The recently concluded 9th U-17 CAN Africa Youth Championship helped discover previously hidden treasures in Rwanda’s football. As the tournament unfolded on January 8, the Junior Wasps, were one of the clear underdogs, representing a country that had previously appeared only twice at any continent’s football finals – 2004 CAN finals and 2009 U-20 Championship – and eliminated at group stages on both occasions.
The team had not also participated in the qualifiers since Rwanda had an automatic spot as a host country.
Deep in the hearts of many local football lovers, there was a feeling that this was just another symbolic involvement in a class designed only for the continent’s best, and that would we would bow out right at the preliminary stage – the way it happened in 2009 with the U-20 side.
Officially, tactician Richard Tardy and his youngsters had been given a mission to reach the final four – the farthest everyone believed they could get, that is, if they played their best football with a bit of luck.
It was, therefore, unsurprising when fans demonstrated their lack of confidence in the team’s opening game with fancied Burkina Faso with a sluggish turn-up.
Even when the Junior Wasps underlined their potential with a deserved 2-1 win against the Burkinabes – who were making their sixth appearance at the championship – and with only a win away from becoming the first ever Rwandan team to qualify for any FIFA World Cup showpiece, and the first African nation to book the ticket for the finals in Mexico, Rwandans still remained cautiously expectant.
They looked justified. Standing in Amavubi’s way were the Young Pharaohs of Egypt, a country very difficult to beat at any level, not only in the case of Rwanda but across Africa.
Little did we know that the Junior Wasps had a different opinion. One could see it in the face of every player during the Egypt game that they were determined to sting their way to Mexico.
And they did not only do it; they did it with confidence, elegance and a sense of purpose – despite playing a man less in the final 20 minutes. Broadly, it was the major surprise of the tournament – at least until then – but the homeboys deserved more than just a 1-0 victory going by the proceedings of the game.
It is that January 11, 2011 historic victory that may end up drawing a line between an era of disappointing results, scrappy and unattractive football, and one of a truly emerging footballing nation.
There could not be a better New Year’s gift to this football-loving yet success-hungry nation than taking us to our very first soccer World Cup. At this stage, with the WC ticket safely in the bag, and a semi-final spot already sealed, most thought its mission accomplished for Tardy and his boys.
No, we were, once again, terribly wrong. Inside the dressing room, it was a case of steaming ahead. Some were even fooled by the team’s last group game 1-0 loss – a result that was hardly significant – to the already-eliminated and unlucky Senegal.
But it was all guns brazing when the team set foot on the pitch for their semi-final encounter against gifted and hot favourites Ivory Coast.
Even without their injured inspirational and rock solid captain, Emery Bayisenge, the Rwandan team defied all odds, putting up a spirited, lively and fluid performance against one of Africa’s football powerhouses.
Fired up by a reinvigorated crowd, the rampaging Junior Wasps’ strikers always looked poised to break the hearts of the resistant Ivorian youngsters. Ultimately, they were the better side in a hugely entertaining game, stinging the Young Elephants 1-0, and setting up a mouthwatering date with their first opponents of the tournament – Burkina Faso – for the finals.
By this time, the nation knew the boys had what it takes to lift the trophy, and had nothing left to prove as far as their potential was concerned.
Somehow, it is often difficult to beat a team twice in one tournament and, it’s the sort of belief, that prevailed in the final, with Wasps agonizingly falling to The Stallions 2-1 in a highly competitive clash that suggested an emergence of a new order in African football – where traditional kings of the Beautiful Game had no place.
And, as I watched the Junior Wasps players pick up their silver medals, and knowing that they had already ensured that Rwanda’s flag will be raised at the World Cup finals in Mexico later this year, I quietly spoke to myself, ‘What a wise, uplifting choice!’.
It was a conclusion that sprung from the fact that, all this success was rooted in the emergence of football academies in the country and a choice to concentrate on nurturing homegrown young talents, as opposed to the past approach of looking for success in naturalized Rwandans of diverse origin, particularly Congolese imports.
Majority of the World Cup boys are members of the FERWAFA football academy, having joined the academy when it opened doors in April, 2009.
In January, next year, these youngsters, will graduate from the academy. It’s time the local football governing body started the process to identify and to screen potential candidates for the second intake, and possibly increase its current capacity of only 25 trainees.
The same should be done by the other existing football academies. And, if our local football clubs are committed to long-term success, they must invest in youth development, especially through setting up academies and giving a chance to emerging players, instead of killing them in the bud, by subjecting them to a life on the bench.
With this approach, local football can rise to unimaginable level– the same way the Junior Wasps stung well beyond our expectations.
The author is a training editor with The New Times and 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association