In 2015/2016 football league season, 240 games were played over 304 days. At the end, APR FC were crowned champions for a record-extending 16th time in 22 years, while Rwamagana City FC and AS Muhanga were relegated after finishing in the bottom two positions.
Geoffrey Asiimwe looks at the main events that shaped the 2015/16 football season.
1. New season, new league sponsor
On August 24, 2015, a month before the league started, Rwanda Football Federation (FERWAFA) got a five-year sponsorship deal worth $2.35m with Tanzanian pay television company Azam TV.
Following the signing of the multi-million sponsorship deal and broadcasting rights package, the league was renamed Azam Rwanda Premier League after Bralirwa, the major league sponsors for the past years dragged their feet over signing a new deal in 2014.
The major point of contention for the brewery company was that their main competitor Skol had signed a Euro 50,000 three-year deal with league giants Rayon Sports.
The five-year sponsorship would see Azam pump $350,000 in the first year and increase the amount to $500,000 in each of the following four years with all the 16 teams playing in the league being the major beneficiaries.
2. Expansion of the league to 16 teams
After signing the Azam TV deal, the number of teams competing in the national league was increased from 14 teams to 16.
This was one of the major decisions taken by FERWAFA during their two-day extraordinary general assembly with stakeholders on August 29-30, 2015 at Boni Consili Hotel, Huye District.
The two teams that were added are AS Muhanga and Etincelles; ironically, AS Muhanga was again relegated after finishing bottom of the league table. Increasing the number of teams playing in the league was part of the agreement between FERWAFA and Azam TV.
3. September 18, the league kicks off
The 2015/16 season got underway on September 18, with defending champions APR and Peace Cup winners, Police FC, starting as favourites to challenge for the title.
However; as the league season reached mid-way, there had been surprises with new title challengers surfacing in Mukura Victory Sports, who sat at the summit of the league table with 32 points, four ahead of second-placed AS Kigali, with APR sitting a point further behind.
4. League put on hold for over 4 months
After match day 9, the league was put on hold for three months on November 7, 2015 to pave way for the national football team to prepare for the fourth edition of Africa Nations Championship (CHAN) which was held in Rwanda from January 16 through February 7.
CHAN 2016 hosts Rwanda reached the quarter-finals of the biennial tournament that attracted a total of 16 nations before crashing against DR Congo after a 2-1 loss in extra time. Congo went on to win the title after defeating Mali 3-0 in the final at Amahoro National Stadium.
The break was also meant to allow Amavubi prepare for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifiers against Libya—Rwanda was knocked out from the competition after losing 1-0 in the first leg played in Tunisia and 3-1 in the second leg at Kigali Regional Stadium.
Later in May, the league was again put on hold for a month and a half to prepare for 2017 Africa Nations Cup qualifier against Mozambique that was played on June 4 at Amahoro National Stadium, a tie that Johnny McKinstry’s team lost 3-2 hence ending their hope of qualifying.
5. FERWAFA Hotel scandal makes headlines
On February 9, Rwanda National Police arrested FERWAFA secretary general Olivier Mulindahabi and a consultant, Eng. Adolphe Muhirwa over accusations of fraud in awarding a tender for construction of a planned 88-room four-star FERWAFA Hotel.
The case also involved the federation president, Vincent Nzamwita, who was also being accused of unilaterally approving the start of construction works.
On June 24, Nzamwita was absolved of any wrongdoing in the mishandling of the Rwf4bn project; however, the Kicukiro District-based Nyarugunga Primary Court, found both Mulindahabi and Muhirwa guilty and handed each one of them a six-month jail sentence.
6. Managerial changes
As one would expect, the 2015/16 season has left a number of coaching casualties through sacking and resignations. Rayon Sports used three coaches in the just concluded campaign, which culminated in winning the Peace Cup.
The first to come and go was Frenchman David Donadei, who began the season with the club but resigned barely two months later.
Belgian, Ivan Jacky Minnaert was appointed to replace Donadei, but he too resigned in early March to take up a similar role with Kenyan Premier League side, AFC Leopards.
The club moved quickly to fill the void by putting Djuma Masudi, a former club captain and striker in charge as interim coach and he led them to the Peace Cup victory for the first time in 11 years.
SC Kiyovu also had several changes. Before the league kicked off, the club unveiled Samuel Amamba as their new head coach, however; the Nigerian did not even take charge of a single game and was sacked after three days following claims that he had used fake documents to apply for the job.
Former Isonga FC coach Innocent Seninga was appointed head coach, but in January, he was also sacked after a poor run of results and was replaced with Yves Rwasamanzi.
Rwamagana-based Sunrise FC also appointed former Rwanda international Jimmy Mulisa in the lead-up to the league start but he was later replaced by Thierry Nzungu after Mulisa was appointed FERWAFA assistant technical director.
Nzungu was also replaced by former Rayon Sports assistant coach, Sosthene Habimana, who is currently in charge. Musanze FC also parted company with Tanzania-born coach Barack Hussein and appointed former Uganda international, George Semwogerere.
Another casualty was Andre Casa Mbungo, sacked by Police FC with two games left to end of the season after a run of poor results that has seen the club end the season empty-handed.
He has been replaced by Seninga, former Etincelles coach after the latter saved the newly promoted side from the relegation, to finish in 12th place in league with 32 points.
In early April, AS Muhanga sacked head coach Edouard Rutayisire and replaced him with former Rayon Sports coach Abdu Mbarushimana until the end of the season.
Early this month, and with a game left, Abdul ‘Beken’ Bizimana resigned as Amagaju FC head coach, citing irreconcilable differences with his bosses. He has been replaced by his former assistant, Pablo Nduwimana.
