Tanzania rarely features in discussions of Africa’s soccer hot spots. But that perception might be changing thanks to the skills of soccer freestyle queen Hadhara Charles, which are winning plaudits from celebrities across the world including US President Donald Trump.
A viral tweet of Charles displaying her range of flicks and tricks in a dress and flip-flops has been watched more than 10 million times, earning 125,000 retweets and more than 400,000 likes.
President Trump was among those impressed, tweeting “Amazing!” just after a message in which he accused former FBI director Andrew McCabe of treason. British television host Piers Morgan also shared the clip with the comment “Brilliant”
The star herself was pleased to receive acclaim from such high-profile quarters. “It feels good that Donald Trump shared the video,” Charles told CNN. “Here I am not paid. Sports doesn’t pay.”
Charles, a mother of two, is a specialist in the art of freestyle soccer, which is based on juggling and tricks with the ball using any part of the body. Freestyle has become a popular pursuit around the world and the leading exponents compete in prestigious international championships.
Charles started playing football at the age of 12 while in primary school, inspired by watching the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations. Her favorite players are the now-retired Brazilian icons Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
“I admired them and (they) made me learn football and play with the boys in my school,” says Charles.
The freestyler has won acclaim in her home country and represented Tanzania in events in Gabon, Cameroon, South Africa, and Ethiopia. In 2018, Charles came third in the first African Freestyle Football Championship.
But prestige has not been accompanied by financial rewards for Charles, who still struggles to support her family.
“I get these opportunities to travel but no pay,” she says. “If only I had sponsorship or some deal to support myself it will work for me (and) my two children will have enough for food and basic needs.”
More than two-thirds of the Tanzanian population live below the poverty line.
Charles has been forced to leave Tanzania to make any money from her passion. She routinely travels by bus to Lilongwe, Malawi, where the clip was filmed, to perform on the streets. Charles earns around $4 a day for her efforts.
Despite the limited rewards, Charles’ love of the game is undiminished and her skills echo the joyful style of the great Brazilian soccer stars she looks up to. “I want to do this full time, but I also want it to pay and feed me,” she says. “I hope I can get some sort of sponsorship.”
Recognition from President Trump offers a moment of satisfaction for Charles. But her true ambition is to make those magical skills deliver a more comfortable life for her family.