In Poverty-Stricken Malawi, Even Soccer Stars Are Paupers

  @Gooch700 on July 10 2013 12:32 PM

The newly named Belgian coach of the national soccer team of the southern African nation of Malawi will receive a $10,000 bonus should his club defeat Nigeria in the World Cup group match’s final qualifying round in September. The Football Association of Malawi said it agreed to pay Tom Saintfiet the bonus, which amounts to 3.3 million in the local kwacha currency, according to the Nyasa Times newspaper. “If the team loses, he will get nothing,” said FAM’s general secretary, Suzgo Nyirenda.

The catch is that Saintfiet will not receive any salary for coaching the club, known as the Flames, as he “volunteered” his services for only three months. The FAM will, however, provide the Belgian national with free accommodation and living expenses during his brief tenure in the country.

Saintfiet’s sudden emergence as Malawi’s coach has relegated former manager Eddington Ng’onamo to the position of assistant coach. Ng’onamo was hired only in January -- under his coaching, Malawi lost to Botswana, but defeated Namibia in a World Cup qualifier. Now, his replacement, the Belgian, perhaps motivated by his potential windfall, seems optimistic about his club’s chances. “I know Nigeria and I know Malawi,” he said. “I am convinced that Malawi has the quality to win and qualify for the playoffs. I have only one goal and ambition, qualifying Malawi for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.”

The 40-year-old native of Mol, Belgium, has worked as a coach across other parts of Africa, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ethiopia, as well as coaching stints in Europe and Middle East. Saintfiet says he took the Malawi job only because he feels the team can make it into the World Cup. "In the last weeks I got offers from clubs in South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia and Lebanon," he said at the press conference that announced his hiring. “If I had decided last week to go to Lebanon I would have earned four times that amount [the $10,000 bonus] in the next two months whether I had won or lost. That was secured money. So if I'd come to Malawi just for the bonus I'd be very stupid. I'd have signed somewhere else if money was important to me. I'm not here for money and that is the reason why I volunteered. I'm here because I have a dream that Malawi is a country that can go to the World Cup."

Saintfiet’s appointment as Malawi coach has upset some people in the country (a Malawi citizen even filed a court injunction against FAM to invalidate Saintfiet’s appointment), but now his potential bonus has even angered some of his own players. BBC reported that Malawi captain Joseph Kamwendo blasted the bonus, citing that players will only receive the equivalent of $85 should they beat Nigeria. "Why don't they [Malawi football authorities] make such offers to players?" Kamwendo asked. "Why should we continue to have our services not appreciated yet they are ready to splash out huge sums of money to one person? We've been fighting for an increase in game bonuses and allowances for a long time, but the FAM have ignored us.”

A $10,000 bonus may represent a pittance compared to the millions earned annually by top soccer stars in Europe and elsewhere, but in Malawi, one of the poorest nations on earth, that sum amounts to a fortune. Dominated by a subsistence agriculture economy, more than one-half (53 percent) of Malawians live below the poverty line, while more than 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, according to the Foundation for International Community Assistance, a U.S.-based microfinance organization. The country is heavily dependent upon foreign aid. The average annual per capita income amounts to $900 (i.e., about one-eleventh of what Saintfiet will receive as a bonus).

As for Malawi’s soccer players (who are at least lucky not to have till the soil for a living), they are apparently underpaid. According to a report by Andrea Lynett that was published by Canada’s Journalists for Human Rights organization, Malawi’s national footballers make $150 per game if they win, $75 if they tie and nothing if they lose. “We are among the least paid in southern Africa,” said veteran player Hellings Mwakasungula. “Soccer isn’t valued. We have to change the mindset from administration [FAM] to players.”

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