When the Amavubi Stars headed to Tanzania for the 2011 Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup, only a handful of people might have expected them to go all the way to the final, much less with the kind of elegance no other side in the competition has mustered.
Not because fans had no confidence in the team – considering it had just recorded two wins and a draw in its previous three games as it sought to recover from that disastrous 2012 CAN campaign – but largely due to the tournament’s much-improved competitiveness and the fact that coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic had just been weeks in charge.
An ever-burning desire for success and impatience is something Rwandan fans are well known for. But most of them must have been unsure whether the team had the same desire and even potential to raise the country’s flag high in the annual showpiece, which we last won in 1999.
Not even Micho’s impressive CV in Africa’s football could remove the doubts since his predecessor, Sellas Tetteh, had himself failed to replicate his U-20 World Cup heroics with Ghana, during his stint.
Over the past few years, the team had been characterized by inconsistence, overreliance on naturalized-yet-average players, and a run of embarrassing results on the continental stage.
Yet, today, I can say that fans might be close to seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Both the players and the coaching staff have given us reason to believe in ourselves once again.
With those successive wins the team has told us why we should stop scratching our heads whenever we recall the 2004 generation, and instead pull everything together and turn a new page.
Five wins out of five games, with a return of 12 goals and only three conceded, is enough reason to believe that there is real resurgence in the team.
If victories and clean sheets against both hosts and reigning champions Tanzania and the warriors of Zimbabwe in their opening two games were not convincing enough, the 5-2 mauling of new-look Djibouti, as well as the 2-1 drubbing of both the hard-fighting Zanzibar and CAN-bound Sudan point to the fact that the national team has all it takes to succeed.
Micho will be happy that his decision to blend experience with fresh talent has won him fans’ instant backing and goodwill. But most importantly it has built the much needed confidence ahead of the 2014 World Cup/CAN campaign.
While some of the senior players in the team, such as skipper Olivier Karekezi, Mbuyu Twite and Jean Claude Ndoli, may be in the twilight of their football, they have made the most of the tournament to win back public trust and stake a claim for more games.
The team goes into the final with arch-rivals Uganda, with Karekezi leading the score sheet with five goals; while Mbuyu rediscovered his solidness at the back; with Ndoli excelling in goal. Karekezi’s brilliant goals and assists has been one of the highlights of Amavubi’s exploits in Dar es Salaam.
His winner against Sudan’s Desert Hawks proved how lethal a striker he remains. Sometimes his pace upfront is questionable, but that’s something he has always lived with.
Nonetheless, his invaluable tricks with the ball, precision and admirable partnership with three-goal hero Meddie Kagere has kept their opponents on their toes.
Yet coach Micho is not just looking at short-time success. He has drafted younger guns in the side, with the likes of Andrew Buteera and Emery Bayisenge impressing and potentially nailing regular places in the senior team. And many fans will be delighted to see that the side is dominated by homegrown players.
The road to today’s mouthwatering final has been a fairytale that my money is on Amavubi to emerge the winners over record champions, the Uganda Cranes, who should be under pressure following their heartbreaking failure to qualify to next month’s CAN finals, on the very last day of the campaign in a home game against Kenya.
Whatever the result today, Amavubi will return home to a red-carpet welcome, and will be expected to build on their Cecafa exploits to register further success in the future.