It is hard to understand the popularity of Arsenal in Rwanda and Africa in general. I remember recently during a visit to Kenya visiting Nyayo Stadium for the season finale between Mathare United and Sony Sugar and there were less than 200 people in the stadium including players, coaches, security and fans.
And yet when Arsenal were playing the city was a ghost town; at that moment it was impossible to deny the negative impact of foreign football and the premiership in particular on African football.
Wenger was astute in seeking out African players and this explains their popularity, add to this his brand of free-flowing football and you have a lethal poison.
As a child in Kenya football was great; Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, Scarlett, Breweries, and in Uganda there were also legendary clubs like Sports Club Villa, Express, KCC and TZ had Simba, Yanga, and so many other legendary teams.
The story of these great clubs explains the slow demise of African club football. In the post-independence era clubs were formed often along tribal line; a good game was a better substitute for war.
In Kenya, AFC was for Abaluhya and Gor for Jaluo but it was a friendly rivalry that didn’t get too nasty, soon we had big corporations entering the game and soon they were the main source of money and not the fans.
These corporations were not just interested in sponsoring teams they wanted to own teams; this had always happened with teams like Posta, Breweries, Airlines often having teams in the top divisions but the “community teams” were always top.
However, as institutions entered the fray with big cash, these community teams died out and when the titles could be bought because corruption entered our game then the sacred cow was dead before the Premiership even started.
In Rwanda we still have a vibrant league but mainly because of the big team; the rest are there to make up the numbers. Like Electrogaz; why would anybody support a utility company?
It is like saying “I really like the way they deliver my cash-power I think I’ll support them from now on.”
Electrogaz should have just been a shirt sponsor but because the league is desperate for money they have to acquiesce to their demands. What is football without supporters?
Electrogaz found out last year, it is nothing. When Rayon Sport, APR, and Atraco play then it is a full house but other games are played to sparse crowds.
We have to try to market and promote Rwandan football, we must allow shirt sponsorship, try to televise it regularly, and give it a boost or our national team will never prosper.
The popularity of the big 3 can mask the severity of the situation but the need is dire; children today know the Arsenal team by heart but cannot name a single national team player except for a few.
We cannot blame lack of funding alone; Nyamirambo alone used to provide the bulk of the national team, but now there is little free ground for kids to play anywhere in Kigali.
When one has watched the Premiership with its coverage from all angles, with replays, with all the stats and the overall atmosphere then is hard to watch a team without proper uniforms, which lacks a good pitch, and with a small crowd.
The answer is emotional investment; I remember in Uganda when by 1990 the game had become so corrupt that school soccer was taking the place of the league, my school Nakasero vs. Kitante and 12,000 attended.
It was jam-packed with fans there to see 12-year olds give their all; they knew it was for school pride and nothing could buy that. The atmosphere was frenzied as fans invaded the pitch after every goal and threw rubbish at the referees.
The truth was obvious then as it is now, we need a league sponsor, need team sponsors, we need teams that reflect communities and regions i.e. more teams like Mukura and fewer company teams.
The initial gains will be low, no sponsor is just going to come in and splash cash, they have to see gradual benefit or value for money.
Having football teams that reflect their locality is the only way for clubs to thrive; Tottenham is like the size of Kacyiru but has a strong following.
Institutional clubs like Electrogaz can only plug a gap but they are not a long-term solution; in Uganda it is Police and Revenue who are the on top in place of Villa and Express and their league is dead, let us not end up the same way.