AN EVENING WITH TWO FOOTBALL LEGENDS

Basile Boli & Christian Karembue  visit Rwanda

By Minega Isibo 

Christian Karembeu was probably stunned at the tremendous roar from the crowd that greeted his arrival on the pitch. He was followed by the less-recognizable Basile Boli (Champions League winner with Marseille in 1993), wearing the Mukura colors and suggesting within his first few seconds on the pitch that he took this game a lot more seriously than just about anyone else in the stadium. Meanwhile, up in the stands, Marcel Desaily, another world cup winner, and possibly the world’s best defender in his prime, watched approvingly. 

The visit of the three French legends was the brainchild of Lotto Rwanda, who were re-launching their brand and hoping to overcome the controversy of their last attempt to bring a lottery to Rwanda. Bringing the stars to town was a clever example of brand association, but there were still dissatisfied mutters in some circles that Lotto had promised bigger names for the event (led by The New Times whose Sunday Times sports headline JUST EX-FRENCH STARS indicated an astonishing insensitivity to the visiting stars).  

Trying to secure an interview proved to be a very tricky affair, but eventually we persevered. We managed to speak to Basile and Christian while Dessaily managed to elude us. Below are the excepts 

Basile Boli

After cooling our heels at Serena Hotel for close to an hour, we finally managed to get five minutes with Basile Boli. He initially suggested that he was not particularly enamored of the media, but once he started talking, the suspicion wore off and he visibly relaxed in front of us. 

“I enjoyed the game” He said of the Mukura-Atraco game, in which he had made an appearance.  “The level of skills was impressive and they were both good teams. It was quite an emotional affair.” 

Boli expressed his admiration of Rwanda “I’m very happy to be here and I think the people here are very open and welcoming” He noted “They are open to new ideas but there is also a strong sense of culture. People here have come from many different countries and they have created something wonderful here.  It’s very inspirational” 

Boli revealed that, at the end of his career, he had decided to travel around Africa and increase his knowledge of the continent.  One key reason had been to help inspire the youth.  “It is very important to make young people dream of big things, so I hope our visit will help in that regard”,   he said.  “We came here to bring the news to Rwanda about how you can achieve your dreams the way we did.” He acknowledged that some people had been disappointed by the unavailability of the likes of Eto’o and Zidane but offered a reasonable counterpoint. “Bringing them here would have been very expensive for this country”, he argued.  “There is no reason why you should spend so much money getting them here when that money could be used more productively.” 

Boli also offered solid advice on how local teams could improve and become formidable in Africa.  “You must invest in young players”, he asserted.  “It is critical that you build football academies to train and identify young players. This has been the main reason why France has achieved such great football success.” He rounded off the interview by offering an optimistic outlook on future relations between France and Rwanda.  “I know about the history between our two countries”, he acknowledged.  “But every French person I know who has been here has a very good impression of the country. I think things are definitely going to get better” 

Christian Karembeu

Christian Karembeu comes across as a soft-spoken man who speaks with such quiet intensity that the only time he smiles during the interview is when he is saying goodbye. However, considering what he has achieved in his career and his new status as a FIFA goodwill ambassador, a lot of introspection is quite understandable. 

“When I was offered the chance to come to Rwanda I agreed without hesitation”, Karembeu revealed. “I think Rwanda is an example to other countries.  It is developing by itself and you can see that there is a new and exciting way of life here.  What you have achieved is inspiring and I’ve seen so much hope and kindness in the short time I’ve been here”. 

He also echoed Boli’s observations about inspiring the young to dream.  “I think it is essential that Africans see their own icons”, he noted.  “And sport is very important because it can help the youth to be themselves and to become more responsible.”  He expressed admiration for the level of play in the country but warned that there needed to be a strong emphasis on facilitating the structures to develop football. 

Asked to share his emotions on winning the world cup with France in 1998, Karembeu’s eyes take on a distant look and you can tell he is experiencing a moment of nostalgia.  “It’s a strange emotion”, he said.  “You cannot properly explain it to someone else.  You can only experience it for yourself. I had a flashback of my entire life and the trajectory it had taken to lead me to that moment”.  He pauses and appears genuinely lost for words.  “It was unforgettable”, he concludes. 

As he gets up to say goodbye, Karembeu reveals that he would like to return to the country in the future and he pledged to promote Rwanda once he returns to his native country.  “I want other people to come here”, he says. You get the distinct feeling that he is not just being diplomatic. Then, with a firm handshake, he leaves as quietly as he had arrived.

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