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May 6, 2014

APR march to Rwandan title glory

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, an event widely acknowledged as the lowest point in the history of the country, and possibly the African continent. It was also around that time the Armee Patriotique Rwandaise (APR) football club was formed by members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), ethnic Tutsi’s who had fled to Uganda to escape the killings in Rwanda and came back to liberate the country. The RPF were a symbol of victory; it’s no surprise APR are too.

They claimed the league title last weekend to become the first club to win the domestic championship 14 times. Best of all, they did not have to spend a minute on the field to do so. Their opponents AS Muhanga did not turn up for the final fixture of the competition to protest four months of unpaid salaries handing APR a walkover. The club’s fans had anticipated Muhanga’s no-show and arrived at the Kigali Regional Stadium in party mood.

Rwanda’s New Times reported “jubilations,” when the 10 million Rwandan francs ($14,750) prize money was handed over. The newspaper also explained the success of this season had heightened importance because it marked the first time APR had won the title with only local players.

Two years ago, the club made the decision to offload all their internationals and focus only on homegrown talent. At first, that shift in composition appeared a mistake. Last season, APR had what the Rwanda Focus called “one of their worst seasons,” and prompted an editorial questioning whether they were on the wane.

APR finished third in the league, something their spokesperson George Gatete called “a major crisis,” and lost in the semifinals of the domestic Peace Cup. Those results, combined with their revolving door of coaches, were big concerns but Gatete maintained they would stick to their indigenisation policy. “Nothing will make us change our philosophy,” he said. “We knew that in the short term, it would be difficult, especially for our fans and that the media pressure would be intense. But we are deeply committed to our new policy and we will stand by it.”

APR’s 2013-14 campaign started emphatically when they opened their account with a 6-2 win over Marines. They lost three of the next ten matches before settling into form that could take them to the title. Their next nine games yielded an unbeaten run but that did not mean smooth sailing. Six matches into that purple patch, their coach Andreas Spier resigned.

At the time, he had been handed a five-match ban from his own club, who remain true to their military origins and are strict in discipline, for unbecoming conduct and harassing the referee during a goalless draw against AS Kigali in early February. The Rwandan Football Federation (FERWAFA) added a game onto that sanction and Spier decided he’d had enough. Vincent Mashimi was appointed interim coach, with APR at the top of the table and three points clear.

Under his guidance, APR lost only one of their remaining nine matches, to arch rivals Rayon Sports, who nipped at their heels throughout the final stages of the league. Momemtum swung from one to the other and Rayon occupied top spot briefly but APR wrapped up the title on the final weekend, to prove to themselves and the critics that accolades can be accumulated using only Rwanda’s best. Now if they can just hang on to Mashimi for a while longer...

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