Youth development in sports is Rwanda’s only hope

It is with a huge sense of pride and ‘agaciro’ that I watched the Baby Wasps national under-17 football team put up a spirited fight in the group stages of the FIFA under-17 World Cup currently taking place in Mexico. As I write, I don’t know whether we have thrashed Canada and therefore possibly qualified for the next phase of the championship. Nevertheless, even if we crash  out of the tournament this weekend, I have nothing but good feelings towards this team. The success of the team is a clear manifestation of just what is possible when there is not just a desire to invest in young people but a real effort.

Football, and any sport really, is always a grassroot effort. It isnt an inverted pyramid, where the success of the national team (the Amavubi Stars in our case), somehow leads to the success of the game. Look at the legendary Amavubi Stars team, lead by Desire Mbonabucya which beat Ghana and Uganda and booked itself a ticket to the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. The team, including giants of our domestic games such as Gatete, Karekezi, Manamana, Nshimiyimana and Katauti, lost narrowly to Tunisia (the eventual champions), drew with Guinea and beat the DR Congo. While they still didn’t get to the second round, they returned home as all-conquering heroes. But ask yourself, what’s happened since then? Continuously bad results and changes of technical staff as the impatient football administrators and fans demanded the high standards that they’d gotten used to. However, everyone failed to realize that the team that qualified to the African Nations Cup was a freak of nature, our ‘Golden Generation’ to borrow a phrase that the English coined to describe their national team that included players of the caliber of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard. This golden generation of ours didn’t come about because of thoughtful planning or strategy. It was a fluke.

That is why I was extremely pleased when FIFA gave our local football administration, Ferwafa, a grant which they then used to build a football academy. Although some thought that the academy would become a white elephant I was never one of those skeptics. And the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. The team that is in Mexico is composed of a disproportionate number of Ferwafa academy players.  This team must be coddled and kept together as they get older. But they mustn’t be the focus of all the attention. A production line of talent can be established if the youth structures remain the focus of everyone’s efforts. The youth structure isnt simply the academies here in Kigali. Kigali isnt where the talent is; the talent is all over the country. There might be a child somewhere in Nyaruguru who might have the ball skills of Lionel Messi but who will never get a chance to harness those skills because no one will spot his talent and develop it. Ask yourself, why Jamaica, an island of not more than 20 million people, is able to produce some of the fastest athletes in the world, both women and men and at a junior and senior level. Or why Ethiopia is able to produce a conveyor-belt of long and middle distance runner.  It isnt because the Jamaicans and Ethiopians have superior genes. I believe that is simply because they have scouts in every nook and cranny searching for the next big thing. Why are they wasting years of their lives doing this? Because if, and when, they unearth a gem it translates to cold, hard cash.

That is what we need to do here. While establishing a national scouting system, and then having the coaches and pitches to develop that talent, is time-consuming and expensive, this is where the smart money is. Look for the talent, develop that talent and then sit back and watch as that talent amazes you. While I’m talking football that applies to everything I know.

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