‘Visit Rwanda’ made its debut in English football Sunday, gracing the left sleeve of Arsenal shirts and the perimeter LED displays and screens inside the 59,867-capacity Emirates Stadium.
It was a proud day for Rwanda as Visit Rwanda-Arsenal deal – heralded in many circles as a masterstroke – was showcased on the ultimate stage in the world of club football with a Wenger-less Arsenal taking on champions Manchester City on the opening weekend of the new Premier League season.
The unsurprising 2-0 defeat to Pep Guardiola’s side notwithstanding, this was a perfect stage for Rwanda to introduce itself and extend a gracious invitation to the world to consider the country as a top tourist and investment destination.
The sight of our own Clare Akamazi, the chief executive of Rwanda Development Board (RDB), in the royal box – at the invitation of the club – and Arsenal fans cheerfully displaying the Rwandan flag inside in the stands at the Emirates, as well as fans from different parts of the world expressing delight at the deal demonstrated the warmth that underpins this strategic three-year partnership.
Back home, the partnership seems to have injected a new lease of life into Arsenal fans – having endured nearly 15 years of calamitous performances.
They will hope that Unai Emery is the messiah they have been waiting for. The deal has also ignited a great deal of interest in Arsenal and the Premier League in general.
As a Manchester United fan it’s a bittersweet feeling. But every patriotic Rwandan will love to see the ‘Visit Rwanda’ logo pop up on the screens around the Emirates and inscribed on Arsenal shirts .
A friend of mine in Belgium has since nicknamed the club ‘Arsentole’, inspired by the moment when Rwanda’s Intore traditional dancers paid a surprise visit to the club’s training ground which saw the excited players temporarily stop training and join in performing the legendary Rwandan dance moves for men.
I can only say good luck to ‘Arsentole’ save for when they are up against the Red Devils!
Let’s head north, to the troubled Theater of Dreams.
For many United fans it was a dream come true when Louis Van Gaal was finally shown the exit door two years ago and Jose Mourinho arrived to take over at the Premier League’s most successful club.
Of course, many today hold a different view about the ‘Special One’ with how things have since panned out.
Many pundits have lately criticised Mourinho for being vocal about the fact that his squad is weak compared to rival clubs, especially City – who won the league last season with a record points and goals, and staggering 19-point lead over first runner-up United – and Liverpool.
Despite finishing last season as the league’s best team by a country mile, City strengthened further buying Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City for a club record £60 million. This, despite the club already boasting an array of world-class stars in attacking positions such as Leroy Sané, David Silva, Kevin De Bryune, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.
And with Benjamin Mendy back from a long injury layoff and looking more like a new signing, the ‘noisy neighbours’ look scary.
On their part, Liverpool were already playing scintillating football last season going as far as the Champions League final but they have just spent about £175 million to bring Henrique Fabinho, Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri, and a £65 goalkeeper in Alisson Becker to Merseyside.
Chelsea, winners of two of the last four EPL titles, are also a better team, adding midfielder Jorginho from Napoli for £56m and responding to Real Madrid’s capture of Thibaut Courtois by breaking the world’s transfer fee record for goalkeepers with the acquisition of £72m Kepa Arrizabalaga, 23, from Athletic Bilbao. And they have held onto their most prized players in Eden Hazard and ‘Mr Reliable’ Ngolo Kante.
While Tottenham Hotspur may be the only premier league side not to have added new players during the close season, they boast one of the most experienced and solid defensive units in the league and one of Europe’s most formidable natural strikers in Harry Kane, and they have probably had the longest stability in squad and coaching staff of any of the top six sides.
In light of this, Mourinho’s main source of frustration has been the board’s reluctance to get him the players he needs to be able to compete for the league title and other major trophies.
I think he’s right.
United has the most shaky defence of the teams that finished in the top five last season. Some might be quick to point to the fact that United kept the most clean sheets but that was largely down to Mourinho’s cautious approach and David de Gea’s supreme shot-stopping ability.
Incidentally, it’s the same pragmatic style that earned Mourinho trophies and respect in every country he has managed that many United fans – and possibly some in the club hierarchy – don’t seem to like.
United’s vice chairman and chief executive Ed Woodward, the man believed to wield real power at the club – besides the Glazers –, is thought to be among those unimpressed by Mourinho’s style and a penchant for finished products, partly explaining the reason behind the club’s failure to sign Toby Aldeweirld, 29, from Spurs, or Ivan Perišić, 29, from Inter Milan, or Willian, 30, from Chelsea.
I appreciate where Woodward is coming from. Manchester United is a club that prides itself on homegrown talent and youth football. But the club has gone five years without winning the league.
Woodward has done a fantastic job on the commercial front.
But if United wanted to keep Alex Ferguson’s legacy of continuously relying on academy graduates they should have stood by Van Gaal. But firing the Dutchman and replacing him with a serial winner and largely short-termist in Mourinho, spoke to the club’s impatience with lack of immediate success.
Mourinho had an instant impact delivering two major trophies in his first season, and then a second place in the league and most points in post-Ferguson era in his second, finishing only behind big-spenders City under a certain genius Pep.
Many thought the club would do a good job in the last transfer window to build on this progress. Yet United were only the seventh most spenders (signing only £52m Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, a good prospect no doubt, but who could not make the Brazil World Cup squad; 19-year-old Diogo Dalot (£19m), obviously one for the future and who’s sidelined through injury until at least September; and a 35-year-old Lee Grant, for Stoke at £1.5 million, who came to be United’s third-choice goalkeeper.
It’s understood that not even Fred was on Mourinho’s wish-list.
So the season is on and United is forced to again rely on the likes Chris Smalling (who couldn’t even get a place on England bench at the World Cup); Phil Jones (hardly featured for the Three Lions in Russia); injury-prone Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo; as well as still-wobbly Victor Lindelof.
Add the fact United’s first-choice full-backs have a combined 66 years of age with age-mates Valencia and Ashley Young having started their Old Trafford careers as wingers and Jose and the fans will have to brace themselves for a long season ahead.
This is an insult to a man who made his name by building his teams on solid defences and to fans who live with fear that their club could be headed for more years of wilderness like Liverpool and Arsenal.
How will you compete with teams like Liverpool that spent a £75 million on a defender if you can’t pay £50 million for a centre-back of Aldeweirld’s quality? There is a reason why Juventus forked out £105 million for a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
For Manchester United’s hierarchy the choice is simple. If you want to keep Mourinho in the job give him the tools he needs to succeed. No manager can win you trophies by simply smiling and flattering his players and bosses telling them how they are the best in the world.
Any manager is capable of saying nice things about their players if they are content. Jose achieved far more in his first year at United than media darling Jurgen Klopp has done since he arrived at Liverpool three years ago and Guardiola at City in his first year despite the latter having inherited a team that were the defending champions.
But if you can’t support your manager then part ways with him. You can’t have it both ways.
The writer is an editor with The New Times