Rubavu: Rwanda’s source of football talent

It is hard and very rare to find a topflight team in Rwanda with no Rubavu-born player.

From youth competitions to the national level, Rubavu has proved to be the source of a good number of fantastic football talents over the years. As a result, the area is now dubbed ‘Brazil’.

Brazil is widely known for producing exceptional footballers. And the fact that Rubavu was given such a name is due to fact that the region has contributed, and still does, a lot to the development of local football where big teams such as Rayon Sports and APR FC always come knocking, scouting for raw talent from the area.

It is hard to find a topflight team that has no Rubavu-born player.

The area is home to Rwanda’s football stars like Amavubi skipper Haruna Niyonzima,Waasland-Beveren midfielder Djihad Bizimana, Gor Mahia striker Jacques Tuyisenge, Jean Bosco Uwacu, AFC Tubize defender Salomon Nirisarike, Rayon Sports midfielder Djabel Imanishimwe and USM Alger center-back Emery Bayisenge.

Former players like Abdul Sibomana, Leandre Bizagwira and Jabir Mutarambirwa also hail from Rubavu.

“Besides players who we grew up looking to, hearing people say that Rubavu is home to ‘Brazilians’ gives you motivation and confidence that you, too, can do it. It is like saying the US is home to the best musicians. If I grow up alongside my brother being a national team captain, that is a motivation, too, that I can do what he does or do even better,” says APR FC midfielder Muhajiri Hakizimana.

If not discovered at Etincelles, Marines or Vision Jeunesse from the second division, more talents are detected from Rubavu-based schools like College de Gisenyi ‘Inyemeramihigo’, Ecole Secondaire Islamique de Gisenyi (ESIG) and more during post primary football competitions.

Amavubi skipper Niyonzima, who plies his trade at Simba SC in Tanzania, is convinced the area deserves the ‘Brazil’ nickname given the big number of football talents that are unearthed from there.

“It is not a secret that Rubavu (formerly Gisenyi) has produced, and still produces, a big number of talented football players, be it in the national team or at club level. I don’t think anyone can doubt the talent of players from Rubavu. Nicknaming us ‘Brazilians’ did not come by accident, we worked for it,” says Niyonzima.

Specifically, football is regarded as a family heritage for Amavubi captain Haruna Niyonzima who was born in a vast footballing family. His father was part of the administrative staff of Etincelles, while his brothers Muhajiri Hakizimana, Djihad Bizimana and Abdul Sibomana have also played for the national football team.

For him, everything has a source. He says it is a spirit that every player feels from a very young age, drawing inspiration from their elder brothers and passionate coaches who have had a big hand in nurturing their talents despite the notable shortage of resources.

Anyone who grows in that spirit feels like Gisenyi is the real place for football talents.

“We had role models ahead of us who we were determined to follow in their footsteps. They have been our inspirations and used to take their time to encourage us try and archive our dreams. We were raised in that spirit until we realized our dreams and wrote our own history,” he says.

Zayana Niyitegeka, Niyonzima’s sister whose son, Ramadhan Niyonkuru, plays at Musanze FC, said the family has been blessed to produce a number of great footballers for the country and revealed it is a heritage from their father Fazil Hakizimana.

“We were born to parents who loved football and that was spread through the children and grand children. It is like a heritage, I don’t think it is surprising for anymore to hear that someone from our family is a footballer,” Niyitegeka said.

Adding that, “Everybody knows we are a footballing family, and luckily none has endured a miserable career yet. We happily and proudly show moral and financial support to whomever (in the family) is interested in pursuing a football career,” says Niyitegeka.

Meanwhile, Hakizimana insists, “football is in our blood and has been our family heritage for a very long time. There is no big difference between us in terms of talent and skills, only hard work invested and opportunities distinguish us”

The family has made great fortunes form football and this inspired most of the families in the area to support players at a very young age, having discovered that football can change the life of their children and family in general.

