Rayon Sports players received a hero's welcome on returning home on Friday morning from Mozambique after they reached the group stage of CAF Confederation Cup.
Rayon Sports became first Rwandan club to qualify for the lucrative 16-team league stage.
Thousands of fans were already celebrating on the streets of Kigali as early as midnight, more than an hour before the plane carrying the team could touch the tarmac at Kigali International Airport.
The airport erupted into scenes of joy as the players emerged from the arrival wing and the party continued for hours both on the streets and at Kigali Stadium in Nyamirambo where the club had organised a homecoming party for the returning heroes.
The team arrived at 1:15am and drove at a snail’s speed in the company of walking cheerful fans up to the stadium where speeches were made and fans sang praises for their team amid wild cheers and dances.
On arrival at the airport, club officials handed each member of the returning delegation a medal, while at the stadium, the fans formed as a guard of honour for the players.
The team was returning from Maputo in Mozambique where they lost 2-0 to home side Clube de Desportos da Costa do Sol but progressed on 3-2 aggregate score, thanks to three unanswered goals from the first leg in Kigali a fortnight ago.
Rayon Sports played the two-legged playoff to vie for a spot in the group stage after they were eliminated by South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns from the CAF Champions League – the continent’s premier club competition.
Rayon, arguably the most popular sporting club in the country, becomes the first Rwandan team ever to reach the group stage of any CAF club competition having previously only come so close on several occasions.
“For us this is a dream come true,” captain and goalkeeper Eric 'Bakame' Ndayishimiye told Times Sport on arrival at the airport.
Formal proceedings at the stadium started at 2a.m in the morning through 5a.m.
Asked about the return leg against Costa do Sol, Bakame said: "In the first half it was like fire on us but in the second we contained them. We are very happy for our progress and with how the fans have welcomed the team back home."
Centre back Faustin Usengimana, who brought stability to defence when he came on in the second half during the away match, said: "We are proud to have brought cheer to our fans and country."
Usengimana replaced Saddam Nyandwi in the second half and was instrumental in ensuring the home side did not add to the 2 goals they had scored in the first half.
The players were driven through the Kigali streets en route to the Nyamirambo-based stadium on a Fuso truck to allow for continued interaction with jubilant fans all through.
The fans, who turned streets into the club’s blue and white colours, chanted and sang club songs, including Murera, Ni Wowe Dukunda, among others.
"Our fans are our treasure," Usengimana said as fans waved flags and team jerseys, as children held aloft cards and flowers for their heroes.
"To the delight of the crowd, the players sang the "huh" as head coach Ivan Minnaert watched with emotion. The Belgian later hailed his team’s performance and said he felt "at home".
He specially thanked the fans that travelled with the team to Mozambique.
"It’s incredible how our fans kept supporting us even after going down 2-0 in the first half. They did not give up, they did not stop, they return as heroes," added 19-year-old Kevin Muhire, who replaced François Master Mugisha in the second half in Maputo.
"I'm just so proud!" he said. "What next? We certainly want to progress to the next stage.”
Jean Hategekimana, a fan, said: “I am overjoyed, I can’t explain how I feel…I have a feeling this is just the beginning, Rayon are moving to a whole new level.”
As a result of their historic feat, Rayon Sports will give special bonuses to their players, the club said.
Each of the 18 players that traveled to Maputo will get Rwf2.8 million while the players who didn’t travel with the team will get Rwf1.3 million, said club secretary-general Bernard Itangishaka.
The draw for the group stage will be held on Saturday in Cairo, Egypt.
Rayon Sports are set to receive Rwf230 million for reaching the group stage of the CAF Confederation Cup.