By Other Means

The New Republic

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MARCH 15, 2004

By Other Means

Midway through the first half, the Congolese striker broke free in
the penalty box. A point-blank header rattled off the goalpost.
Another close call for Rwanda--the scoreless tie continued. At a
thatch-roofed bar in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, fans gasped in
relief. Then, one fan leaned across the beer bottles and bowls of
goat stew that littered our table. "Rwanda can afford to lose to
any side," he said, "except Congo." He was right--this was a
serious showdown, the last of Rwanda's qualifying matches in the
African Cup of Nations tournament. A win against Congo would have
preserved Rwanda's hopes of making the second round, but there was
more at stake than soccer supremacy. Twice in the past decade,
Rwanda has gone to war in Congo. The first invasion toppled Mobutu
Sese Seko, Congo's former dictator. The second sparked a Congolese
civil conflict that claimed three million lives. Sportswriters are
fond of calling international soccer "war by other means"; usually,
they're wrong. But, in Africa, martial metaphors often hold true.I met my friend Stephen, a young Rwandan, at the bar an hour before
kickoff. We ordered big brown bottles of Primus, a local beer, and
staked out a table. On paper, Rwanda stood no chance: Congo had
twice won the African Cup, and Rwanda was the smallest country to
make the tournament in decades. But, in soccer, as in war, Rwandans
play over their heads. They had recently knocked off several larger
countries in the Cup, and they had twice humiliated Congo on the
battlefield. Now, Rwandans wanted to show Congo who was boss on the
soccer field.

Stephen and I first met a year earlier, when I came to Kigali to see
one of Rwanda's steps through the qualifying round, a match with
neighboring Uganda. Stephen had not always been a Rwanda supporter.
He grew up in Uganda--he is a Tutsi, and his family fled to Uganda
decades ago to escape Hutu oppression. Still, the current Rwandan
president, Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi; exiles who returned are the new
upper crust of Kigali society, and Stephen has become a fan of
Rwanda again. I, on the other hand, backed Uganda, where I've lived
for two years. Uganda's team, like the country itself, is vibrant,
disorganized, and impoverished. Politicians steal from the national
soccer team left and right. Traveling to play in Kigali, the
Ugandans somehow managed to miss their flight and had to detour
through war-torn Burundi. (This would never happen in Rwanda, a
regimented state run by an authoritarian former military
commander.)

The Rwanda-Uganda match had the feeling of a proxy battle. At the
time the two teams faced off on the field, real warfare seemed to
be looming: After they jointly invaded Congo in 1998, Rwandan and
Ugandan troops turned on each other and fought a series of battles
in the eastern Congolese city of Kisangani over control of the
diamond trade. Now, both nations were again rattling sabers,
accusing the other of arming mischief-making rebels. The match was
played at the national stadium. President Kagame attended, sitting
amid a sea of spectators clad in yellow and turquoise, Rwanda's
colors. Thousands of Ugandan fans were on hand, too. For most of
the time, the match itself was a boring affair. Then, 15 minutes
from the end, things turned ugly. A shoving match broke out in
front of the goal. Agitated Ugandan players pointed at a small
black pouch the Rwandan goalie had tied to his net. Witchcraft! No
wonder Uganda hadn't scored. Order was restored, and the match
ended in a 0-0 draw.

On the return leg of the qualifying round, in Kampala, Uganda's
capital, things got nastier. Ugandan players tried to forcibly
dispossess the Rwandan goalie of his magic charms, sparking two
bench-clearing brawls. The match was stopped for 30 minutes while
medics tended to the wounded on the field. Just after the restart,
a Rwandan player, his bloodied head wrapped in a bandage, scored
the decisive goal. After its 1-0 victory, the Rwandan team flew back
to Kigali, where 10,000 people welcomed them at the airport. From
there, they marched, military-style, through the streets to the
national stadium, where Kagame presided over a raucous victory
celebration. Some in the crowd chanted, "Kisangani Phase Two."

Rwanda's magical play in the tournament continued with a shocking
victory over powerhouse Ghana. But Rwanda still needed to beat
Congo and to have Guinea lose in its match against Tunisia to
advance to the Cup finals. Of course, the Congolese badly wanted a
win, too. In the days before the match, I visited Bukavu, an
eastern Congolese town near Kisangani. There, the talk among soccer
fans was of revenge against the Rwandan invaders; despite a recent
peace agreement, tensions still ran high. Rwanda says perpetrators
of its 1994 genocide are still hiding near Bukavu, while many
Congolese charge Rwanda with plundering eastern Congo during the
fighting, carting off gold and diamonds. And, many Congolese
groused that the Rwandans had looted another natural resource, too:
soccer talent. In the run-up to the African Cup, Rwanda offered
quickie naturalizations to Congo-born players, and several accepted.
One, striker Abed Said, hailed from Bukavu.

The Congolese team was under stress. At halftime, a delegation of
Congolese politicians forced their way into the team's locker room
to inform them that they simply couldn't lose to Rwanda. But the
pep talk didn't work. Rwanda came out after halftime and dominated
the scoreless match. In the seventythird minute, Said put the ball
past the goalie, and the bar in Kigali broke into pandemonium.
Women ululated. There were victory chants and bottles raised in
praise of Said, the Congolese ringer. Twenty minutes later, Rwanda
had won, 1-0. But victory was bittersweet. The television flashed
the score in the Tunisia- Guinea match, which ended in a draw:
Rwanda wouldn't advance to the second round. "It is such a
disappointment," Stephen said, dejected. The Rwandans had again
conquered the Congo, but their charmed campaign was over.

By Andrew Rice

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