(MENAFN - AFP) Malawi's most prestigious football team, Big Bullets have controversially inked a $900,000 (822,000 euros) sponsorship deal with a cigarette manufacturing company, attracting the wrath of a local rights group.
The deal, with the country's sole cigarette manufacturer Nyasa Manufacturing Company (NMC), will be effective from January and the sponsorship money will be spread over five years.
But local NGO, Drug Fight Malawi, has attacked the deal, saying this was a "deliberate and well-orchestrated strategy for the company to market its products and increase tobacco consumption among children."
Bullets, twice champions of the country's Super League and who command the biggest fan base spread throughout the tiny and soccer-mad southern African nation, has been without sponsorship for nine years since former president Bakili Muluzi sponsored them for two years.
"This is a strategic business partnership and uses the team's supporters' base to enhance their brand," Sam Chilunga, who chairs the 1967-founded team, told AFP.
NMC finance chief Fleet Haiya told reporters that the team "will boost our brand since the number of supporters is overwhelming."
But Drug Fight Malawi's executive director Nelson Zakeyo said in a statement the deal was "in sharp contradiction to the healthy lifestyle of sports as espoused by FIFA."
He said in Malawi, one of the largest growers of tobacco which wires in 60 percent of foreign exchange, more than 26 percent of men and seven percent of youths smoke tobacco.
"Tobacco is one of the greatest public health challenges facing the world today," Zakeyo added.
The group wants FIFA to "reaffirm its commitment to keeping football tobacco free by publicly opposing the Big Bullets tobacco company sponsorship deal and work with the team to find alternative source of funding."
However, the deal has the blessings of the Football Association of Malawi (FAM).
"There is nothing wrong with the deal. FIFA and FAM are happy that a big team has secured a huge sponsorship," FAM's president Walter Nyamilandu said.
Nyamilandu says the deal has also been approved by world football's governing body: "FIFA gave us a go ahead," he said.
While FIFA does not promote tobacco products at events it organises, it has no jurisdiction over the right of individual teams or even national federations to sign sponsorship or marketing deals with whomsoeever they choose.
Most of the 16 teams in Malawi's poorly-run amateur super league are sponsored by the Army, Police and government. The rest are owned by private clubs.