With less than a month to the Fifa World Cup extravaganza in Russia on June 14, African clubs are in a competition of their own, in search of continental glory.
It is a wet Sunday evening; the rain is still pouring heavily on the artificial turf of the Kigali Regional Stadium in Nyamirambo. But despite this depressing weather, diehard football fans are singing and cheering on their teams.
Rayon Sports is on home turf against Kenyan champions Gor Mahia FC.
The home team is awarded a free kick. Defender Ange Mutsinzi carefully places the ball on the ground on the now waterlogged pitch, takes a few steps back to take the free kick. He hesitates.
Teammate Eric Rutanga, on his right, quietly looks beyond the defence wall made of rival players and identifies where Mutsinzi will probably direct his free kick.
Gor Mahia players think Mutsinzi will take the free kick. The whistle goes and with the speed of lightning, Rutanga strikes the ball with such precision, Gor Mahia goalkeeper Boniface Oluoch can only watch as the ball hits the upper right corner of the net in the 22nd minute. Rayon has equalised. It is game on at one all.
Pandemonium breaks out in the stadium as Rayon fans in their traditional blue club colours go wild in celebration. Gor Mahia fans in their green club jerseys, all along noisy, are silenced by the equaliser.
In Kigali, Kenya’s Gor Mahia had met its match in Rayon Sports.
The remaining minutes of the first half and the entire second half, all characterised by a persistent drizzle, see the two sides share the spoils in their first game of Group D of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Confederation Cup.
But for Rayon Sports, one of the most revered clubs in Rwanda founded in 1968 — with a cult-like following akin to that of Gor Mahia in Kenya, Kampala Capital City Authority football club in Uganda, Young Africans and Simba football clubs in Tanzania — this was no ordinary game. This was the first time that a Rwandan club had reached the group stages of the continental cup.
To get to this group stage, Rayon had gone through a nail-biting two-leg encounter with Mozambique’s Costa Dol Sol which saw Rayon Sport progress on goal difference despite losing 2-0 in Maputo.
This put the club, locally known as Gikundiro (the adored one) on the course of making history. It found itself in the same group as Gor Mahia, Algeria’s USM Algiers and Tanzania’s Yanga.
Since playing in this competition comes with monetary benefits, it could be a solution to the Rwandan club’s years of financial woes.
And the club had to spend money to get to this stage that will earn it money. For overcoming the Mozambican team, the club scraped its shallow pockets for a $3,200 bonus for each of the 18 players who travelled in Maputo and $1,500 for those who didn’t travel to the southern African country.
The club also promised the players more bonuses if they advanced to the next stage of the competition.
“This is an opportunity for us to make history and be the first Rwandan club to advance to the next stages of the CAF Confederations Cup,” Bernard Itangishaka, the secretary general of Rayon Sport FC told The EastAfrican.
“This is a big milestone for us and the country,” he added, saying that despite the draw with Gor Mahia in Kigali, which was blamed on bad weather, Rayon Sports hopes to win its next fixtures, with the next game scheduled for May 16 in Dar es Salaam against Young Africans.
Rayon Sports’ qualification to the group stages of the CAF Confederation Cup at the expense of bitter rivals APR FC, a by-product of the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front which failed to progress past the first round of qualification, is seen as a major milestone for a club which has been dogged by financial woes for decades.
Unlike Rayon Sports, which relies on contributions from fans and sponsors, APR FC is funded by the ministry of defence. Despite its short history, APR FC is the most successful club in Rwanda.
The bitter rivalry between the two sides saw Rayon Sports fans celebrate the failure of APR FC to progress against Malian side Djoliba FC despite a 2-1 win in Kigali on March 17. They had lost 1-0 in Mali.
At the time, Rayon Sport, the reigning Rwandan league champions, had also been eliminated from the more prestigious CAF Champions League by South African side Mamelodi Sundowns, which saw them drop to the CAF Confederation Cup, a second tier continental tournament.
Despite losing 2-0 to Costa Do Sol in Maputo on April 18, Rayon Sports held on to progress, having won the first leg in Kigali 3-0.
The qualification to the group stages triggered massive celebrations in Kigali, with Rayon Sport fans mocking their APR FC rivals. The team arrived to a hero’s welcome on April 20 as thousands of fans turned up to welcome the history-making team.
Players paraded atop an open truck decked in the traditional blue club colours. As the convoy snaked through the city from the Kigali International Airport to Kigali Regional Stadium, Rayon fans jeered at their APR rivals. One would have been forgiven for thinking that Rayon Sport had won the continental title.
Amidu Gasore, a diehard Rayon Sport fan believes that despite having millions of local fans, the club has not been accorded the right support by the state and the national football federation, compared with APR FC, which he said is “pampered.”
He also believes that Rayon Sport deserves the support of the entire country since it is representing the nation. The bitter rivalry between the two clubs is such that when APR FC is playing a foreign club, Rayon Sports fans will show up to support the visitors and vice versa.
During the APR FC v Djoliba game, some Rayon Sports fans showed up at Amahoro National Stadium with Malian flags to support the West African side, prompting the State Minister of Foreign Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe to say that it is “unpatriotic” for local football fans to support a foreign club all in the name of sports rivalry.
The past 23 years have seen Rayon and APR win the national league, with APR lifting the title 15 times despite being the youngest team found in 1993, while Rayon Sport has won it eight times. The two teams often clash for the other various domestic cups.
Progress amid challenges
Over the years, Rayon Sports has suffered financial setbacks, sometimes going for months without paying players. In 2012, the team relocated to its founding home district of Nyanza in southern province, after decades of operating in Kigali.
However, the club moved back to the city after its finances stabilised in 2015 following a sponsorship deal with the brewer Skol in 2014.
The progress to CAF group stages is expected to come with a financial windfall, with the club already assured of $260,000, while qualifying for the quarter finals would ensure another $340,000. Finishing third in their group comes with an additional $260,000.
Qualifying for the semi-finals comes with $437,644 while finishing runners up comes with a guaranteed $600,000. Winning the CAF Confederation Cup comes with a grand prize of $1.25m.
While winning the cup could be a far-fetched dream, Rayon Sports hopes to push the limits and cash in on the windfall while at the same time capitalising on the gate collections.
The coach Ivan Minnaert has vowed to give the continental trophy his best shot.
Both Rayon and Gor are still in contention after they drew in their previous match.