On a beach encircled by slender palms and luxuriant vegetation barefoot young lads chase a ball. Their goals are marked by sticks plunged into glossy, flour-like sand. Inside a nearby bar, a number of patrons are watching an English Premier League match on a small, rudimentary television. A few kilometres away, eight floodlights stand over the corrugated roofs of a shantytown, marking the presence of a stadium. A picturesque, touristic destination renowned for its cloves and coconut palms as well as for being Freddie Mercury’s birthplace, Zanzibar may not be the first place to spring to mind when it comes to football, but it has a role, and a critical one.

Football is a legacy of European colonialism, perhaps even far more evident than the Anglican cathedral that stands in the heart of Stone Town, the historical part of Zanzibar City on Unguja Island that is listed as a cultural World Heritage Site or the nearby monument to the slaves. Following centuries of Persian, Portuguese and Arab dominance, this archipelago nestled in the Indian Ocean 30 miles off the East African coast became a British protectorate under the Omani Sultanate with the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty in 1890, but typical English sports had already reached the islands around a decade earlier. The Eastern Telegraph Company attempted to lay a submarine cable in Zanzibar and its workers used to play football, cricket and field hockey at the end of the day. It was football that broke through among the local population, developing into a cultural mode that nourished African nationalism and social redemption. 

British sports also emanated from St Andrew's College, founded in the outskirts of Zanzibar City by the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa with the goal of training Christian missionaries to build churches and schools. The students learned to spread not just the word of God in a land with a vast majority of Muslims, but also a passion for football. Just like any other region on earth, locals regularly attended games between British workers or aspiring clergymen and soon emulated them, practising the sport and establishing their own clubs.

While Europe was suffering World War I, Zanzibar succumbed once and for all to football. Teenagers used to play interminable matches almost every day without a referee, while civil servants, merchants and labourers founded teams to represent villages or neighbourhoods from Unguja, the main island in the archipelago alongside Pemba, and men gradually began to talk about results and performances in public places. The Darugar Cup, staged in 1924 as the first official competition, fuelled the passion for football to a higher level. Lower classes finally found their own heroes to lionise whenever the former slaves playing for the New Kings challenged elite European clubs such as the Kiungani College Boys or the Government School club. For the people of Zanzibar, these matches helped develop their skills and also overturned social hierarchies, as for instance when the Golf Course Caddies team sensationally defeated the side formed by their employers. Zanzibar had been a crucial junction in the slave trade, perpetuated by the Arabs and shut down by Great Britain, with thousands of African men sailing for America, Europe or the Middle East. Overcoming the minorities’ clubs somehow meant avenging those slaves and decades of pain and vexations.

The widespread dissemination and institutionalisation of football in Zanzibar peaked in 1926, when the Chama cha Mpira wa Miguu Zanzibar [Swahili for Zanzibar Football Association] was founded and the first domestic championship was established. It was contested by nine teams and won by Mnazi Mmoja, a club from the strip of sand by that name at the gates of Stone Town. In the same year, the British applied a system of checks and balances as they introduced Legislative and Executive Councils to limit the power of the Sultan in issuing new laws. 

The different ethnicities located in Unguja – Africans and Shirazis with Persian ancestors, the Arab oligarchy, Indians, the British governors - soon started to look at football with different eyes. It gave local inhabitants a form of class consciousness that would inflame African nationalism and incite them to rise up against the European domination, which was working to shore up its hegemony in the archipelago. Such endeavours resulted in the foundation of the Sports Control Board which, as the name suggests, the British authorities conceived to exert their control over the development and management of football – as had already happened in political institutions. 

Dismantling teams from the villages entailed potential risks for the Europeans and the ruling colonial administration astutely decided instead to weaken them. Football clubs related to significant occupational fields for local people, such as the police or the medical department, were established and male African employees with outstanding football skills were encouraged to join. In her essay “Kickin' it: leisure, politics and football in colonial Zanzibar”, the historian Laura Fair mentions the story of the Caddies centre-forward Omar Said, who abruptly had to leave his teammates following his recruitment as a driver by the Public Works Department, the club that monopolised the Zanzibar league for two decades. 

The remnants of the Caddies themselves, the New Generation and the New Kings subsequently combined in 1932 to create African Sports, a club with a distinct ethnic identity, as all founding teams came from the community of former slaves, Ng’ambo. Their players protested against the appointment of only European referees by the Sports Control Board, accusing them of bias, and denounced the pervasiveness of racism in Zanzibari football. Once again, the British rulers feared possible tension and felt the need to pauperise the club waving the flag of African identity. The creation of a new league involving only neighbourhood-based teams in 1942 caused a diaspora of African Sports players, but the desire to overturn the social and political order did not vanish.

