Kigali, 31 October 2010

When he talks about football, you feel the zeal of a man who loves his sport. You can see it in his eyes and gesticulation. It is all too apparent.

Paul Kagame is far from your average fan, and it’s not because he is President of Rwanda or an international dignitary swamped by commitments at home and abroad. No, President Kagame is tremendously passionate, knowledgeable and notably an active sportsman.

“I always find time,” he says, “not only to cheer sports, I do sports myself. I play tennis and follow very closely football.”

Kagame traces his love for football to his childhood. “We used to make footballs from banana fibres and we would play around our homesteads, even at school, in break time or the time when we were free to do so,” the 52-year-old recalls. “Sometimes we would play it (football) all the way, from home to school. In my primary school education, I used to study 18km from home and we would go running and playing football along the way, or back when we were returning.”

Despite not engaging in competitive football in Ntare where he pursued his secondary school education, Kagame talks of how he remained immersed in the beautiful game, as Brazilian great Pele termed football.  

“We would support our team and be associated with it so I had to love football anyway. At a personal level, I started watching and reading about it all over the world. I used to follow Cranes, the Kiggundus, Obua, Kirumira, Kirunda and so on.”

Pele is one name Kagame says with relish, never mind that the three-time World Cup genius shone in an era where television was not as powerful as today. “I used to like and read a lot about Pele. He was popular with everybody in the world, he still is. He certainly established his name in football that we used to enjoy reading about and listening to the wonders he was associated with.” But Pele is not Kagame’s only football hero. “Strangely I used to enjoy a goalkeeper in the UK, Gordon Banks. I also used to like Bobby Charlton.”

Rwanda President Kagame (right) shakes hands with the Daily Monitor Sports Editor

Kagame’s love for the World Cup is such that he will travel to South Africa next year for the tournament, which he is eagerly anticipating, four years after honouring an invitation from the Germany Football Federation to the 2006 finals. “I will watch. Actually I will attend one or two games. At the last World Cup, I was invited by the DFB. I went and attended the finals and 3rd place playoff. I saw that in Stuttgart and Berlin. This one, invited or not invited, I will go to watch it.”

Rwanda’s leader knows the detail of what it means to host the World Cup and is delighted that Africa is hosting the tournament. “ I believe it’s not just the feeling that South Africa is hosting it; it’s Africa hosting and I’m sure that is how South Africans feel as well – that they are representing us. Therefore how well it is organised and how well it is conducted will be a pride for all of us – even if it is down in South Africa.”

Kagame sees no reason why an African country can not make history and lift the World Cup trophy for the first time. “I tend to rate very highly Ivory Coast and Ghana. I don’t see why they can’t (one of Africa’s 5 representatives winning the World Cup.) again, I wish I could sit with some of these teams and really talk to them and challenge them to believing in that and working towards it. There is need for that. Just look at the composition of the Ivory Coast team, they have almost the best players in all fields. Once they are there (in South Africa), I don’t see why (they can’t make it).”

Mention the words ‘World Cup’ and football’s greats will promptly spring to his mind. “People become global icons like the Maradonas, the Peles, the Rummenigges, the Platinis…..You find names have been created that have become global brands.”  The wave of the World Cup is something Kagame fully loves. “I think it becomes a real global phenomenon. You see everybody paying attention to it. You see a convergence of all nations coming together and really brought close by this small thing on the pitch. People keep running around, after it (a football) and it’s very interesting. You see a lot of pride, joy and hype about getting together through this. “

For a man who spent the better part of his life in the bush, first alongside President Yoweri Museveni in the 80s and then as head of Rwanda Patriotic Front in the early 90s, it must have been daunting for him to follow, let along enjoy sports. Kagame, an SC Villa fan back then, tells of how they never lost touch with football during the struggle, something which ultimately led to the creation of one of Rwanda’s giant clubs today army side APR.

“Whenever there were breaks…like there would be a ceasefire…or some kind of other breaks,” Kagame explains. “I fact I initiated some of our junior commanders’ units. In fact that’s how APR was born. This APR you see started in the bush. It’s now one of the biggest clubs. There used to be people like Brig. Gen. Kazura and current coach of Kiyovu Sport Jean Marie. People used to play football. We created teams from units and they used to compete.” Kagame admits to supporting no team in Rwanda’s domestic game by virtue of being President but feels associated with APR because of his role in their creation.

It is a measure of Rwanda’s advancement under Kagame that the country qualified for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations, which included famous victories over Uganda and Ghana, ten years after the genocide. “I felt very proud with the achievement and the sense of national unity it brought for the country,” he reflects.

Football family
Like many a fervent fan,  Kagame keenly follows the Premiership. His family is divided between Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. “I have four children, three boys and one girl. They all support football, they like football but not only that. In fact the two who like football most are the youngest. Brian is the youngest, Ian is the second last. Brian supports Rayon Sport, Ian supports APR.”

“In European football, Brain is a crazy fan of Arsenal – like me. Ian is a mad fan of Man United. The eldest son Ivan is a very good supporter of Chelsea. My daughter Ange supports Arsenal. Then my wife, for the sake of being in company of the children, supports Man United. Ivan stands out because he started with supporting Arsenal but changed to Chelsea so he is on his own.”

Kagame’s vision is that nothing exhibits national unity and belonging better than football. That is why he convinced his cabinet to back his decision to sponsor the regional Cecafa Clubs Championship. “When you put everything in perspective, $60,000 can’t hurt a country. We will always play our part in this (supporting football) because it gives good results, even politically,” says Kagame.
His love for sport continuously shows no sign of waning. And you can’t help but admire him.