Rwandan football clubs have rarely traversed the whole country searching for talent but one of the best football league players this season, AS Kigali’s striker Ernest Sugira, is proving what talent there still is in this country.
Players develop at different rates Sugira’s rise this season has been a fairytale.
Sugira has written a new chapter in his phenomenal rise from the wilderness of non-league football in Muhanga to playing at the top of the country’s topflight football and for his country as well.
The big forward came to the limelight earlier this year when he spearheaded Amavubi to the quarterfinals of the African Nations Championship (CHAN) staged in Rwanda, from January 16 through February 7.
In four matches, Rwanda scored five goals, with Sugira converting three of those — a brace against Gabon in a 2-1 win and against DR Congo in a 2-1 defeat in the last eight, which ultimately earned him a place in the team of tournament – the only Amavubi player in the side.
There is no doubt Sugira’s achievement is a great inspiration to players at every level of football across the country. He has got everything to be a great player.
In 2013, then APR Germany-born coach Andreas Spier signed him on a two-year contract but would be released just after one year having failed to nail down a regular place in the team. He subsequently joined AS Kigali where he is playing regularly and got the chance to play on the big stage.
Saturday Sport recently caught up with the Rwanda international for a one-on-one exclusive interview about his football expedition thus far.
Who is Sugira?
Born on March 27, 1991 in Shyogwe Sector of Muhanga District, Southern Province to Fidele Nkeneyimana (RIP) and Brandine Nyiraneza, Sugira is the second born in a family of six – two boys and four girls.
He attended Ecole Primaire de Muganza in Kamonyi District and later College ACEJ Karama in Muhanga District for his Ordinary Level before joining Ecole Technigue de Kabgayi for his Advanced Level where he studied electrical installation.
After completing Senior Six in 2013, Sugira, who speaks English and Swahili fluently, did not continue with his studies, instead devoting his time to playing football. Nonetheless, he says he plans to resume his studies in the near future.
He says, “My contract with AS Kigali will expire at the end of this season and whether I extend my stay or join another local club, I will negotiate for time to continue my studies.”
On the local scene, Sugira reveals he is a big fan of his childhood club, AS Muhanga, and is inspired by former Amavubi skipper Olivier Karekezi. Internationally, he is a diehard fan of English side Manchester United as well as Spanish giants Real Madrid.
Brazil legend Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima is his favourite player of all time.
The soft-spoken youngster narrates that his story has been characterized by ups and downs largely because he comes from a very humble family, something he says sometimes suppressed his progress.
“I grew up with my mother and life was not all that simple because my family’s status was modest; on the other hand, I am blessed to have such a mother, because she was very supportive of my football career as much as she has always been in other aspects of my life,” he told Saturday Sport.
The AS Kigali striker said he fell in love with football at a tender age even before starting school. He started playing with peers in his neighborhood and was encouraged by many who saw his potential even as a very young boy.
During his primary school days, Sugira captained his teams in various inter-school competitions. Crucially, he wore his first pair of boots in 2010 while in Senior Three – just six years ago!
In the same year, Sosthene Habimana, now head coach of Sunrise FC, who was then the head coach of AS Muhanga in the second division, spotted him and gave him in his team.
“Honestly, I owe everything I am today to AS Muhanga and Habimana, they spotted me while at school, gave me a chance to play, and it’s from there that APR signed me,” he recalled.
In his first spell at AS Muhanga during the 2011/2012 season, Sugira led his side back to the topflight division after finishing as the top scorer with 16 goals, despite losing to Musanze FC 5-4 in penalty shootouts after the title-decider had ended 2-2, with Sugira netting both goals for his side.
The first season in the first division was a mixed bag of good and bad for both AS Muhanga and Sugira.
He managed to score seven goals however with the club performing fairly well in the Peace Cup, reaching the final after eliminating Police FC and Bugesera FC in quarter-final and semi-finals, respectively, before losing to AS Kigali 3-0 in the final.
AS Muhanga were then relegated back to the second division that season.
“To me that season was the turning point in my career because despite our poor campaign in the league, we tried our level best in Peace Cup and at the end of the season APR signed me.”
In 2013, former APR Germany-born coach Andreas Spier signed him on a-two year contract but he would later be released after one year having failed to nail down a regular place in the squad. He later joined AS Kigali.
“My time at APR was disastrous because if I remember well I never played more than five games the whole season, scoring just one goal, so leaving was inevitable for the good of my career,” he said.
Since joining AS Kigali during the 2014/15 season, he has been a regular starter and it was here that he got his maiden call-up to the national team, the Amavubi.
In his first season with the City of Kigali side, Sugira finished the season with 10 goals, four behind the top scorer and teammate Isaie Isonga while in the current campaign, he has six goals, four behind leading scorer Andre Lomami (SC Kiyovu).
“AS Kigali have given me the platform to grow and develop in my career, even if everything has not been perfect for the time I have been here, I cannot fault the club because they have given me a lot and developed me as a player, I can only thank them.”
Sugira got his first international cap in August 2013 under interim coach Eric Nshimiyimana against Benin during the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. He has since played 15 international matches, scoring seven goals.
“I have much respect for the national team and whenever I am given a chance to play I grab it with both hands, which I think has helped in propelling me to my recent form.”
He added: “It was always a dream to play for my country and there is nothing more precious than hearing the whole stadium singing your name. I really still have a lot to offer for the national team.”
Best and worst moments
“You can say I am currently in my best moment because I am playing and scoring goals for both club and country, while my worst moment was during the year I spent at APR, I still regret that time.”
“I have three months left on my contract and when it expires I will have to listen to available offers or even extend it because I am happy at AS Kigali. But my ambition is to play professional football, probably in Europe, and hopefully I will make it.”
“I particularly thank my current coach (Eric) Nshimiyimana, he has helped me on a day-to-day basis and I have learnt a lot from him as a player. Another person is coach Sosthene (Habimana), he brought me from nowhere.”
How others describe him
AS Kigali head coach Nshimiyimanana says of his striker: “I signed him from APR because I realised he had great talent, and because I work with him every day I am not surprised by his latest form. I am sure he is yet to reach his peak.”
Habimana, the current Sunrise FC coach, said of Sugira: “I have known him since he was still a young boy but he has dramatically developed, which proves that I wasn’t wrong after all when I signed him for AS Muhanga. He has potential to be a top striker.”