There were almost 30,000 people present, and he’d barely played in front of 300 before. Alfred Mugabo could have been forgiven a quickening of the heartbeat as he ran out at the Stade Amahoro in Kigali, Rwanda on June 16, appearing as a 54th minute substitute to a rapturous reception.
It was an emotional moment of homecoming for a player who had been estranged from his mother country since the age of two; it was also, remarkably, a full international debut for a 17-year-old midfielder who had only just completed his first year as an academy scholar at Arsenal.
His tale, made all the better by the fact that the east African country is a hotbed of fervent Gunners support, is a remarkable one - and he sat down with us this month to take us through a life-changing experience.
“It was getting towards the end of last season,” he remembers. “I was recovering from injury at the time, but my mum received a letter from the Rwandan FA. It said that the first-team coaches wanted to have a look at me and see how I’d suit the team.” The gutsy, versatile midfielder had enjoyed a decent first season at under-18 level, also breaking into the under-21 and NextGen Series sides, but could have had little idea of what was to follow - even though he had been capped by his country two seasons previously, at the age of just 15, during the Under-17 World Cup.
“The coaches said there was a World Cup qualifier coming up against Mali,” he continues. “I was still getting over my injury, though, so could not be involved in the preparations. Instead, I was called up for the game against Algeria a week later - so I flew to Kigali seven days beforehand, and it all went from there.”
The game in Mali ended creditably - the ‘Amavubi’ (Wasps) securing a 1-1 draw against one of Africa’s highest-rated sides - but Rwanda were, not surprisingly, out of the World Cup reckoning by the time the Group H-topping Algerians arrived in town. Although it has the highest density of Africa’s mainland countries, Rwanda is still a developing football nation and is yet to seriously challenge for a place at the international top table. The passion for the sport is such, though, that rapid improvement may well be on the cards.
“I flew out there when the team had just returned from Mali,” recalls Alfred. “I had a great reception at the airport, with a lot of media present - I wasn’t used to that at all! After that, I went to the team hotel, which was right outside the national stadium. We all met up and then we went to a remote location, at a higher altitude, and held a training camp there for four or five days. We returned two days before the game, had a light training session in the stadium the day after that, and then it was time to play.”
A whirlwind few days, then - and, if it had all seemed a bit dreamlike at first, it was about to become vividly real. “I’d done alright in training, and was handed the number eight shirt as the game got closer. There was a real hope that I was going to start the game, but my knee swelled up a little bit so the coaches decided I should begin on the bench, hopefully coming on later.
"The fans were shouting as we arrived at the stadium, the atmosphere was mad - it was exactly where you wanted to be"
“The nerves were high when the day came around. People had been talking about me and how I was going to play - I knew that. The pressure was on but I knew I had to rise to the occasion, because not many people get this kind of opportunity. The fans were shouting as we arrived at the stadium, the atmosphere was mad - it was exactly where you wanted to be.”
Rwanda more than held their own against opponents boasting a wealth of international and European experience, but they were unpicked shortly after half time when a quickly-taken throw-in resulted in Saphir Taider bursting clear to break the deadlock.
Almost immediately, Alfred’s big moment arrived. “They scored soon after the restart, and the coach told me to start warming up,” he explains. “I did so, and got ready to come on. I had a great reception from the crowd as I ran on to the pitch, and just tried to do what I could. At first I came on just behind the striker - that’s not a position I’m too used to, but I did alright. Then I was switched to the holding role that I really prefer, and I did well - I got on the ball, put a few tackles in and my passing was decent. We couldn’t get the equaliser, but it was a good game for me.
“It was a different experience, playing against fully-fledged internationals, but in a sense any thoughts like that disappear when you get into a game. It’s just another team, another set of opponents. In a way, I felt right at home in that environment.”