After World War II, the Zanzibar national football team finally made their debut on the international stage in what is now called the Council of East and Central African Football Associations (Cecafa) Senior Challenge Cup. Founded in the mid-1920s as the Gossage Cup in honour of the soap manufacturers Williams Gossage and Sons Limited, who donated the trophy, the competition originally consisted only of Kenya and Uganda, then under British rule. Zanzibar joined in 1947 and debuted on September 18 of that year with a 3-1 loss to Tanganyika. Later the two countries merged to form Tanzania. Five years later, the isles won a game for the first time. The winger Hija Saleh, a highly valued schoolteacher who has been credited with the evolution of youth football in Zanzibar, scored a hat-trick in the third-place play-off against Tanganyika.

Although decolonisation was slow in sub-Saharan Africa, the European supremacy steadily wavered in the post-war years. General elections for the Legislative Council were held for the first time in 1957 and the political milieu reflected ethnic divisions. The Marxist-Leninist Afro-Shirazi Party, which aimed to represent indigenous people, and the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, in tune with the Arab minorities, were the main political forces. They both experienced a secession, with some disaffected members quitting to found the nationalist Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party and the left-wing Umma Party. 

Two key events occurred in 1963. In July, the two nationalist parties allied for the general elections with Great Britain’s blessing, amassing 18 of 31 available parliamentary seats, and were appointed to form a new government to the detriment of the Afro-Shirazi Party, despite its 54% of votes. Subsequently, the British government promulgated the Zanzibar Act on December 10 and abolished the protectorate, granting independence in the form of a constitutional monarchy under Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah to prevent ominous revolts. Power would remain in his hands for only a short time, though. 

On 12 January 1964, while the Afro-Shirazi Party leader Abeid Amani Karume and his Umma Party counterpart Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu travelled to Tanganyika, the communist-led Zanzibar Revolution broke out. Guided by the self-proclaimed field marshal John Okello, hundreds of unarmed African insurgents occupied police and radio stations on Unguja and eventually overthrew the Sultan, causing numerous casualties. The Arab dominance of the archipelago was ended after more than 200 years. Once the two political leaders returned to the islands, Okello was booted out and Karume became president of the People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba as well as head of the Revolutionary Council. Then, Karume himself announced in late April negotiations for a merger with mainland Tanganyika to create the United Republic of Tanzania. The independence of the archipelago had lasted slightly more than three months.

Zanzibar acquired the status of a semi-autonomous region with a Revolutionary Government made up of the Revolutionary Council and the House of Representatives, but it yearned to be a sovereign state – at least on the sports field. Although the Tanzania Football Federation joined Fifa in 1964, the isles maintained their own governing body and the two national teams clashed at the Cecafa Challenge Cup in Uganda just a year later. Their cohabitation has never been so idyllic since then. Zanzibaris claim that the central government keeps the income generated by tourist visas for visiting the archipelago, and the football federation similarly protests about Fifa’s Goal Project funding going exclusively to Tanzania even when it was destined for the islands.  

Meanwhile, the country as a whole soon became one of the first beneficiaries of the so-called “stadium diplomacy” practiced by China from the early 1970s on. The Asian giant intended to become a guiding light for African territories in carrying out their anti-imperialist battle and established diplomatic and commercial relationships in several parts of Africa. The Beijing government grasped that football might have represented a vehicle for independence and consequently refurbished or built from scratch several sports facilities, donating them as gifts or granting loans at very low rates of interest. China helped the enlargement of Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam in June 1960 and the construction of Amaan Stadium on Unguja in successive months, both of them serving as venues to celebrate the anniversary of their independence from Great Britain.

Football inevitably fomented aspirations of self-rule and the Zanzibar Football Association even restored its domestic championship at the beginning of the 1980s. Then, the national title was awarded via play-offs contested by the two top clubs from mainland league and the top two from the island league. Kikosi Maalum cha Kuzuia Magendo (KMKM) went down in history as the first Zanzibar club to win the Tanzania Union League in 1984 after a two-decade supremacy by Dar es Salaam sides. The Unguja-based team acquired the right to take part in the African Champions League the following year, only to lose to the Zambian champions Power Dynamos by a 6-1 aggregate in the first round. Malindi brought the national title back to the archipelago in 1989 and 1992, but they were immediately eliminated in continental competition, too. Zanzibar finally reached their zenith in 1995 when they lifted the Cecafa Cup after defeating Uganda’s B team by a single goal in the final. 

