When Rwanda take to the pitch in Mexico at the FIFA U-17 World Cup later this year, they will be one of the great unknowns at the event. The Junior Wasps will undoubtedly be hoping for big things, but their coach, Richard Tardy, knows that managing expectations will be vital to their cause.
Earlier this year, the Frenchman used his considerable experience to guide the side to the final of the African U-17 Championships, where they became the first-ever Rwandan team to qualify for a global competition. The excitement generated by that run has barely abated in the small central African country.
"I noticed how when we were competing in the African competition earlier this year, people sat up and took notice. And when we qualified for the semi-finals, the whole country supported us. Everybody was talking about the team. Even the president of the country came to the semi-final and the final,” Tardy said in an exclusive interview. “And now going to Mexico and playing there will be a very big event, not only in terms of football, but for the whole country [in general]."
Hard at work
When the 60-year-old arrives in Mexico for the junior world finals, which will be held in seven cities between 18 June and 10 July, he and his team will have completed a preparation most other coaches would envy. He says the team will have played friendly matches against first division clubs in Rwanda as well as U-19 professional sides in France and the France U-17 team. They will then go to the USA for a three-week camp before arriving early in Mexico to learn the lay of the land.
But while some coaches will have much less time to train with their teams, the Marseille-born boss points out that he needs the time to prepare. Tardy has already been working with mainly locally-based players, who will be joined by a few French-based youngsters for training in Europe. "For me, three months preparation is the minimum. I would prefer to even have had a longer time, but that was not possible,” he explained.
“For some people three months might seem a long time, but virtually all of my players lack regular playing time," the coach went on. "The Under-17 league that was recently started in Rwanda is not yet functioning fully, and I only have a small number of players playing outside the country."
Surprisingly, traditional African powerhouses Ghana and Nigeria, who have reached the FIFA U-17 World Cup six times each, will not be among the four African representatives. The Junior Wasps are joined by African champions Burkina Faso, Congo and Côte d'Ivoire.
The Frenchman is reluctant to predict how well the team will do in Mexico. However, he is confident that his team will perform well. "We don't have too much pressure, but this will also increase as time goes on," he says.
A well-travelled coach
Tardy spent 17 years working for the French Football Federation. He was then compatriot Henri Michel's assistant with the Moroccan national side and also the national team of the United Arab Emirates. He has also coached club teams in Morocco, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Côte d'Ivoire and Greece.
The coach does not see his work with Rwandan football to be completed at the end of the \World Cup in Mexico. He has just signed a new two-year deal with the country's football federation that will see him stay in the land-locked nation until March 2013. "I think the success of the Under-17 side is just the beginning. I would like the team to advance to the Under-20 level before becoming the Rwanda Olympic team and hopefully their success can continue."
Tardy credits much of the side's advancement to the football academies in Rwanda. "Through the FIFA Goal Project, a very successful academy has been built and many of the players in the squad come from that academy,” he said. “We also have an artificial pitch that was built through the Goal Project and that means we can play at any time. We are now reaping the rewards of those projects, and I think it is a sign that football in Rwanda is developing."