THEY sprouted from nowhere, stormed CECACA championship in Nairobi, played five games and won all of them. All of a sudden, every soccer-loving Rwandan found reason to rush from their daily work to watch Amavubi Stars on Super Sport as they registered more and more wins.
A relatively inexperienced Amavubi side defied the odds, stumped their authority at Nyayo Stadium, until they fell to the now eleven-time holders, Uganda.
Up against a Cranes team that boasted relatively more experienced players and coach, the Rwandan side did all it could but fell just short of lifting that elusive CECAFA trophy – which we have won just once.
The game marked a sad end to a great campaign, albeit one that I will remember for a long time. Obviously the final 2-0 at the hands of the defending champions was hard to receive by this soccer-loving and proud nation.
However, for a side that virtually boasted no big names to lose one out of six games, and concede only five goals in all the matches, is a proof that, if our local talents can be well nurtured and exploited, Rwanda can surely become a football powerhouse.
The new-look babe-faced side – led by, of all, our own Eric Nshimiyimana – stormed the 2009 CECAFA senior challenge cup final in a true patriotic style.
By and large, the team’s evident dominance and fascinating displays throughout the group and knock-out stages has for years eluded their senior colleagues. For a young team to emerge as first runners-up in a competition that includes some of the finest sides in the region is something to cheer especially considering the tragic run by the senior Amavubi team that collected just a point in possible 18 in the final round of CAN/World Cup qualification.
Stand-in coach Nshimiyimana and his young guns have proved that the potential to do what we so desire for is right within us, and not in Croatia, Serbia, Germany, etc.
When they set off to Nairobi to participate in this year’s CECAFA edition, no one gave them a chance. All factors seemed to be against them. It was just at the heels of Rwanda’s failure to qualify for next year’s CAN edition in Angola.
The head coach had been sacked and Nshimiyimana was just days old in the challenging job. And, above all, who would have dreamed that this interim tactician – moreover a Rwandan –would succeed where a host of foreign coaches have failed? Put it plainly, the national team looked a demoralized and aimless batch that is just doomed to fail in the early stages of this regional competition.
But what a surprise package the former Rwandan international would unfold in Nairobi? Initial wins over Somalia and Eritrea sounded a bit obvious given the football record of the two Horn of Africa nations.
And, when the team was up against the might of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe –the reigning COSAFA champions – many Rwandans were almost certain that we were destined to lose the game.
But, silently, Rwandans craved for victories especially that the national team last won a competitive match before that disastrous final round of CAN/World Cup campaign. It’s as if, we were almost getting accustomed to defeats.
Nonetheless, Nshimiyimana’s boys had different ideas.
Next, they demonstrated a rare hunger for success as they beat one of the guest and respected teams, Zimbabwe, 1-0 to top their group with three successive wins.
Back in Rwanda, more and more people who had lost interest in the game due to countless Amavubi defeats started to follow closely the progress of this new rising team as it registered back-to-back wins with ease.
At the quarter finals, the players showed unrivalled character and determination to wallop Zimbabwe for the second time in four days, with an emphatic 4-1 victory. Throughout the game, the boys’ committed faces begged this question: why don’t you give us a chance? Indeed, why not?
The 2-1 win over Tanzania, a physical and hard-fighting side, during the second semi final game on Thursday, was a concrete proof that we too can build a homegrown team under a Rwandan-born coach.
Why not considering that this country is no stranger to successful homegrown initiatives. Why go shopping players and coaches everywhere while some of our own can (as they already have) deliver results?
The great run to that CECAFA final, and the sad finish, are now history. What matters now is how to mould a team that will raise our national colours higher, one that will see us bag trophies after trophies.
The big question lingering in many people’s minds now is, what next? What prevails over the other – the general performance of the Stars at the championship, or the defeat at the final? Do we stick to the youthful Eric and his young guns or dump them and head-hunt for those ever-disappointing mercenaries?
Like Jesus said a prophet is indeed “honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” That is the story of some Rwandans with great coaching and playing skills.
It is ironical how some foreigners find Eric and his team capable of doing the very things Rwandan football administrators have in the recent years looked for in foreign coaches and players, all in vain.
Super Sport’s football commentator Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee is one of the foreigners who believe that Eric has all it takes to lead Amavubi Stars to success. While commentating during the second Rwanda-Zimbabwe clash, the Kenyan pointed out the fact that Eric is well versed with the demands of Rwandan soccer, its dynamics, and how passionate Rwandans are about the Beautiful Game.
Some people have argued that Eric may not manage to control some of our senior professional players, having played with them for a long time in the national team.
In my opinion, instead, I believe the experience he got as Amavubi assistant coach and his long-time involvement with our football politics having been part of the team that represented Rwanda at the 2004 Nations Cup, puts him in a good position to do the job, at least much better than Blanko Tucak and many of his predecessors.
Already, he has achieved in a fortnight after his appointment as interim coach is greater than the entire results of a host of those expatriate coaches. Five straight wins in five competitive games is a huge achievement for the towering former-player-turned coach, the team and the nation.
In the same vein, the rising players should be given chance in the national team, and take over the mantle from the aging generation of Jimmy Gatete and Olivier Karekezi. If blended with just a handful of experienced players to do what Mutesa Mafisango and Kalisa Mao did Nairobi, the young guns can surely become the Gatetes of tomorrow.
Their unexpected success feat should provide us with the opportunity to revisit our football strategy.
Besides, even if this team lost the next 20 games, we have nothing to lose because – despite having hired the services of whoever cared around the world – the nation will not be in Angola next year.
It will not be in South Africa, either. And it may not play the World Cup for a couple of decades to come. It’s time we concentrate on building a system that enables player succession other than the one that targets short-term success, which has also eluded us anyway.
It’s time we recognize and respect the prophets amongst ourselves, and stop spending the hard-earned payers’ money on foreign ‘mercenaries’ who may not jealously guard the nation’s pride.
The boys have shown their loyalty and potential. In return, they need to be entrusted with the honour to represent their motherland, even in more competitive games.
The author is the 1st Vice President of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ)