After a hard-fought, all-action, one goal apiece thriller of a match played against the Young Lions of Cameroon, I watched with interest as the Rwandan under-20 youth team, the Junior Wasps, huddled around their President, Paul Kagame. The nation's leader was among the VIP guests that watched the match at the Amahoro National stadium in Kigali, and after some grueling ninety minutes of excitement, he came down to offer the customary congratulations and hearty handshakes to the two teams. As the suit-donning former soldier (of the Ugandan army) turned politician spoke and looked into the eyes of the people in the Rwandan circle that had formed around him on the football pitch, it became clear to me that the interaction transcended football. As the spellbound players (and trainers) listened and looked back into Dr. Kagame's eyes (he has received a number of honorary doctorate degrees), it seemed this was more than just prosaic politician preaching prodding the players to win the coveted cup. More importantly, it was a two-minute sermon beseeching the players to realise the power they possess to further unite the country through the communal passion of the most popular sport in the world.
Football has always been a healer in (post-)times of strife and division. Ivory Coast—once a halcyon of peace, prosperity, and plenty in Africa—experienced a civil war that lasted from September 2002 until a peace agreement was signed in March 2007. The conflict effectively divided the country into a rebel-held north and a government-held south. Many people believe that Didier Drogba (skipper of the Ivorian national team, and currently one of Africa's most popular footballers) leading the national team, the Elephants, to qualify for their maiden World Cup appearance in Germany 2006 laid the foundation for peace to be restored. It is interesting to note that where the peace-brokering efforts of politicians, bureaucrats and accomplished diplomats failed to make any impact, modest footballers succeeded by simply playing their hearts out for their country. There are several other instances in Africa and other parts of the world where ceasefires have been declared so football matches could take place. (Let's watch this great match first, my dear rival leader—we can batter the stadiums with rockets and grenades later.)
The African Youth Championship is considered Africa's most prestigious underage football tournament, and Rwanda is hosting the current edition of this biennial competition. The two-week tourney kicked off last Sunday, the 18th of January, and the final game is scheduled for the 1st of February. There are two groups consisting of four teams each: Group "A" features Rwanda, Mali, Ghana and Cameroon, and Group "B" is made up of Egypt, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and South Africa. This particular tournament is not quite a winner-takes-all event because the four semi-finalists (the top two teams from the two groups) will go on to participate in the global edition of the tournament, The World Youth Championship, to be held in Egypt in September of this year.
That Rwanda has come a long way to host a continental competition is quite an understatement. The country was ravaged by a civil war that resulted in a genocide and the destruction of important national infrastructure. Even after peace was restored in 1994, ethnic tensions and divisions still exist in Rwanda. National reconciliation and reunification is apparently still a top priority for the Rwandan government. Casting my mind back to "Coach" Kagame's post-match team talk, I could see a man who was trying to reach out to his countrymen. I am positive thatï¿½ the Rwandan team (pictured above) consisted both of Hutsis and Tutsis, but on the football pitch only one "ethnic group" existed—the Rwandan one. Watching the Rwandans play their first two games against Mali and South Cameroon, I saw a team that was playing for more than football glory—and the partisan home crowd recognised this too, cheering and hailing every flick, touch, feint and pass of their team. This was a country that was rebuilding a common national identity, and football had presented it with a gold-plated opportunity for the citizens to rally around the Rwandan flag once again.
This year's tournament is not only about Rwanda, though. There has been a delightful display of silky skills, admirable athleticism, and fantastic fair play by all eight teams. After the first two rounds of matches, it seems Rwanda and Ghana look likely to qualify from Group A. These two teams are also set to clash on match day three to decide the group's hierarchy. The other two teams, the Young Lions of Cameroon and the Young Eagles of Mali, are not in great positions, with the Malians already eliminated, but the Cameroons could still roar through if results in the Ghana-Rwanda match favor them. Group "B" is also unresolved, with the Flying Eagles of Nigeria and the Young Pharaohs of Egypt still in contention, but the Amajita Stars of South Africa have advanced to the semi-finals by virtue of their victories over Ivory Coast and Nigeria. The Young Elephants of Ivory Coast have been eliminated because they lost their opening two games and now have to play for just pride in their third and final game of the competition. Theï¿½ Rwanda versus Ghana match presents me with a dilemma. On one hand, I am taken in by the fairytale underdog story of the Rwandans, but on the other hand, the Ghanaian citizen in me wants the Black Satellites (the official name of the Ghanaian under-20 team) to finish at the top of the group in order to avoid playing the winner of Group "B". (Group winners play the second-best teams in the other group.)
In January 2008, Ghana hosted Africa's most extravagant soccer bonanza, the African Nation's Cup. Throughout the month-long tournament, the whole country was awash with national colors: red, gold, and green, with the black star in the center. Virtually every vehicle on the streets displayed miniature flags, and this was particularly heartwarming because that year was also an election year in the country. But it seems football comes before politics in Ghana, and people put their different political leanings aside and cheered the country on to a (widely viewed as disappointing) third place finish. But the real accomplishment was off the field, where the citizens rediscovered and renewed their common national identity. No wonder they managed to conduct another free, fair, and peaceful elections later on in that year. I hope Rwanda follows the path of their West African siblings. May football continue to reconcile opposing groups and factions, and may it may it continue to help citizens of the world realise their similarities and live in harmony. Viva football! Viva Rwanda!