Rwanda is a country that still bears the scars of its recent past. Just seventeen years ago 850,000 people were murdered as post-colonial tensions spilled over into a genocide that was perpetrated by members of the Hutu ethnic community against the Tutsi people. Powerful memories of those brutal days still reverberate throughout modern Rwanda, but today the country is one of contemporary Africa’s greatest success stories.
During the last decade Rwanda’s democratic governments have implemented a new constitution, joined the Commonwealth and taken a far more active role in the collective politics of East Africa. With a strengthening economy and a Human Development Index increasing at a faster rate than any other state on the planet, Rwanda’s recovery from the horrors of the early 1990s has been thoroughly remarkable.
This rehabilitation, something which has spread across many sectors of society, has also both hastened and been hastened by football within the country, particularly the fortunes of a steadily improving national team.
Last week Rwanda was awarded the privilege of hosting the 2016 African Nations Championship, an event that will mark the first international football tournament to have ever been hosted on Rwandan soil and symbolise the vast strides the country’s football has made in recent years.
The last ten years have been a productive time for the game in Rwanda, 2004 bringing the county’s first ever appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations (the team finished third in Group A having beaten DR Congo, drawn with Guinea and narrowly lost to the hosts, Tunisia) before a sustained run of relative success (four-times runners-up in six years) in the CECAFA Cup.
However, it was arguably February last year that brought the most significant development in the recent history of the Rwandan national team, interim Burundian coach Eric Nhsimiyimana being replaced at the helm by 2009 CAF coach of the year Sellas Tetteh.
Tetteh, the Ghanaian who led the U20 team of his homeland to the 2009 World Cup title, has been credited for his role in bringing through the current generation of Black Star players that so impressed in South Africa last summer and is highly regarded throughout Africa.
Brought in on a two-year deal by the ambitious Rwandan Football Federation, Tetteh was put in charge of both the senior and the U20 teams upon his appointment, his brief being to qualify Rwanda for the 2012 Cup of Nations and further improve the methods employed with the players in the age group teams.
Although the developmental side of his job would appear to be going well, Tetteh and his team were unfortunate to have been drawn in a qualifying group alongside two teams as strong as Ivory Coast and Benin, no points and no goals from the opening two games not boding well for the Amavubi (The Wasps).
That said, there are still four games of the campaign remaining, and should Rwanda manage to beat a relatively weak Burundi team on both the occasions that they will face them, then they will salvage a degree of pride, although with Ivory Coast already on six points qualification is almost completely out of the question even at this early stage.
While the Federation may be keen to accelerate their team’s development, it was always slightly unrealistic to expect Tetteh to reach CAN 2012 with what is a fairly mediocre group of players. If the Federation wants lasting change and development then it would be wise to extend the Ghanaian’s contract and give him all the tools he requires to do his job. An expert at bringing young players through and maximising their talents, Tetteh is the perfect coach to help Rwanda achieve long-term developmental success.
Barring a 0-0 draw in a friendly away to Sudan eight weeks ago, recent results have been relatively poor of late for a country looking to make its way in the game. However, this month represents a chance for Rwanda to make a real impression as they take part in the 2011 Championship of African Nations in Sudan which kicks-off this evening as the hosts take on Gabon.
Rwanda are set to get their campaign underway on Monday when they face Senegal in Port Sudan; Angola and Tunisia being the other two teams drawn in Group D. While not fancied to make much of an impression at the tournament, Tetteh has excited supporters by calling two members of the U17 team into the senior side.
Emery Bayisenge and Faustin Usengimana may be extremely young, but they have been central figures in the extraordinary success of Rwanda’s most junior national team. Indeed, just last month the ‘Junior Wasps’ became the first ever Rwandan team to qualify for a World Cup at any age level, beating Egypt in the crucial game in Group A to book their place at the tournament which is to be held in Mexico this summer.
Usengimana, an athletic centre-back, and Bayisenge, a lithe midfielder, should add an extra dynamism to a squad largely consisting of players from domestic champions APR. This may not yet be a team capable of challenging for places in the latter stages of continental tournaments, but the future of Rwandan football is slowly taking shape.
Leaving its turbulent past behind and continuing to develop at a remarkable rate, Rwandan society is flourishing and the gradually improving fortunes of its national football team bear witness to that fact. The memories of civil war and genocide will never be forgotten, and nor should they be, but Rwanda has moved on and now holds its head high as an important member of the international community.
There may still be a long way to go, but Sellas Tetteh and his players are working on a project that could see them become a significant force within African football in the next decade. Driven by raw enthusiasm and unbridled ambition, who’s to say that they won’t achieve the lofty goals which they have set for themselves?