Rwandans love football, no question about that. No sport provokes as much passion and excitement in Rwanda as the Beautiful Game. Those who suggest that we give up on this game because we are not good enough at it are practically clueless.
When APR play Rayon, our 25,000-seater Amahoro stadium is normally full to capacity. Radio stations will be abuzz with talk about the clash before and after the game, no show attracts as much callers as one on football.
Yet even when Rwanda is beating regional archrivals Kenya in their Zone V basketball tournament and goes on to qualify for a continental competition, only a handful of Rwandans will talk about the team’s achievements over dinner.
Many will probably have no idea we are actually hosting the tournament or have qualified for a major continental Basketball contest.
When Rwanda or our athletes narrowly miss out on a crucial ticket for a major event in basketball, volleyball and cycling, very few Rwandans will notice, and even fewer will probably still be thinking about it a week later.
Only a handful of Rwandans will tell you how often the country has participated at a continental showpiece in basketball or volleyball.
Yet you get a completely different picture when it comes to football. A significant number of Rwandans, the young and the elderly alike, know that our senior national team, the Amavubi Stars, appeared at the Africa Cup of Nations just once – and many still remember that historic year, 2004.
They know we have never qualified for the World Cup, and they can’t wait to see that happen.
Ironically, it is true that Rwanda has enjoyed more returns on investments (in terms of results) in volleyball, basketball, sitting volleyball and probably cycling than in football.
However, make no mistake: football has inherently been part of the Rwandan story in all aspects, more specifically in the post-Genocide healing process. And it will continue to be.
We may not be a great footballing nation yet but we never lose hope that one day we will be Africa’s greatest nation in this game.
It is for this very passion and love for this hugely popular sport that the government has set the target of having the country among the top 10 footballing nations on the African continent by 2017 – despite the fact it is currently in a disappointing 39th position out of 54 countries!
On the global stage, our dismal performance in football is even more glaring. We are languishing in the 135th position, 43 places behind our regional football archrivals Uganda.
It’s clear we have our work cut out, we have probably known that for a while now. However, we have always fallen short of taking the right course of action. Sometimes we have even seemed to know the right action and professed our commitment to do what we generally agree as the right thing.
Yet, time and time again we have opted for the simple action of blame game and scape-goating. On Tuesday, Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojovic became the latest man to bear the blunt of our naivety and lack of courage to undertake a long, but certainly rewarding journey.
Micho joins the long list of former Amavubi coaches who were shown the exit door for poor run of results. It’s telling that the national team has been under seven foreign coaches since 2004, without counting short-term caretakers such as Raoul Shungu and our very own Eric Nshimiyimana!
A few years back, we were told that Rwanda’s football was going to get a new lease of life. Football managers said they were looking to scaling down dependence on naturalised players and instead invest in youth football.
With Fifa sponsorship, Ferwafa opened a football academy which had instant impact when a batch of previously unknown but talented homegrown stars burst onto the stage, and beat several U-17 African opponents to hand the country its maiden Fifa World Cup appearance in any category.
Unfortunately, we failed to manage this instant success. These youngsters were grouped under Isonga FC, and somehow flexed muscles with the older boys in the Primus League last season. Yet the team is currently struggling for its life in the country’s topflight football.
But even more disturbing is the fact that Ferwafa football academy is now practically lying idle. Once Fifa pulled out, it looks we failed to carry the project forward. We are unable to build on the academy’s early success.
When Micho took over as the Amavubi coach in November 2011, it was clear he would give young, homegrown players a chance to shine. He did. A few did convince fans and the latter seemed to like the new approach.
Yet it was clear that this would not necessarily deliver immediate results. It was a hard, painstaking transition. It needed patience.
However, after a few back-to-back defeats, we all started to pile the blame on the Serbian-born tactician. We labeled him incompetent and a misfit since his previous coaching experience was only at club level.
Sports journalists, especially those for audio-visual media, and fans alike started to question the decision to put faith in homegrown, young talents as opposed to relying on ‘mercenaries, which was the case before.
Bizarrely, Ferwafa, instead of standing with the coach in this new approach and urge for patience from fans, was happy to make Micho the scapegoat.
Even as Rwanda’s 2014 World Campaign is all but over, Ferwafa opted for a hefty payout rather than wait for the seven months that were remaining on Micho’s contract.
Someone wanted to show they cared about results and yet the coach was not bringing the goods. That’s lack of consistency, if not hypocrisy.
Going forward, we shouldn’t back down on youth football. In fact, at the moment what we need is not a seasoned foreign football coach but deliberate policy and actions that promote and entrench the culture of youth football.
We need to consistently scout for raw talent across the country, support the philosophy of football academies, and hope that the private sector will increasingly come on board in the form of sponsorships to clubs and football academies.
Equally, education officials and schools should actively promote football competitions in classic schools and TVET centres.
It is good that, technically, our football is in the hands of people who understand the game – both Ferwafa president Celestin Ntagungira alias Abega and secretary general Michel Gasingwa are former Fifa referees.
Nonetheless, football management is more than just understanding the rules of the game. Tt requires accomplished managers, people who will conceive and pursue a development strategy without fear or favour.
While Rwanda’s football needs as many stakeholders as possible we need someone willing to lead from the front, a principled, steel-willed person who ignores the heckles from the stands and insists on choices that will, in the long run, rescue our football from the freefall mode its currently in.
Whether that turnaround can be ushered in by the current football managers maybe debatable but at least we, as a nation, need to acknowledge our collective shortcomings and allow the people in charge of football matters the time and space they need to freely dispense their duties.
We need to be patient and understand that transiting from a ‘mercenary’ national team to one composed of talented homegrown, patriotic lads will take a couple of years, maybe a decade or so.
In the same vein, we may not want to hire another expensive foreign tactician to preside over this transition. We have a couple of Rwandan football coaches who can take charge of Amavubi as we try to mould successive generations of players through youth and grassroots football.
Only last week, England and Arsenal ace Jack Wilshire tipped Arsenal starlet Alfred Mugabo to go on and light up the Emirates in the years to come.
A few of my friends received Wilshire’s remarks with skepticism. I did not. This country is laden with talent. We have heard of Valence Muvara, and saw Jimmy Gatete and Desire Mbonabucya.
Yet whatever these three and all the other former decent Rwandan players achieved was thanks to their own hard work often in hostile conditions.
Mugabo did feature for the U-17 Amavubi Stars at the 2011 World Cup finals in Mexico. But he was not in the starting eleven; he actually played a minimal role, coming on as a substitute late on.
Yet there are many of his peers who were on the pitch while he was on the bench who do not see light at the end of the tunnel. They are playing in Rwandan clubs but are hardly noticed.
They have great potential but lack the kind of opportunity Mugabo has. Such kids are everywhere in Rwanda. They patiently wait for that moment when they will be noticed and given a chance.
This is where we probably need real support and investment. I would be glad to see a foreigner tasked to take on this challenge – leading the quest to attract scouts to Rwanda and helping in finding clubs and academies abroad for this raw talent.
That holds the key to turning around our fortunes in football. And this can only be done through a deliberate football development programme, spearheaded by professionals.
Otherwise we will continue to hire and fire coaches with no tangible results.