Some of Rwanda’s players, their all-white uniforms soaked in sweat, fell to the grass, others looked to the heavens helplessly. Some, like elegant midfield creator Andrew Buteera, tromped around the Estadio Hidalgo pitch, consoling sobbing teammates with a gentle embrace and whispers of encouragement.
“This is football and it can be cruel,” said the talented playmaker, substituted in the second half of the Africans’ second game in Pachuca. After opening their account with a nervy loss to England, the Wasps were seconds from picking up their first-ever point in global competition, when disaster struck. A long hopeful ball from Uruguay’s goalkeeper Jonathan Cubero was flicked home by Leonardo Pais five minutes into stoppage time to send the South Americans through.
“It was unfortunate for us,” added the clever and gifted Buteera, who plays his club football with Proline in Uganda, in a soft voice hardly heard over the idling busses. “It’s our first time in a World Cup and to lose two games in a row is just really hard for us,” he said, speaking slowly as his devastated mates filed past him, some arm-in-arm, some in bandages and with ice-packs strapped to wounds.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fans in Pachuca, in the Central Mexican state of Hidalgo, have grown to love the intrepid Rwandans. Their football has a carefree flair that inspires neutrals, and the story of their arrival here at the U-17 World Cup is nothing short of inspiring. “We feel appreciated here in Pachuca,” added Buteera, who stood in as peacemaker when one of his mates confronted an overly exuberant celebrating Uruguayan player at the final whistle. “The fans were pushing for us to get the result.
“We are the underdogs and people appreciate the work we put in, the trying,” added Buteera, headphones around his neck, remembering the chants of ‘Rwanda’ that rained down from the supporters at the Hidalgo, and the standing ovation at the end. “Mostly people only talk about the genocide when they think about Rwanda,” he almost whispered, large eyes aiming suddenly toward the ground.
Horrors of '94
A quick look at the team sheet offers a glimpse of these brave youngsters’ place in Rwanda’s recent troubled history. No fewer than 16 of French coach Richard Tardy’s 23 players were born in that fateful and horrifying year of 1994, when the East African nation was plunged into a fratricidal spasm of killing in which nearly one million died in the space of three frenzied months of violence. “It sounds like a miracle to some people,” Buteera went on, raising his head, “us just being here. They talk about genocide; it’s all they know of Rwanda. But we are here representing Africa as Rwandans. This means so much.”
Rwanda have never qualified for a FIFA finals and only ever reached one CAF Africa Cup of Nations, in 1994, but their presence here in Mexico has made them stars back home, where they are carrying the banner for a nation rebuilding itself, extracting a future from its painful past.
As hosts of the African qualifiers for Mexico 2011, fans came out in great numbers, and so did President Paul Kagame, filling the Amhoro stadium in the capital of Kigali as their young heroes finished runners-up. “Everyone was behind us back then in the qualifying phase, and they are behind us now here,” continued Buteera, who has established himself as one of the true talents in a team that represents the future of Rwandan football.
“We all lost friends, family, important people in the genocide,” he went on. “For me to pull on the shirt of Rwanda now is a symbol that we are moving forward. We are the future of Rwandan football, taking it forward.” Buteera added, pulling away with a polite smile and a handshake, before seeming to remember, almost as an afterthought.
“And we are still alive, of course,” he says, eyes brightening, clearly thinking of football again and their final game in Pachuca against Canada. “We lost our first two games and we can’t look back, but we have one more and we could still go to the next round. It is possible,” he smiles. “Anything is possible.”