All of which goes to show that, as confidence boosters go, a solid showing against a side that played in the 2010 World Cup is just the ticket for a player who is still looking to earn his first professional contract. “The confidence is definitely higher after the experience I got from that,” he admits. “It was just priceless, something you can’t buy. But it’s also a reminder that you have to be level headed – a lot of people can get carried away after something like this, but you just need to take the experience on board and keep on fighting day in, day out to make sure you have it again. I won’t just settle for what happened this summer, and nor will I get carried away.
"It was just priceless, something you can’t buy. But it’s also a reminder that you have to be level headed"
“I’ll take the positives though. I had some feedback from the coaches, good feedback, and they said there were pleased with my attitude. They invited me to play in an under-20 competition in France this September, and they also asked about my availability for the senior team’s game in Benin that month. If I can stay injury free and play games at Arsenal then hopefully I’ll be involved.”
Rwanda’s recent history is well documented. A brutal civil war in the early 1990s led to a genocide of the minority Tutsi group that is believed to have claimed some 800,000 lives. The country has, understandably, taken years to recover, but Alfred says that, on the evidence of his visit in June, there is plenty to be optimistic about for the future.
“I was born there, but in the time of crisis I moved to London,” he says. “This was the first time I had been back, although I had a little taster when I met the squad at the Under-17 World Cup. The country is a member of the Commonwealth now, which is a really positive thing, and there are a lot of things there that I hadn’t known about before. It’s one of very few countries in Africa to have gorillas, which makes it very unique and means tourists are beginning to visit. It’s a great country with amazing landscapes and beautiful surroundings, and I think people are starting to realise that.”
As the country’s stock rises, its footballing fortunes may well do too. One of the knock-on effects of the diaspora caused by the genocide is that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, or people with Rwandan heritage, now reside abroad, Alfred is an obvious example - and the enlisting of others may considerably widen the talent pool available to manager Eric Nshimiyimana.
“I know there are a lot more Rwandans out there,” says Alfred. “In fact, I’ve heard that Gael Birigimana at Newcastle is eligible for them, and he’s been doing very well. So you never know, the national team may well grow. We have some good players already - there are a few in Belgium and France, our captain plays in Tunisia while our best midfielder is with a Zambian club. Getting a draw in Mali shows that the signs are there for a good future, and I’d love to be part of it.
"Getting a draw in Mali shows that the signs are there for a good future, and I’d love to be part of it"
“The game against Algeria was a great starting point for me, and I couldn’t turn the chance down. I wanted to do it for my country and I think we all appreciated it a lot. It still feels crazy to have been there, and it’s something I want to be doing frequently in the future. I am sure we’ll get stronger, and I really want to stay at that level now that I have tasted it.”
Another great incitement for Alfred is the huge Arsenal fanbase that exists in the region - Rwanda joining near neighbours Uganda and Kenya in boasting a staggering number of fanatical Gooners. He experienced this at first hand, and says it gave him no little pride to see Arsenal fans cheering him on in his national team colours.
“Arsenal are so big there,” he smiles. “I saw a lot of Gunners shirts in the crowd at the game, and you walk on the streets and hear people shouting ‘Arsenal, Arsenal!’ at you. It was a real honour and privilege to represent the Club in a place where so many people love it, and I just hope I can go on to do that consistently.”
He’s aware that, in order to do this, he can’t put the cart before the horse. There is still the matter of that professional contract to attend to – and he can’t wait to get back into the domestic fray as he bids to show the Gunners’ coaches that a full Rwandan international is well worth keeping on for the long haul.
Read the interview with Alfred and more in the latest edition
“My target, and every second year scholar’s this season, is to secure a professional deal - that’s my biggest aim,” he says. “I hope to get the opportunity to play in as many under-21 games as possible and show the coaches and staff that I deserve that contract. I’m really looking to this season - I’ve had a little setback with my knee injury, but I should be back before the season starts and I look forward to pushing on and getting back into it all. This will be an important year.”
It will indeed - and nobody in Alfred’s position could be approaching it with greater momentum after the events of this summer.
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