Rwanda: Will Rwanda Ever Replicate the Afcon 2004 Glory Days?

Every section of Rwandans - from the supporters, the media and certainly the government - is increasingly growing inpatient with Rwandan football for what many call mediocre performance despite taking a lion's share in sports budget.

After the stunning 2003-04 campaign that led to Rwanda's historic debut at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, everyone hoped it was the beginning of a new dawn for Rwanda football, but particularly for the national team Amavubi.

Sixteen years later, Rwanda has never stepped foot at the biggest African football tournament again.

Former APR and Rayon Sports striker Jimmy Gatete played a critical role in Rwanda's qualification to the 2004 AFCON finals tournament in Tunisia. File

The legendary 2004 Amavubi squad that comprised the likes of striker Jimmy Gatete, forward Olivier Karekezi and midfielder Eric Nshimiyimana did not only leave immortal memories but they also left a seemingly insurmountable mountain for generations.

"The team was very strong and tough to beat. The confidence was also key. The government bet all the resources to support the team, and the Head of State often paid visits to team camp before big matches," recalls Celestin Musabyimana, the Ferwafa's former vice-president.

To many observers, constant poor leadership of the Rwanda Football Federation (Ferwafa) is the main reason behind the country's underperformance at international stage.

"At the time, players fought the hardest possible to make Rwanda and Rwandans happy. They were very committed and that inspired confidence in fans and government to rally behind them."

Besides committed players and supportive government, also behind the historic run to the 2004 AFCON finals was head coach Ratomir Dujković whose departure - a few months after - immediately impacted the results and combative spirit that characterized the national team.

The Serbian quit after Ferwafa failed to reach an agreement with him about his contract extension. He was subsequently signed to become Ghana's head coach and he did not disappoint as he qualified the Back Stars to the 2006 Fifa World Cup.

Since the fatal mistake of letting him go, Dujkovic's successors have all failed to inspire his winning mentality into players while all regional neighbours thrived, having at least qualified once to the continental competition. DR Congo, bordering Rwanda to the West, Uganda in North, Tanzania in East and Burundi in South, were all part of the 2019 AFCON in Egypt.

But, then 2011 came and the country thought a golden generation had finally come to save the future of the national team after earning a historic U-20 World Cup qualification in Mexico following stunning showing during the 2011 Africa U-17 Cup of Nations held in Rwanda.

Amavubi U-17 finished as the tournament's runners-up after losing to Burkina Faso in the final.

Lack of clear structure

After the World Cup, all eyes were on Ferwafa to see if they would establish a long-term youth football structure and policies that encouraged stakeholders to set up academies, a move that would help the youngsters reach their full potential and create a pathway for new talents.

Very few, if any, would disagree that Ferwafa failed on that task. And, as a result, the country failed to get the most of the incredible U-17 Amavubi starlets in the years that followed.

The local football governing body has ever since faced criticism, even at times from high profile government officials, for having no clear vision for Rwandan football and expecting better results while inadequately preparing for competitions the same way over and over again.

Fidele Kanamugire, the president of one football academy Heroes FC, Ferwafa should do better in organising leagues for different youth and junior age groups otherwise it is a let-down for people like him who do and wish the best for football development in the country.

Heroes FC, whose senior team were last week relegated to the second division from Rwanda Premier League, are based in Bugesera District and host home matches at Bugesera Stadium.

"The challenge is, we are investing in football academies but there are no competitions and we fail to gauge the level of our young players," says Kanamugire.

"On top of not having enough academies as a country, the talents there also lack match fitness and serious challenge because competitive mentality is usually instilled through tournaments."

He advocates that Ferwafa should either have its own or support teams' initiatives to establish football academies in different parts of the country so as to ensure stronger leagues and national teams in the future.

"Clubs should be having football academies at their disposal so we can collectively produce a bigger pool of talents to feed league teams and national teams. But it is a complex business, especially at the beginning, and support is always needed."

However, according to sports commentator Jean de Dieu Bagirishya, the solution to Rwanda's football development should be looked at from many different angles.

"We have to accept that everyone is responsible for the decline of our football. The government, Ferwafa and the clubs should therefore sit and find solutions together," Bagirishya said.

Bagirishya faults Ferwafa for having no blueprint for football development despite the government's continued efforts to avail facilities across the country.

"It is a pity that our country is progressing in everything but football."


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