It was a disappointing weekend of internationals for the Amavubi fans. Hosts Rwanda lost 1-2 to Les Éléphants of Ivory Coast in the second round of the 2019 African Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifiers.
There is no shame in losing to the immediate former African champions and three-time African representatives to the World Cup.
Rather what was frustrating for most fans is the manner in which we lost.
Our boys put up impressive showing and took the game to the star-studded Ivorian side for the large part of the game, only to concede two easy goals in the space of four minutes if one does not consider the halftime break that separated both strikes.
The loss was even more pronounced considering that Amavubi were losing their second successive qualifier having lost by a similar score line away to the Central African Republic back in June 2017.
Rwandans had the recent memory of the Amavubi beating Ivory Coast 1-0 at the Amahoro Stadium in the opener of the African Nations Championships (Chan) in 2016, and even though Chan is a competition that attracts players who only ply their trade in their home countries, many believed it was a sign the Amavubi were no longer pushovers.
In addition, the fact that it had been a while without the team playing – even longer without a home game involving the senior Amavubi side, the most recent having been the barren draw against Ethiopia in November 2017 which involved only locally based players – made Sunday’s defeat hurt even more for the Amavubi fans.
Furthermore, the defeat meant that Rwanda’s chances of reaching next year’s Afcon finals in Cameroon are now hanging by the thread and you know you are in trouble when you lose hope after only the second round of matches (out of six rounds).
Yet, until that moment of madness when goalkeeper Olivier Kwizera did a Karius and gifted Aston Villa’s forward Jonathan Adjo Kodjia the easiest of tap-ins in the stoppage time of first half Amavubi had largely dominated proceedings, hitting the woodwork and keeping the visitors’ defence, marshaled by Manchester United’s Eric Bailly and Tottenham Hotspur’s Serge Aurier, on their toes.
As expected, the goal swayed the game in favour of the Elephants who took no more than three minutes to double their lead after the break.
That’s what experienced teams do, they will sometimes let you dictate play, watch you get carried away, and patiently wait for the moment naivety and inexperience get the better of you and then punish you.
And the Elephants did just that on Sunday, suddenly clipping the wasps’ wings in a matter of minutes and it was game over.
Nonetheless, the now featherless Wasps hauled themselves back into the game, Meddie Kagere pulling one back to make it 2-1 in the 64th minute.
It is easy to point out that Amavubi were simply unlucky and that on another day they would have scored four goals since they hit the woodwork on three occasions.
But luck (or lack thereof) is part of the game and at the end of the day it’s the team that take their chances that will come out on top.
Sunday’s defeat means that Amavubi are the only team in Group H still with no point , with their next opponents Guinea cruising with 6 points having collected maximum points from each of their first two games against Ivory Coast and CAR, while the other two have three points apiece.
Will it be disaster if Rwanda fail to reach the finals? I don’t think so. But it means we will be stuck in a state of mediocrity for at least another two years!
And for a country that prides itself on excelling and defying the odds across many sectors, nearly two decades of absence from the continent’s biggest competition is unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet I am not one of those who believe that we don’t have enough talent.
Over the years, Rwanda has produced decent players who have gone on to prove themselves in different countries. In recent years, strikers Jacques Tuyisenge and Meddie Kagere formed a formidable partnership for Kenyan giants Gor Mahia, guiding the club to several domestic trophies and leading their recent strong charge on the continent (until Kagere moved on).
Yes, Kagere was out of the national team for four years but that was down to how the Rwandan football governing body, Ferwafa, mismanaged the issue of previously naturalised players, whom they victimised in the process while at the same time depriving the country of badly needed services.
Kagere’s brilliant header against Ivory Coast on Sunday – his first game for Rwanda after winning back his citizenship in April this year– was a reminder of how we missed him in his prime years. Who knows what the team could have achieved had he not been banished from the fold. Well, that’s a missed opportunity and I will let bygones be bygones.
Rwanda has always been rich in other departments, namely defence and midfield. Over the years, the country has produced players in these areas who, had it not been for other limiting factors, could have gone on to play at the top level anywhere.
So where has it gone wrong for the Amavubi?
There are a myriad of factors but almost all of them revolve around one major problem: inadequate planning/ preparations.
Just one example:
Amavubi went into Sunday’s tie against Ivory Coast with their last game (competitive or friendly) having been the away defeat to CAR on June 10, 2017. During that time Ivory Coast played three games, including two friendlies. How a country that’s failed to reach each of the Afcon finals since 2006 does not play even a single friendly match in a period spanning 15 months is a mindboggling, even more so when you know that your next opponents are Ivory Coast – whose squad in Sunday’s game all ply their trade abroad, with 10 in the starting line-up all established stars in Europe’s major leagues.
To make matters worse, Amavubi were without a coach for six months, with Ferwafa only appointing Vincent Mashami into that role a month until the Ivory Coast clash. So the new head coach had roughly a month to settle in his job and identify the players who deserved a call-up, both in and outside the country, a task further complicated by the fact that it is hard to closely follow, let alone watch, most Rwandan professional players while you are in Rwanda.
In the end, the team had two and a half weeks of preparations, but assembling a squad that has not played together for more than a year and get the best out of them within days – a win over Ivory Coast in this case – is not an enviable task.
The lack of adequate planning and preparations has not only hurt the country’s football across the different categories, it has affected performances of other national teams in other sports as well.
Both the ministry in charge of sports and the respective federations, Ferwafa in this case, need to urgently fix this issue if we are to maximise our footballing potential and take our game to another level. With 24 teams now qualifying for Afcon finals – up from 16 previously – Rwanda should be regulars at the continental showpiece.
If Brig Gen (rtd) Jean Damascène Sekamana and his team manage to address this problem and put a stop to the culture of making haphazard and last-minute decisions they will go a long way in changing Rwanda’s football – for the better.
The writer is an editor with The New Times.