7. Poor pitch conditions and empty grounds
The condition of some grounds remained a worrisome factor to many clubs to an extent that some clubs were forced to host the home games away from their home stadiums.
Examples include; Musanze FC’s Nyakinama ground, which, at some point this season, was deemed unsafe for use, and forced the club to have some of its home fixtures in Kigali.
Also Nyamata ground, the home of Bugesera FC, raised a lot of questions and consequently their home tie against Rayon Sports was played at the Kigali Regional Stadium.
Other playgrounds that raised more questions than answers include; Amagaju’s Nyagisenyi and Kamarampaka ground for Espoir, where many visiting clubs dropped points due to the poor condition of the playing field.
On the other hand, attendance on match days remained a serious threat to Rwanda’s football as many grounds were almost empty during some games. As is with every season, Rayon Sports and APR remained the two clubs that attracted big crowds to stadiums.
8. New Kids on the block showcase their talent
Without the slightest doubt, the 2015/16 season has seen the coming to prominence of Rwanda’s future greats and unsurprisingly, some have been shortlisted for FERWAFA awards, in different categories, set for July 29.
The highlight of these upcoming youngsters was Mukura Victory Sports’ attacking midfielder Muhadjiri Hakizimana, who has since signed for AS Kigali.
Eric Nshimiyimana’s side moved faster to capture his signature ahead of league champions APR, who are reportedly determined to get him.
The 22-year-old midfielder, a younger brother to Amavubi captain, Haruna Niyonzima, finished as the league’s joint top scorer with 16 goals, along with Police FC’s 20-year-old Danny Usengimana.
Another name knocking at the door of stardom is AS Kigali’s Onesme Twizerimana, who scored 11 goals as well as Rayon Sports and Amavubi winger, Savio Dominic Nshuti, who scored six goals this season and guided his side to a Peace Cup title.
9. APR claims 16th record league title with a game to spare
Despite their modest league start with a 2-1 home loss to Mukura and a third place finish at the halfway stage, APR, new Tunisian head coach, Nizar Khanfir, managed to bounce back and the club emerged champions for the third time in a row with a game to spare.
Despite losing their final league match 2-1 against AS Kigali, the military side finished with 67 points, six points ahead of second-placed and bitter rivals, Rayon Sports.
Formed in 1993, APR won the league in 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016. They have won the national championship a record 16 times compared to Rayon Sports’ 7 titles—in 1975, 1981, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2013.
10. Rayon Sports win Peace Cup after 11 years of waiting
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the league title, Rayon Sports defeated their sworn enemy, APR, 1-0 in the final to claim the 2016 Peace Cup for the first time since 2005. The Blues also hammered their biggest rivals 4-0 in the league second round.
It was Rayon Sports’ ninth record Peace Cup but only the fourth in the post 1994 Genocide against Tutsi and the first since 2005. For Djuma Masudi, who won the competition as Rayon Sports captain 11 years ago, it was his first trophy as coach.
The victory handed Rayon Sports the opportunity to represent Rwanda in next year’s CAF Orange Confederation Cup. Rayon Sports also won the knockout competition in 1976, 1979, 1982, 1989, 1993, 1995, 1998 and 2005.
11. 2015/16 season overview
Rayon Sports finished the season with both the best defence and attack. They scored a total of 50 goals and conceded only 12. They were followed by APR, who scored 43 goals and conceded 18 while AS Kigali scored 45 and conceded 24.
Marines FC scored the fewest goals (19) in 30 games while AS Muhanga conceded the most goals (52 goals). Amagaju FC, Espoir FC and Marines drew most games (12) while Mukura VS drew the fewest (three).
The biggest win of last season was Rayon Sports 6-0 win against Amagaju while the game which produced the highest number of goals was between SC Kiyovu and Gicumbi, which ended 4-3 in favour of the former.
Seven players scored a hat-trick this season and these include; Rodriguez Murengezi (AS Kigali 4-0 Sunrise), Danny Usengimana (AS Muhanga 1-5 Police), and Andre Lomami (Kiyovu SC 4-3 Gicumbi FC).
Others are Onesme Twizerimana (Etincelles 2-4 AS Kigali), Christopher Ndayishimiye (AS Muhanga vs Mukura), Ismaila Diarra (Bugesera 0-4 Rayon Sports) and Davis Kasirye (APR FC 0-4 Rayon Sports).
12. Inaugural league awards
Following the conclusion of the league, FERWAFA will host the inaugural Azam Rwanda Premier League Awards on July 29 in Kigali. The awards will go to individuals, who excelled more than other in different categories.
Below also are the nominees for each category:
Football Player of the Year
1. Muhadjiri Hakizimana (Mukura VS)
2. Savio Dominique Nshuti (Rayon Sports)
3. Pierrot Kwizera (Rayon Sports)
Best Goalkeeper of the Year
1. Andre Mpazimaka (Mukura VS)
2. Eric Ndayishimiye (Rayon Sport)
2. Jean Paul Mutabazi (SC Kiyovu)
Best Coach of the Year
1. Godefroid Okoko (Mukura VS)
2. Ally Bizimungu (Bugesera FC)
3. Eric Nshimiyimana (AS Kigali)
Revelation Coach of the Year
1. Innoncent Seninga (Etincelles FC)
2. Djuma Masudi (Rayon Sport)
3. Nizar Khanfir (APR FC)
1. Hudu Munyemana
2. Abdul Karim Twagirumukiza
3. Louis Hakizimana
Best Assistant Referee
1. Theogene Ndagijimana
2. Honore Simba
3. Zephanie Niyonkuru
1. Blaise Itangishaka (Marines Fc)
2. Djabir Manishimwe (Rayon Sport)
3. Dominique Savio Nshuti (Rayon Sports)