When South African referee Victor Miguel Gomes blew the final whistle ending the Rwanda Vs Nigeria CHAN clash in goalless draw at the Grand Stade de Tanger on Monday, some Amavubi players fell on their knees and gazed up into heaven clearly content with the result.
We had just watched a game of football that the Amavubi could have won even as they spent most of the time trying to clip the wings of the Super Eagles as opposed to trying to outfly them.
Yet this was not a case of men against boys as some had expected even as the Nigerian players were generally bigger and stronger.
As expected, Nigeria created far more opportunities in front of goal, over 20 shots but only two were on target – with the Eagles also hitting the woodwork on three occasions!
In the end, it felt as though the Amavubi had lost two points as opposed to gaining one. They had a chance to win the match but squandered it.
But what did we learn from the tie?
Here are my eight takeaways:
1. Antoine Hey set up Amavubi for a goalless draw
The Super Eagles were the overwhelming favourites going into the game and they did not delay to prove that, with Sunday Faleye rattling the woodwork as early as the 9th minute.
In the end, the Nigerians struck the bar/post three times. But the Amavubi defence, marshaled by the Rayon Sports duo of Faustin Usengimana and Thierry Manzi, were for the better part of the game disciplined and well-organised.
Nonetheless, the Amavubi failed to overcome their defensive mentality and even when they created very good opportunities they didn’t know what to do with the ball as their mission was not to beat but to hold the Super Eagles. That explains why the players practically celebrated the draw even as they had a fair share of possession and had their own chances to win it. Will they regret this strategy in the later stages of the competition? Your guess is as good as mine.
2. Amavubi need real finishers and Hey must trust his forwards
Ernest Sugira was our CHAN hero in 2016. The APR striker is not in Morocco because he’s injured. His absence was felt on Monday night.
The Amavubi strikers may have been starved of service for most of the game, but its telling that the only shot on target for Amavubi came from full-back Eric Rutanga. Yes, there was largely no quality balls coming in the final third and this sapped the confidence in forwards Bernabe Mubumbyi and Abeddy Biramahire. And, matters were not made any easier by dominant giants Stephen Eze and Kalu Orji in Nigeria’s defence.
However, the Rwandan forwards disappointed when goal-scoring opportunities finally came their way. Still, it’s hard to tell who Hey considers to be his main forward. He played four on Monday, one pair replacing another. Four strikers, each spending substantial time on the pitch!
That’s not something you’ll see in top clubs.
Every team has its own main striker. Alvaro Morata and Romeru Lukaku have missed sitters (and every player does) but their managers continue to show trust in them. And the patience often pays off. On Monday, you did not see that with Antoine Hey. But the German is not even a year in the job and we can hope he'll soon get his act together and settle that question.
3. Rwanda CHAN team need leaders on the pitch
Captain Eric ‘Bakame’ Ndayishimiye, who got his 44th cap with Amavubi on Monday, is an experienced player and a good leader, even as he needs to learn to communicate more with his teammates, especially when defending against set-pieces. But he’s a goalkeeper and is limited in some aspects. You need an outfield player who can inspire colleagues, someone who commands authority and can organise the team both in offensive and defensive situations. Someone who can influence a game across the pitch and he does not necessarily need to be the captain or older than most of his teammates.
4. Bakame’s habit of parrying every ball is dangerous
Parrying or punching the ball is a common habit among goalkeepers. And it is encouraged. But not in every situation, not with every ball that comes your way midair from the opposition. Against the Super Eagles, Bakame was guilty of parrying the ball, mostly unnecessarily and this created a lot of trouble for the team.
If you are to parry, then be sure to send the ball to safety, as far away as possible, or punch it hard enough to get it to a well-positioned teammate for possible counterattack, but not to drop it inside the 18-yard box when the team is under pressure. I hope it’s not the case of ‘old habits die hard’ for our CHAN captain.
5. Amavubi are vulnerable at set pieces and throw-ins and yet concede them so easily
Nigeria’s Daniel James’s long throw-ins haunted the Amavubi all night. Every time he held the ball, his teammates surged forward with confidence and you sensed unease among the Amavubi players. The same applied to free-kicks and corner-kicks, and the Nigerians won several free headers with so much ease in very dangerous areas.
Ironically, the Amavubi concede too many set pieces and throw-ins unnecessarily, if Monday’s game is anything to go by. This, along several other aspects of the game, is something Hey will want to fix ahead of the next CHAN fixtures against the other Group C rivals Equatorial Guinea and Libya, the group leaders.
6. The boys can still play The Beautiful Game after all…
Yes, I saw glimpses of tic-tac football and individual geniuses from Amavubi, especially in the middle of the park – at least occasionally – over the 90 minutes. It’s easy to dismiss this because the Amavubi have failed to live up to the public expectations in recent years, but the fact is that there were rare moments of swagger, one-twos, and world-class trickery from this group of locally-based Rwandan players against their Nigerian counterparts on Monday. Well, this is The Beautiful Game, after all!
7. The camp in Tunisia was hugely helpful
Ahead of the CHAN 2018 finals, Amavubi held a 10-day training camp in Tunisia, a country with similar weather patterns as Morocco. Even as they may not have really expected to play their opening match of the tournament in such biting cold and heavy winds, the training camp must have emotionally and physically helped prepare the Amavubi stars for the unforgiving weather of Tangier. Kudos to FERWAFA!
8. All the Amavubi players can sing the national anthem
There was a time when a big part of our national team players would be hard-pressed to recite a line of the national anthem. This is now in the past and those against the practice of using naturalised players in Amavubi must have liked what they saw.
The current players do not only recite bits of the national anthem but actually sing their hearts out when it is being played. It’s kind of refreshing to watch the whole team loudly sing the national anthem and almost feels like it gives each one of them a bit more motivation to give everything for the badge and country.
The writer is an editor with The New Times.