The Tanzania Union League survived until 2003, when the championship was abandoned. The Dar es Salaam club Young Africans sued the Football Association of Tanzania for changing the format midway through the season and refused to show up for the play-off quarter-finals. Meanwhile, the Zanzibar Football Association had seceded in 2002 and became a member of CAF. It was time to apply for Fifa admission – at least, it appeared so. Not surprisingly, the international governing body rebuffed the request, saying that Zanzibar with its over one million inhabitants is not “an independent state recognised by the international community”, as required by Article 10 of the Fifa Statutes. From the Zurich headquarters’ perspective, the isles’ football federation was – and still is – basically affiliated to the Tanzanian one. However, the journalist Steve Menary recalled in his book Outcasts! that Fifa had incomprehensibly recognised the French territory of New Caledonia, a non-UN member with a fifth of Zanzibar’s population, as its 205th member 10 months earlier. The reason was that no New Caledonian club is able to play in a French league due to the enormous distance from Europe, while teams from Unguja and Pemba can reach mainland by ferry or airplane in less than an hour. Dreams of independence faded as CAF cancelled the archipelago’s membership, demanding a reconciliation with Tanzania. After much lobbying, Zanzibar was reinstated as an associate member and its clubs are still eligible to compete in the African Champions League and the Confederation Cup. Yet, core issues such as the scarcity of sponsorships, poor salaries and the protracted leadership wrangles have hampered their prospects.   

Besides the Cecafa Cup, Zanzibar took part in football competitions outside Africa. Given that they cannot qualify for the World Cup, they settled for the Wild Cup, reserved for countries not recognised by Fifa and held in Germany in 2006, like the real thing. Exceptionally coached by the German comedian Oliver Pocher, Zanzibar reached the final and lost only on penalties to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus after a goalless draw. Six years later, the isles lost again to Northern Cyprus in the Viva World Cup semi-finals. The defenders Nadir ‘Cannavaro’ Haroub and Aggrey Morris and the midfielders Abdi Kassim and Khamis Mcha Khamis are the embodiments of this tangled situation. Not only did they contribute to those achievements in non-Fifa tournaments, they were also capped for Tanzania – although perhaps that’s not dissimilar to the likes of Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol and Xavi, who played for Spain and Catalonia, or the former Arsenal centre-back Sébastien Squillaci, who represented both France and Corsica.

With its decent performances, the national team managed to unite a politically divided territory during a difficult period. Between 1995 and 2005, the leading parties Chama Cha Mapinduzi [Party of the Revolution] and Civic United Front reciprocally denounced gerrymandering in a series of rounds of voting and argued about whether to secede from Tanzania. After the 2010 general elections, a referendum on establishing a national unity government in the archipelago passed and the two opponents apparently reconciled. In the same period, China aided the refurbishment of Amaan Stadium and Zanzibar made another unsuccessful bid for Fifa membership, once again rejected on grounds of sovereignty.

However, the refusal did not prevent an increase in football’s popularity, particularly among women. In early 2012, the local Ministry of Education introduced a government programme to give Muslim girls access to training at school. Five years earlier the release of the documentary Zanzibar Soccer Queens had given international exposure to the women’s game, leading to Women Fighters, the first female club on the isles, being invited to Germany. Once they were back home, the players were received by the Minister of Information, Tourism, Sports and Culture who publicly greeted them as cultural ambassadors of Zanzibar. The short film and the trip to Europe have changed attitudes towards girls, who are finally enjoying more equal opportunities in sports education following years of discouragement from male family members. In addition, the national team entered the revived Cecafa Women’s Championship last year after Zanzibar hosted and won the previous edition in 1986.

Dreams of independence seemed to be withering until a couple of years ago, when the Tanzanian Deputy Minister for Information, Youth, Culture and Sports, Juma Nkamia, announced a meeting with the country’s two football governing bodies. Above all, he told the national press that the government would work on recommendations to push Zanzibar for associate Fifa membership. Such openness immediately ameliorated the relationship between mainland and the islands. The TFF decided to play the African Nations Championship qualifier against Uganda at the Amaan Stadium rather than at the usual National Stadium, on 20 June 2015. The ZFA paid back the favour last January when the semi-finals of Mapinduzi Cup, a yearly competition entered by clubs from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and staged in Unguja, were moved to Dar es Salaam for the first time. 

The TFF president Jamal Malinzi publicly backed Zanzibar’s wish for independence and paved the way for a historic moment. On 16 March this year, CAF’s General Assembly in Addis Ababa not only elected its new president Ahmed Ahmed from Madagascar after a seven-term reign by Issa Hayatou, they also discussed whether Zanzibar should get full membership. With two-thirds of the votes being required, Zanzibar received unanimous approval, meaning the ZFA now has the right to vote on continental issues and the various national teams are allowed to take part in the African Cup of Nations, the African Women’s Championship and Under-20 and Under-17 tournaments. As a result CAF has equalled Uefa as the biggest regional confederation, while the French overseas department and current associate members Réunion might emulate Zanzibar and make their own bid. 

Zanzibari football fans might now gaze at global stars directly from the terraces of the Amaan Stadium rather than on screens in public bars. The ultimate dream is still Fifa admission and it will not come easily or soon. However, with the plausible endorsement of an entire continent, playing a World Cup qualifier may not always remain out of reach.