. In the meantime, he stays focused on his studies.
“I want to finish up my education and get good grades,” he said. “However, my biggest dream is to be a professional footballer. I would like to play for the world’s major leagues, someday.”
Tendeje echoes that sentiment but adds her own grandmotherly touch.
“I want him to succeed in life,” she said. “I hope that his dream of becoming a professional footballer will come true. I want to see him happy.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated for accuracy with information received after it was first posted.
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