Etincelles forward Irshade Nsengiyumva, a younger brother to Djabir Mutarambirwa, says, “If you grow up seeing that your brothers are making a living out of football, and have everything thanks to playing football, it makes you start dreaming the same and playing with ambition that one day you can afford everything without relying on parents”

All Rubavu-born players that Sunday Sport talked to said their football foundation lies in the hands of passionate coaches such as Djitiada Mungo, Abdul Bekeni Bizimana and Rajab Bizumuremyi, who care more about football development than remuneration.

“We were lucky to be in the hands of passionate coaches whom I myself, and anyone who recognizes their efforts in contributing to Rwanda’s football development, we can never repay them enough - for the dedication and great job they do. We consider them more of parents than coaches. For me, they deserve a prize beyond ‘thanks’,” said Niyonzima.

An experienced Djitiada Mungo, also known as Vigoureux, has dedicated his time and life to detecting and nurturing football talents in Rubavu over the past 35 years – since 1982 when he retired (as a player) from Etincelles.

His remarkable spell makes him the brain behind the majority of the then and now Rubavu-born footballers’ stardom and the place itself as a football talent hub.

The 65-year old is the brain behind the rise to stardom of players like Emery Bayisenge, Djabel Imanishimwe, Haruna Niyonzima, Jacques Tuyisenge, Ismail ‘Kodo’ Nshutinamagara and Leandre Bizagwira, JMV Shyaka, James Tubane and Clement Mutunzi among others.

He says he always feels proud to see players who passed under his football development program going forward and making a difference either at national level or beyond.

“Journalists started to call players from Rubavu ‘Brazilians’ when they realized the quality of players I had been producing over the years. It really is a huge pride for me, and a humbling contribution to Rwanda’s football development. That is why I love it,” he told Sunday Sport.

“What I consider my success is to the boys progressing. I will never stop doing it because I am proud of what I do. I don’t do it for money. It is my passion,” he further noted.

However, he also appeals to some players who wrongly use his name as a card to find teams team to play for, something he calls “tarnishing his reputation”

“Sometimes coaches never test players during recruitment as long as a player says I am the one who trained him. I feel like my reputation is in danger whenever I hear that. Coaches should test them and prove what they are capable of,” he said.

Junior players say the biggest motivation is to see some senior players visit the younger generations during training and giving them advice.

“Every youngster grows up with a dream to become a great player. Our older brothers have paved way for us and did their best, and in very hard situations to brand this place a hub for football talent. They repeat it when they visit us during training and we can’t let such a chance go to waste,” said Marines FC skipper Hussein Nsabimana,  a cousin to Belgium-based Salomon Nirisarike.

The passion for football is also in people’s souls around the area where you hear people talking about football at stadiums, in bars, restaurants, in streets and on the beach among other places.

“This place has amazing football talents and I think it is the reason why they easily find good teams. The only big problem lies in their boyhood clubs, Etincelles and Marines, which fail to keep them so they can challenge APR and Rayon for trophies. Limited resources leave them with no choice other than selling them to the highest bidders,” said Abdul Safari, a native in Rubavu.

Is Rubavu exploited accordingly?

According to Niyonzima, not only Rubavu but Rwanda in general, lacks the right infrastructure to promote football and shaping youngsters into professional footballers.

“If we had a lot of football academies and other motivating opportunities, we would do whatever other professional footballers do. We have talents, but we lack resources and sources of motivation and opportunities – especially infrastructure.”

He says it is part of his future plans to establish a football academy in Rubavu.

“I have always wished to establish a football academy in my home town. It is part of my plan as a long term project in my capabilities, once I retire from football career as a player,” he said.

Many suggest that Vigouruex deserves better facilities and more support to nurture footballers that are able to standout and challenge on international scene.

“We can attain the heights of Nigeria, Senegal – it’s absolutely possible. FERWAFA should not abandon such an experienced and passionate coach like Vigoureux who produced a huge number of players. Instead, he should be supported to better exploit the place,” said Hakizimana.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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