Swallows looking to fly higher

Adel Amrouche may currently be domiciled far from home, but he feels his passion is best served in the centre of Africa, seeking to build where little has been done before. The Belgian coach of Algerian origin is making a name for himself in the small central African country of Burundi, previously racked by rebel activity and civil unrest but now reaping the benefits of peace, following an impressive start to the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

Amrouche took The Swallows to Benin, who were among the 16 finalists at the 2010 tournament in Angola, forcing an away draw in September and then putting up a spirited performance at home against group favourites Côte d’Ivoire in October, only to lose by a single goal. Victory against Rwanda in their next qualifier at the end of the month will keep alive Burundi’s hopes of a first-ever appearance at the continental championship. Even though the Ivorians are runaway top choice in Group H, and already have a lead in the standings, there are two slots for the best runners-up and Burundi will have their sights set on going to the tournament, which is being co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

“[Qualification] is our objective, but mine is a young side who are working their way up in world football, and we are talking it game-by-game,” says the 43-year-coach, who has been in Burundi for four-and-a-half years already. “We have a side with an average age around 20. Only our captain Valery Nahayo is older, and we’ve been slowly developing them with exposure to international football.”

A far-flung group of players
As one facet of his current job, Amrouche has been actively seeking to help Burundi players win transfers internationally where better exposure to the rigours of the modern game will turn them into better professionals and so better serve the cause of the national side. “Of course, it is a good thing that they go abroad,” he explains. “But you have to be careful where they go to ensure that the player is exposed to a better level than he is already playing at.

The Côte d’Ivoire coach said after our game in October that we were like the Barcelona of Africa.
Burundi coach Adel Amrouche

“It is also very difficult to go directly, say, to the first division in Norway, where adaptation is hard and the potential for the player’s morale to dip is big. I’ve helped players go to clubs, and then I can help with their adaptation. I keep in regular contact to ensure their circumstances are right. I want to make sure that when they return to the national team they can really deliver for us.”

Burundi’s squad for the qualifier against the Ivorians last October had players from clubs in Azerbaijan, Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Tanzania and Turkey. “When I first came to Burundi, there were no players competing outside of the country,” Amrouche says as evidence that his scheme is well under way.

The overall progress of his side is the fuel that drives Amrouche, who previously had coaching stints in DR Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Turkey and the Ukraine in a career of some versatility. “Before I am a coach, I’m an African. I love my continent. A lot of people ask me why I stay with Burundi, but it is a job that gives me immense satisfaction,” says Amrouche, who was recently linked with a high-profile position leading former continental club champions, Entente Setif, in his home country Algeria.

“I have seen the players and the football scene grow. Obviously I have a plan for my career, but I love the challenge and the work here,” he adds, praising the support received from the President of the Burundi Football Federation, Lydia Nsekera, one of the sport’s growing band of women leaders. “I happy I’m achieving my objective, although I feel I’ve only achieved 20 per cent so far,” he says.

A test close to home
Amrouche’s team will head across the border into Rwanda later this month for a first-ever meeting with their neighbours in a major competition qualifier. There have been only previous meetings in friendly international and the East and Central African Senior Challenge Cup, giving the match-up in Kigali an extra spark.

But Amrouche plays down any serious neighbourhood rivalry, saying: “It’s a good relationship and there is not much difference between the two countries. We have good contacts although admittedly this match does promise a big party for the winner.”

Having to make up points quickly in 2012 qualifying, Burundi will play for the vital three points, even if it is an away match, insists their coach. “We work always to win our games,” he says. “There is nothing about going out for a draw. This is our philosophy and we are proud to try and play good football. The Côte d’Ivoire coach said after our game in October that we were like the Barcelona of Africa, and I was very happy to hear that. If we win, it’s great, if we lose we will continue to stay on our path and follow our principles.”