One thing that endeared me to African Football growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s was the full house at most African venues when the national teams or club sides played.
In the last 10 editions of the Afcon, we have seen Caf and most of the host countries struggle to fill the arenas, especially when the host country was not playing.
We can give the excuse about the lure of European football, and especially the English Premier League, on TV, but Rwandan fans were not bothered with what was happening with Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea. They brought down the house at the opening game of Chan 2016.
They followed the drama on their phones and other devices, but nothing was going to deny them their place in history as their country hosted the African Nations Championship, and it didn’t matter that this was not the Afcon.
Rwandans came out in full force to cheer their team and they were rewarded. The “Amavubi”, or “Wasps”, put up a scintillating display and Emery Bayisenge secured the win with his first-half free kick, to the sound of chants pulsating through the stands.
Rwanda went about their preparations for the tournament in a very professional manner, getting the venues and facilities ready under the radar. For me the masterstroke was waiving visa requirements for Africans from the participating countries, and waiving the fees, which meant all the fans had to do was arrive for the tournament and go straight out again afterwards.
Rwanda have also quietly mobilized their fans with good media and awareness, and everyone was expectant, the fans couldn’t wait and, my word, they have been turning out in their numbers. The games have looked pretty on TV, with singing and dancing fans, showcasing the beauty of African football.
Some people might say the fans are buzzing because their team has started well. Well! Yes and No!
The fans turned up not knowing whether they could beat Ivory Coast. After all, the “Elephants” are one of the powerhouses, being African champions after winning Afcon 2015 in Equatorial Guinea.
We have seen other fans turn up for their host country’s opening game and disappear during the second game, but the Rwandan fans stayed for the Gabon v Morocco game and have been at every game, and now they have been rewarded with a second win which takes Rwanda to the quarter-finals, the first time in their history.
The tournament so far
We have now seen all the teams in action and one thing is clear, the standard of play and the passion and commitment of the players make this a very competitive championship.
I have enjoyed this tournament like we were back in the 80s, and the reason is simply that coaches have had more time to prepare and we are blessed with the discovery of new stars, like in the good old days.
Back in the ‘80s, I would look forward to the tournament and wonder who the new stars would be, but these days we already know who the African stars are because we watch them in Europe. Also, they hardly give their best, often warned by their European clubs not to get injured, but this has been refreshingly different.
There are a number of shooting stars at this tournament. Let’s begin with Isaac Chansa, the Zambian veteran who, along with Chris Katongo, has returned to the Zambian League after a successful career abroad. Chansa and Katongo sparkled for the “Chipolopolo” and it was a superb volley from Chansa that settled their one-goal win over Zimbabwe.
Rwanda’s Bayisenge and striker cum captain Jacques Tuyisenge shone. Guy Lusadisu, Heritier Luvumbu and Elia Meshackall scored for the Leopard of the Congo Democratic Republic as they trounced Ethiopia 3-0.
Tunisia’s Akaichi and Mali’s A Camara both scored twice in their exciting 2-2 draw, as did Uganda’s Miya and Rwanda’s Ernest Sugira scored a brace as they became the first team to qualify for the quarter-finals, the first time in their history, and great reward for their endeavour.
Bayisenge did everything right on the day He defended masterfully, scored a stunning free kick, missed a penalty and earned a yellow card, He is definitely one to watch as is Cameroon’s Yazid Atouba Emane who also scored from a free kick to earn a 1-0 win over Ethiopia.
However, the outstanding Nigerian Striker, Chisom Chikatara, best epitomises the dreams of Chan and why African football can be romantic. He came on as a substitute with Nigeria leading Niger one-nil midway into the second half. What a show he put on, scoring three goals as the Super Eagles romped to a 4-1 win, and he came close on three other occasions.
What was especially great about his performance was the quality of finishing - cool, calculated and sublime – which was worthy of any European striker. A star is born.