The national football team, Amavubi, will Monday play the Super Eagles of Nigeria in their opening match at the fifth edition of the African Nations Championships (CHAN) in Morocco.
When Rwanda hosted 2016 edition, the wasps made the most of home advantage and reached the quarter-final stage of the tournament, losing 2-1 to the eventual winners DR Congo in extra-time.
It was the first time Rwanda had progressed past the group stage of the continent’s second-most prestigious football tournament.
We are back to CHAN finals – for the third time. But we had failed to qualify had it not been for Egypt that withdrew from the tournament. The Pharaoh’s withdrawal presented Rwanda a second chance but the latter needed to overcome Ethiopia in a two-legged playoff.
Fortunately, the Amavubi came out on top thanks to an away 3-2 comeback victory against Walias in November 2017. But the fixture was not without question marks as Rwanda failed to find the net at home in the second leg.
These concerns would grow further when the Amavubi put up a mediocre showing at the senior Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) tournament in Kenya, in December.
Rwanda bowed out of the tournament in the group stage after losing two games (first, against Kenya and then Zanzibar), drawing one (Libya) and pulling off one win (against neighbours Tanzania).
They conceded six goals in four games, scoring just three.
If this was not enough reason to lose hope in the team’s ability to raise the national flag high at the upcoming 2018 Total CHAN finals, the Amavubi later succeeded in worrying even the most optimistic among their fans.
During a training camp in Tunisia ahead of the opening of the tournament next week, the Amavubi failed to win a single friendly match.
They started their preparations with an abandoned match against Sudan (following a brawl between the two sets of players that erupted in the 40th minute with the game still 0-0 – which raises questions about the players’ attitude and discipline), then a 1-all draw against minnows Namibia, before a 4-1 thumping at the hands of Algeria.
Forget about head coach Antoine Hey’s excuses that the disappointing results – particularly at CECAFA – were down to the fact that he kept changing the team, drafting in inexperienced players and trying out previously untested partnerships as a way of preparing the team for CHAN.
A team that wants to put up a good showing at a major continental tournament does not concede 11 goals in six matches, finding the net only six times.
Thursday next week we’ll know where the recent results left Rwanda on Fifa/Coca-Cola world rankings. But the country ended last year in a lowly 113th position globally and 30th in Africa.
Two of Rwanda’s CHAN group opponents rank higher – with Nigeria in 51st position worldwide and 9th in Africa, while Libya are ranked 88th in the world and 20th in Africa.
Only Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda’s other group C opponents, are ranked lower – 146th globally and 43rd in Africa.
But the West Africans – partly improved by the influx of Spanish-born players into their national team– have been rising up the ladder in recent years and finished in a respectable fourth place at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations finals it co-hosted.
In addition, Rwanda has in the recent past failed to beat teams that are ranked lower (for example, Namibia – 118th globally and 31st in Africa) and those that are not recognised by world football (read Zanzibar).
Notably, I don’t remember the last time Amavubi’s established forwards scored an international goal. I hope they prove me wrong at CHAN 2018.
Yet the team’s troubles did not come as a complete surprise.
This is one of the consequences of the ‘Rwandans-only’ recruitment policy that has been promoted by some of the country’s top football clubs. Its years now since APR and Police FC last signed a foreign or naturalised player.
As a result, these Azam Rwanda Premier League sides have been actively shopping for any decent Rwandan footballer, both rookies and veterans of the game.
Under pressure to succeed locally and on the continent, they have signed promising youngsters from non-league outfits and quickly ‘thrown them’ in the thick of topflight football without giving them a chance to first learn and bulk up a little more.
Average Rwandan footballers at APR FC and Police FC are guaranteed game time, if not a starting spot, because there is practically no competition in their squads. The pool of potential recruits is too small to keep players on their toes, keen to constantly improve to keep their places on the team.
Thus, most of the local players in our clubs are in a comfort zone – including in clubs where foreigners are officially welcome. (Because no club wants to be seen to be relying on foreigners, Rwandan players are generally given undue priority across the topflight clubs).
In addition, the clubs keep re-signing players they have either previously rejected or who should be calling time on their careers.
While the intentions were noble, this policy has resulted in undesired consequences: local clubs, the domestic football league and the national team are all weaker than they were when club doors were still open to foreigners.
To compound the problem, there is lack of a deliberate policy to create structures that constantly detect and nurture young talents right from the grassroots.
Across the world, national teams benefit from stiff competitions within and among clubs. In Rwanda, this is not the case.
It is not necessarily true that the influx of foreign players weakens the national team; instead, it tends to help instill a competitive spirit, including among nationals. Players should earn their place on the team.
I will desist from discussing the issue of naturalised players because that’s another topic altogether. But the fact is that Rwanda’s biggest success story in world football to date was written in 2004 when the team boasted a couple of naturalised players.
Good luck to Amavubi at CHAN finals!