When Rwanda head coach Johnny McKinstry is giving his pre-match talk ahead of his side’s crucial 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Mauritius next week, he will likely retell the story of a country over 7,000 kilometres away.

McKinstry, who hails from Northern Ireland, is drawing inspiration from his native homeland defying the odds by booking a place at UEFA EURO 2016, as his Rwanda team look to cause a surprise of their own by securing qualification to their second-ever AFCON next year.

“The players are probably tired of me doing this but I draw parallels between Rwanda and Northern Ireland all the time,” McKinstry told FIFA.com. “Both sides don’t have any superstars, it’s about everyone getting in the muck and working hard.

“Both are also middleweight footballing nations who have a bit of history but in recent years, have really been nowhere near it. People tell me how Rwanda beat the likes of Morocco and Ghana in Kigali – there were these big single results that sat amongst years of underperforming, and that was the same in Northern Ireland.

“There were these extreme moments of high in the 1990s and 2000s in Northern Ireland that were surrounded by mediocre performances. They beat the likes of England and Spain but when it came to teams that they should have been beating, they weren’t able to rise to it because it wasn’t a big occasion – and I think that’s been very similar with Rwanda in the past decade too.

“Northern Ireland in 2016 have managed to break the mould and punch their way into the heavyweight category with the EURO and I think Rwanda can do the exact same by qualifying for Gabon next year.”

Gunning for Gabon
With two games played and four remaining in AFCON qualification, third seeds Rwanda sit second in a group featuring Ghana, Mozambique and Mauritius, where they go into their double-header with the latter possessing significant momentum.

The Amavubi reached the final of the CECAFA Cup in December, losing to neighbours Uganda, while they produced a valiant showing at the 2016 African Nations Championship in January, bowing out to eventual winners DR Congo at the quarter-final stage.

Rwanda’s recent showings has left McKinstry feeling optimistic about claiming one of the two best runners-up spots in AFCON qualification, which would be enough to take his men to Gabon.

“I’m coming up to one year in charge but that game against DR Congo was my 21st game with Rwanda,” said McKinstry. “In 11 months, that’s significantly above average. Most international teams would only play four or five games in a calendar year, so it has really given me excellent contact time with the players.

“Going into Mauritius, it’s a game that we have to win because we have ambitions to go to AFCON next year, but we know it won’t be easy.

“We’ve set ourselves a target of getting 12 points in the group. The aim now is to be on nine points after the games against Mauritius and if we can do that with two games remaining, knowing that we’re in touching distance of that 12 points, we’re very confident that will be enough to reach AFCON next year.”

Spirit of 2004
As Rwanda aim to reach their first Africa Cup of Nations since Tunisia 2004, a national icon who was part of that revered squad has since returned to the international set-up in a coaching capacity.

McKinstry appointed recently-retired talisman and Rwandan icon Jimmy Mulisa as the national team’s assistant coach, and the Northern Irishman believes the presence of a national treasure can inspire the next generation of Amavubi footballers as they too look to etch themselves in local folklore by qualifying for the 2017 AFCON.

“The awe that those players who took the country to the 2004 AFCON are held in, the esteem they’re held in, is huge – and Jimmy Mulisa is a genuine Rwandan legend.” McKinstry asserted. “He’s so passionate about these young guys making the most out of their careers and he doesn’t want them to miss the opportunity of playing at the tournament he played in.

“He can see a 19-year-old version of himself in the players and he wants to give them that knowledge and say: this is what it was like for me, but you can go on to do better than me. You can be the next person that everyone in the country looks up to.

“All of these boys would have been 10, 12, 14-years-old in 2004, watching that Cup of Nations on TV. They would have been at the stadium when they qualified, when Jimmy was scoring goals. It’s very important to have someone like Jimmy around that these young players can aspire to.”

*With thanks to Darren McKinstry for use of the photographs [©Darren McKinstry/ www.XtraTimeSports.net]