The last six months have brought to light new talents in the national senior team, with many earning their first caps.
Others have fallen off the radar faster than they appear, while some have proved themselves deserving of a regular place in the shortest time.
One of the youngsters, who has been outstanding in the last few months, both at club and national team level, is central defender, Abdul Rwatubyaye.
Unsurprisingly, he was one of the first names on the list in the final 18-man squad that plays Mauritius this afternoon in the AFCON 2017 Gabon qualifiers at Anjalay stadium in Belle-Vue. The 19-year old is expected to start in the central defense alongside Belgium-based Salomon Nirisarike.
Having received his first appearance in the senior national last September, Rwatubyaye has since earned a total of 16 caps and scored one for Johnny McKinstry’s team—he has never missed any call-up since his debut.
Who is Rwatubyaye?
Born to Ally Moment and Aminah Queen Uwimana on October 23, 1996 in Gitega Sector, Nyarugenge District in the City of Kigali, Rwatubyaye is the last born from a family of three, two boys and one girl.
He attended Ecole Maternaire et Primaire Islamique de Biryogo (EMPIB), went to La Colombiere for ordinary level before moving to APE Rugunga for advanced level where he is currently a six senior candidate, majoring in History-Economics-Geography.
The former Isonga FC defender reveals he has never tried any other sport in his life other than football. He started playing kids’ football at Cercle Sportif de Kigali before shifting to Vision 2020 youth football team until 2009 when he was selected for APR football academy, the club’s first academy intake.
Rwatubyaye used to be a striker until 2008 when his high school (La Colombiere) football team coach advised to him to shift to defense. The soft spoken Rwatubyaye is in a steady relationship with girlfriend Daniella Umuhoza.
Rwatubyaye started believing he can make it in local football by 2009 when he joined APR football academy, but until then, football to him, was just for leisure.
After almost three years in the academy, Rwatubyaye was called up in the U17 national team for qualifiers of the AFCON U17 where Rwanda was eliminated by Botswana 6-5 on penalties in Kigali following a 1-all draw in both legs.
In late 2012, Rwatubyaye was signed by Isonga FC. He served the youthful side for one season and at the end of the season, the Ferwafa-sponsored club was relegated to second division league alongside AS Muhanga after finishing bottom of the 14-team league table.
Rwatubyaye at APR
When Isonga dropped to second tier division, Rwatubyaye was signed by APR in June 2013 and was part of the team that travelled to Nairobi for the 2013 EAC Military Games where APR finished third.
Before making a single league appearance for APR, Rwatubyaye was called up for the U23 national team that took part in the Francophone Games held in Nice, France in 2013.
Upon landing, the talented defender went AWOL and never featured for Richard Tardy’s team, neither did he return with the team after the tournament.
“I was deceived by family members living in France; I was promised I would get a professional club to play for in Europe. To this day, I still regret the time I wasted there,” a remorseful Rwatubyaye told Saturday Sport in an exclusive interview.
Rwatubyaye returned to Rwanda in June 2014 after wasting a full year trying to get a club in France and Belgium, which was frustrated by the fact that he did not have a working permit since he was living there illegally.
Upon his return, he was warmly welcomed back by APR and featured in the 2014 Military Games in Zanzibar where the Rwandan champions finished fourth.
From Zanzibar, Rwatubyaye enjoyed his first season (2014/2015) with APR in the league, helping the army side to win a record 15th league title. However, most of the time he was on bench, playing as cover for either skipper Ismael Nshutiyamagara or Emery Bayisenge.
Towards of the end of the 2014/2015 season, Nshutiyamagara got injured and APR was left with no choice but to promote Rwatubyaye in the starting line-up and he never disappointed.
He partnered well with Bayisenge in the league and Peace Cup, impressing everyone including the national team coaching staff. Few months later, McKinstry called him up in Amavubi team for a two-week training camp in Morocco last September.
In the ongoing 2015/2016 season, Rwatubyaye has become a regular for both club and country, helping APR to climb up the league from mid table to third place with 30 points from 13 matches, two points behind leaders Rayon Sports and second-placed Mukura, who have both played 15 matches.
Four weeks ago, Rwatubyaye made a little bit of history by scoring a hat-trick to help APR brush aside Mbabane Swallows of Swaziland in the first round of CAF Champions League, before themselves being eliminated by Tanzania’s Young Africans in the second round.
APR had lost the first-leg 1-0 in Swaziland before bouncing back to win 4-1 at Kigali regional stadium in the return-leg.
“The 4-1 win over Mbabane Swallows is the best game of my career so far, for a defender to score a hat-trick is something that doesn’t happen very often, not only in Rwanda but elsewhere. I am having a wonderful season,” Rwatubyaye noted with a shy smile.
The APR centre-back is one of few players who have grown from one national team level to another, from U17, U20 to U23 and finally to the senior team. He earned his first national team call-up for the U-17 team in 2012.
In 2013, he received his first cap in the Olympic (U23) team for Francophone Games in France and is still eligible to feature, as he’s only 19. In 2014, he also played for the team in AFCON U23 qualifiers where Rwanda was knocked out by Uganda 4-0 on aggregate.
In the same year, Rwatubyaye, who turns 20 in October, also played for the U20 team that was eliminated by Gabon in qualifiers for U20 AFCON.
The hard-tackling defender received his maiden senior call up in September 2015 by McKinstry for a two-week residential training camp in Morocco where Rwanda played two friendly games, losing both 1-0 to Tunisia Olympic team and Burkina Faso.
He was also in the team that lost to Libya in qualifiers of the 2018 FIFA World Cup at the end of last year—he was part of the Amavubi that reached the final of the 2015 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup in Ethiopia, losing 1-0 to Uganda Cranes in the title game.
Rwatubyaye saw his star rise further during the 2016 Africa Nations Championship (CHAN) finals tournament staged in Rwanda.
He is one of only two players, who started in all four matches the team played, three group games and the quarter-final clash against eventual champions, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“CHAN 2016 is by far the biggest tournament that most of us have played in, but I believe it’s only the first of many bigger competitions to come for me and most of the current players on the team,” he explained.
The teenage defender says he is happy at APR and is willing to serve the team that has given him more than what he ever dreamt of in life as a footballer, but he’s ambitious and would jump any opportunity that offers him professional football, preferably in Europe.
He stated:“APR is my parent club, I can stay here for as long as my services are still needed. However, I also need to go beyond local football level, when the right time and opportunity comes.”
Rwatubyaye reveals that he craves to develop into an outstanding defender like former APR defenders Mao Kalisa and Mbuyu Twite. At the international level, he looks up to Spain international and Real Madrid captain, Sergio Ramos.