I spent Sunday afternoon with one of the loneliest men in Malawi. Chris Banda is the general-secretary of Malawi’s professional soccer “Super League.” Fifteen teams compete in the league, which plays from May to November. Africans love soccer, both their own leagues and European competitions. While Malawi is no powerhouse, the level of play at today’sgame was high. Longtime local champion, the Blantyre “Big Bullets,” defeated a feisty underdog from the capital, Lilongwe, one goal to nil. The goal came on a spectacular strike from 40 yards out and essentially ended the game.
As interesting as the contest was, my conversation with Banda was more so. His task is to raise money for a league based in one of the world’s poorest countries, where life expectancy is declining and 15% of the adult population has HIV. “It is difficult to devote money to sports in the midst of a national crisis,” he admits, but he says Malawians deserve the simple pleasures of a well-played soccer match and he insists that, somehow, money must be found to keep the game afloat in his country. The trouble is that the league has no television sponsor, and attendance at games is sparse, partly because poverty prevents the masses from coming up with the mere 75 cents required for a basic ticket.
I listened intently to Banda talk about the struggles of pro soccer in his country. Most of the 15 teams are sponsored by government agencies. Commercial sponsors are few and the cost of running a team for a season â€“ about $35,000 to $45,000 â€“ are significant in a country where similar amounts can fund a health clinic for a year. I expressed my sympathy for the plight of the soccer and assured Banda that I was not a foreigner who would deny Malawians their opportunity to enjoy home-grown competition. â€œIâ€™m so happy to hear that,â€ Banda replied. â€œOne of our teams is for sale right now. Maybe youâ€™d like to buy it.â€
I considered falling back on my usual Iâ€™m-a-journalist cover, but I told Banda Iâ€™d ponder the possibility.