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Malawi soccer: Underpaid and overplayed

Soccer players in Malawi are notoriously underpaid despite the game's widespread popularity. Photo by Andrea Lynett. 

By Andrea Lynett

Clad in black and red with vuvuzelas in tow, droves of soccer fans don their team’s colours and flood Blantyre’s Kamuzu Stadium to witness the showdown between Malawi and Botswana.

Fellow reporters and I watch from the sidelines in the cold and pouring rain for more than two hours. As I complain about my lifeless limbs, the Malawians I’m with focus on one thing: the game.

Cheers for the country’s soccer idols rock the stands. In those freezing hours, I feel as though I’m at a Rolling Stones concert in New York City, not a national soccer game at a run-down stadium in Blantyre.

In retrospect, the difference is that the Stones are paid for their performances, good or bad, unlike national soccer players who barely make enough money to get by: US$150 if they win, US$75 if they tie and nothing at all if they lose. (The number of games played a month varies from four in the down season to 10 or more during tournaments.)

In Malawi, multimillion-dollar contracts are as rare as snowfall in a tropical climate. Some believe players earn so little because soccer is undervalued in the country. Others say it’s simply because there’s no money in the country to pay them more.  

“We are among the least paid in Southern Africa,” says 10-year veteran player, Hellings Mwakasungula. When asked why he chose a career with such a meagre salary, he laughs, and then says unsurely, “I guess it’s what I do best.”

Mwakasungula says Malawi “can do better” in terms of the support it provides to players.

Presently, the main funder of Malawi’s national team, the Flames, is the cash-strapped government agency, the Football Association of Malawi (FAM).

“Soccer isn’t valued. We have to change the mindset from administration to players,” says Mwakasungula, referring to the attitude of FAM.

Before the Malawi versus Botswana match, the consensus was that Malawi would defeat the younger, less experienced Botswana squad. In the end, the score was tied 1-1. Mwakasungula says his team's poor performance is due in part to the lack of monetary assistance from FAM.

Fortunately for some Malawian soccer players, extra cash can be earned from playing for club teams, like the Bullets or Wanderers, rather than solely relying on getting paid for the games they play with the national squad. 

In Canada, national soccer players receive an annual guaranteed minimum salary of around $18,000CDN—not princely, but nonetheless existent—regardless of how many games they win or lose. And just as it is in Canada, players in Malawi are aware that prosperous and lucrative soccer careers lie beyond the country’s borders. In Europe, for example, where football reigns, financial rewards are greater than in Canada and Malawi.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the players who are underpaid. Flames’ head coach, Kinnah Phiri recently told Malawi’s Capital FM that his salary also falls below the ideal. Although he believes it would have been unpatriotic to ask FAM for the same amount given to his predecessor, who hails from the U.K.

Looking ahead, as many African nations vie for a coveted spot in the 2012 African Cup of Nations, it is questionable if Malawi will be able to reproduce the same type of 3-0 humiliation they inflicted on fan favourites, Algeria, during the 2010 African Cup.

The sentiment from Mwakasungula is that the team “has really improved. We are far better and we’ve tried to put the country on the map.” It’s just too bad this hasn’t been reflected in their salaries.

Ultimately, the question remains that if professional sport is driven by profit and athletes in turn produce positive results for their country, should their pay not reflect the efforts displayed?

According to Mwakasungula, the answer is yes.

“We need to change the mentality towards soccer if the situation is to improve.” 

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