With the summer heatwave seemingly over, the day dawned like any other British day, clouds heavy with rain and Arsenal fans excited for the first match of the Premier League season. I was excited for an entirely different reason, a very proud reason. As Arsenal’s first ever sleeve partner, my small and resilient country Rwanda was featured in a short half time video, stadium LED banners and interview backdrops. This isn’t just one day though. It’s the beginning of a beautiful three-year partnership showcasing that my country is more than its dark past and rather the second-fastest growing economy on the African continent.
This was also the chance for the new Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, to fill the very big shoes left by beloved Arsene Wenger. Judging by the chants in the stands by fans, they certainly still miss Arsene. The rain eventually abated and some of the Rwandans in attendance, some who flew all the way from Rwanda, and myself took our seats in the stands, sporting the Rwandan flag and the new jerseys.
Before we go any further, I have a confession to make though. I don’t support Arsenal in football and to be perfectly honest, I prefer tennis. And yet, the atmosphere was electric and hard for anyone to just sit idly by. Yes, I live tweeted but as a relatively new person to live football, no one was passively watching. Everyone was invested. No more than the Arsenal fans with their familiar football chants. Every near miss, every dodgy referee call, every save was applauded and cheered including by myself. And that was only 7 minutes from kick off.
Watch @Aubameyang7, @alexiwobi, @PetrCech join Rwanda's #Intore to launch the @Arsenal - @visitrwanda_now partnership.— Visit Rwanda (@visitrwanda_now) August 12, 2018
Where are you watching the game today?
@RwandaGov @RDBrwanda @Rwandalicious @Arsenal @PremierLeague @RwandaInUK @UKInRwanda pic.twitter.com/mYwwnbszfp
Within 14 minutes however, the tension started to build as Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling scored his 50th Premier League goal and led to an eruption of guttural roars from Manchester City fans. I have to say though, Petr Cech, Arsenal’s formidable goalkeeper, kept the team in the first half with a fantastic double save from Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick and Aymeric Laporte’s follow-up.
The first half was done and then the 30 second promotional video was played on the screens so a surreal moment for all of us. Twitter comments were coming in with fans both at home and in the stands commenting on wanting to visit Rwanda. Similarly, just as many fans were confused about the details, evidenced by a lovely Welshman approaching us with his wife and friend to ask us more information as he saw us taking plenty of photos outside the stadium. He knew a lot about Rwanda and was surprised and happy to hear of all the progress in recent years and promised to visit. Fans I spoke to all expressed congratulations and genuine happiness at hearing further details about what the partnership meant.
Clare Akamanzi, the CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, said: “The story of today’s Rwanda is one of vibrancy, beauty, energy, creativity and innovation. This partnership has already started to create greater global awareness of Rwanda’s culture, natural attractions, and numerous opportunities.”
Millions upon millions of fans were watching, including at the Kigali Convention Centre where the match was being screened to a packed audience and having that many eyes on my country felt pretty amazing. This felt like the start of something far more than just about tourism and infrastructure, it felt like an opportunity to show the Western world what Africa as a continent and Rwanda as a country truly had to offer. Something more than the Genocide Against the Tutsi, something more than poverty, and, in actual fact, according to the World Bank, Rwanda is the second easiest place to do business in Africa.
So back to the second half, Bernardo Silva quickly put away a second goal for Manchester City quietly dashing the hopes of the Gunners. Earlier, Mesut Özil had tried to score and some of the fans in the stands cheered, only to realise Stephan Lichtsteiner was caught offside.
A special thank you to our partners @RDBrwanda @Arsenal @RwandaGov @FlyRwandAir @rttaRwanda @MINISPOC @RCBrwanda #kickoff250 @RadissonKigali #RWOT#ShowYourPride #RepYourColours #BlueYellowAndGreen #VisitRwanda pic.twitter.com/uo7qwkFwss— Visit Rwanda (@visitrwanda_now) August 12, 2018
With 15 minutes left, Manchester City had 2 goals and some disheartened Arsenal fans started to head to the exit. The disappointment was palpable. The amount of near misses from Arsenal had me shouting out in frustration like some others. Obscenities shouted at the referee, offside shots denying goals & Man City chanting in defiance to the Gunners. It’s certainly been an experience. A bucket list moment for me, as well as a patriotic one and I won’t forget this day in a hurry. I’m excited to see where this three-year partnership leads.