Rwanda glaringly loves its football — meaning, soccer.
That much is evident in the heart of Kigali and in the nooks and crannies of each village. You name where, soccer is nearby.
Riding through the ups and downs of the Eastern Province, I’ve passed makeshift soccer fields trampled a thousand times over. Flat ground is preferred on these pitches, but not necessary, and dusty clay is more widespread than lush grass. The goals — a trio of long tree branches or worn metal poles — never have nets. They do, however, have underlying patches of turf designating an area neglected by kids who would rather have the ball at their feet than in their hands.
In Kayonza, the prosperous restaurants and bars keep the French channels of the Canal+ Sport Network on loop for the men winding down with a Mutzig Lager or Bond 7 Whiskey after work.
One day last month, one of Rwanda’s most successful clubs, Rayon FC, drove through the roundabout at the center of town to celebrate a recent victory. The bystanders cheered and followed behind, while the players inside nearly capsized the bus by jumping, shaking and hanging out the windows.
In Rwinkwavu, I’ve juggled in the hill-streets with barefoot children. They’re delighted by how many times I can keep up their misshapen ball made of torn rags warped together and tied with strings of orange yarn.
On a Premier League Saturday, I was once invited to a Chelsea FC watch party where a 20-inch TV mounted on the wall was the only screen for 40 locals sitting in plastic lawn chairs.
In Rukara, our basketball court attracts plenty of attention during practice hours, but during the remaining hours of daylight, the soccer field behind the school is flooded with zealous children with little supervision.
Walking anywhere, at least one person you pass out of every ten is wearing some form of soccer-related apparel. Even my UGB basketball coach wore an Arsenal jersey for the tipoff of one of our most recent league games.
Skol, a thriving Rwandan beer company, bought the rights to display its logo on the front of Rayon FC’s jerseys. Prime realty.
I once saw a team poster positioned and taped up as prime decoration in the living room of a village home. The print displayed a 2012-13 Chelsea team with full roster headshots, an annual schedule and the designated salary of each player.
The proof speaks for itself. Soccer truly is the world’s sport.
I’ve always had a soft spot for soccer, so I haven’t had a problem transitioning to this nation’s most popular game. In the past six years, I’ve haphazardly — no pun intended — followed the aforementioned Chelsea FC. I feel comfortable rekindling my committed fanship while abroad. I was first hooked leading up to the 2012 Blues’ Champions League run thanks to the influence of my friends Aaron Lewis and Max McDonald.
Some of our coaches here have publicly voiced their favorite EPL soccer teams too. Patrick supports Liverpool. Ali roots for Arsenal. Fabrice backs Manchester United. Since I shared my club loyalty, I’m always blatantly reminded when Chelsea drops a loss.
As much as soccer dominates the interest of Rwanda, basketball is growing rapidly.
On November 23, the Rwandan Basketball Federation (FERWABA) signed a three-year, Rwf300 million partnership with Bank of Kigali, the major sponsor of the national league and its upcoming tournaments. Both sides of the partnership are hopeful to inspire youth welfare and to generate a prosperous professional sports organization.
Basketball has made headlines in Rwandan politics as well.
President Paul Kagame has voiced his support of the game domestically and has commended the NBA on its global skill development on many occasions.
This August, Kagame showed up to Amahoro Stadium in Kigali for the 2018 Giants of Africa camp, started by Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Managing Director of the NBA Amadou Gallo Fall were in attendance. The camp’s focus was to target 50 players and 5 locals coaches to receive training from international, NBA-level coaches.
This September, Kagame also spoke at a reception hosted by the NBA in New York ahead of the United Nations General Assembly. “In the NBA, there have been many Africans, but there are many more who can qualify to be there,” Kagame said. “It is not just playing basketball, it exposes them to many opportunities, including education and many others.”
Kagame is compelling youth in Rwanda to ‘Dream Big’ through the game of basketball. That’s a wonderful message from the government for all those participating and thriving under the Shooting Touch umbrella.
Away from our Shooting Touch courts, on my own impulse, I made an effort to introduce another sport to the community last week. American Football.
Somehow the street kids by our house in Kayonza got their hands on a deflated rubber football. A rarity, I noticed it from across the way and jumped into action.
I set up teams of three. My role was all-time quarterback. I did my best to explain the rules with broken Kinyarwanda and English combined. The result turned into everyone running five or six feet past the line of scrimmage and stopping to beg for the ball. Then on the rare occasion someone happened to catch a pass, the remaining “defenders” mauled the receiver like it was rugby and the ball needed to change possession. Objectively, it was sloppy play.
I’m no Vince Lombardi, but I was happy and proud to share another passion of mine from home.
The football disappeared quickly after I closed the gate to go back inside. With the arrival of five or six more kids eager to run around, a soccer ball rolled back into the mix of the screaming youngsters.
The real game, Rwanda’s game, resumed.