Lee Johnson was named the Rwanda Football Federation (Ferwafa) technical director in July this year as well as the U-17 head coach replacing Frenchman Richard Tardy whose contract had run out a month earlier.
The Briton, who has massive experience in youth football in the United Kingdom where he coached at Chelsea and Crystal Palace, took on the task of laying a non-existent youth football structure in a country that in the past did not have organized football at this level.
Times Sport reporter Usher Komugisha caught up with Johnson as he narrates his first six months in Rwanda, learning Kinyarwanda and French and working alongside Stephen Constantine, a friend and mentor that he admires so much.
Times Sport: What achievements have you registered since being named Ferwafa technical director and U-17 head coach?
Lee: Since my arrival, one of the biggest achievements is coaching the under 17s in the African U-17 Championship qualifiers against Uganda. This was a fantastic experience for me and one of the proudest moments of my career.
To have the responsibility of developing football at national level as technical director is a real honour. I have started to re-organise the technical department as it was very disjointed.
I have provided all members of staff with work programmes outlining their roles and responsibilities. This has made us stronger because we now share the same vision. Everyone is working towards the same goal which is to raise the standards and develop football throughout Rwanda.
Producing the technical strategy plan has been fulfilling as this will hopefully give the Federation clear understanding as to what is needed to enhance and develop football across the country.
This won’t happen overnight and will take a period of time to implement, so we shall have to be patient and work hard to achieve our goals.
Times Sport: Can you please highlight the challenges you have been facing?
Lee: One of the biggest challenges since arriving is understanding the culture and embracing the way of life. I was conscious of the language barrier and understood how important it was to learn one of the languages.
The lack of infrastructure and resources has been challenging, because we would have liked more contact time with our players, but due to financial constraints this hasn’t been possible.
It’s important that we create a good working environment in order to develop and ensure that we have the basics to provide members of staff, coaches and players with the resources they need in order to work at the level required.
Times Sport: Language is a bit of a barrier for you, how have you managed to deal with it?
Lee: At first it was quite daunting because I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised by the number of people that spoke English.
The staff within the Federation has been fantastic with me and at every opportunity they will communicate in English. I am currently taking French lessons to bridge the gap. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while as I realise how important it is to have second language.
Times Sport: You have travelled across Rwanda, what is your impression of the level of football in this country?
Lee: The standard of football in Rwanda is good but still needs to improve. You’ve only got to look at where we were back in June, we were 134th in the FIFA world rankings and now we are 68th. This just goes to show the potential we have to be a major force in African football.
We need to develop from the grassroots up and once we have laid the foundation we will start to see the fruits of our labour. This will take time and won’t happen overnight.
Times Sport: After a lot of groundwork, you have finally established a platform for competitive youth football in the U-13, U-15 and U-17 categories, are you receiving the financial support required to run these leagues consistently considering that Ferwafa does not even have a league sponsor for the National Football League?
Lee: For me the most important thing is that we provide an opportunity for players to play. This will be the first time that organised youth football will be played throughout the country so it is important that we get it right and set an example.
It would be nice to get a major sponsor and it is something we as a federation would hope for, but you cannot wait around and expect people to give you money otherwise nothing will get done.
We have to be proactive and make a change. We will be self funding and ask teams to make a financial contribution to play in the leagues.
This fee will help pay for the referees, provide equipment and resources plus pay for administrational costs. If you look at local youth leagues across the world most teams have to pay to participate so why should we be any different?
Times Sport: What does it mean to work alongside Stephen Constantine, someone you admire and with his massive experience in football coaching?
Lee: Steve has been fantastic with me since I arrived. He helped me to settle in and made sure that I was alright, as this was my first time in Africa. When you talk to him you realise how passionate he is about the football.
We’ve spent hours talking about how the game should be played and what formations we like to play. The good thing is we share the same ideas, but agree to disagree; this is healthy because no one wants to be a “yes man”.
Steve has this drive and desire to be successful and it’s a quality that I admire. I consider him a mentor and someone that I can learn from. We have developed a strong bond over the past few months and it’s one that I hope will continue.
Times Sport: What is your opinion on the football facilities in this country?
Lee: Investment in facilities and infrastructure is important and will determine how we will develop as a nation in the coming years.
We need to develop existing stadiums and invest on building new ones the pitches at grassroots level need to improve and the number of 3G pitches needs to increase.
If we don’t address this issue now, how will we accommodate the growth and development of football in the future?
Times Sport: How will you integrate community football into your master work plan to help you nurture the raw talent out there that is not necessarily in school or a structured football club?
Lee: Grassroots is where it starts and it’s important that we get it right. We need to develop strong partnerships with local government, schools, organisations, training centres and academies.
We need to ensure that there are structures and guidelines in place and encourage the football community to work together.
It’s important to provide players and coaches with a pathway and identify potential talent at all levels of the game. It’s a difficult task and one that will take a few years to achieve, that’s why it’s important to start now.
Times Sport: You have indicated that you want to develop women’s football as well, how possible is it to involve institutions and top league sides to have teams?
Lee: Women’s football is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and it’s important that we as a federation have a structure in place to enable women and girls to participate in the game.
Firstly, we need to encourage all National League teams to raise their standards and introduce guidelines to which they must work towards. It’s fundamental that in the future women’s senior teams have a youth development programme in place as this will help to support the growth of clubs for many years to come.
Times Sport: What are the plans you have to increase the capacity building in this case coaches and referees?
Lee: Coach Education is so important. If we don’t have qualified coaches then how do we expect to develop high-quality players? I have been working hard with the coach education manager to develop a coach education program for next year.
This will provide an opportunity for more coaches and officials to learn and be educated in all aspects of football.
In the coming months we will have to train new instructors to facilitate and implement the programme which will include the National Youth Licence, CAF and FIFA Licenses, Referees License First Aid and Treatment of Injury, Club Administration and Child Protection.
These courses are essential and give future participants a different perspective on the development of the game.