FC at UTC and breakfast with the Lion King
November 29, 2010

On Saturday, with December still a few days hence, I unexpectedly had my first encounter with Christmas at the sparkling UTC (United Trade Centre) shopping mall, home to the 24 hr Nakumatt super store, part of a Kenyan chain, which essentially serves Kigali’s expat community.   

The Nakumatt logo is an African elephant and to underline the point a large but undistinguished model stands guard outside the entrance to the store. It has now been joined   by two robotic Santas issuing jovial yuletide greetings as they rock backwards and forwards to the rhythm of a Bing Crosby sound alike version of Jingle Bells!

The Christmas welcome is completed by a somewhat tawdry looking artificial Christmas tree ordained with a few under inflated balloons and limp crepe paper decorations. In summary, nice try but no cigar!

Anyhow, having attended to a shopping list of luxury items such as Rwandan gouda, peanut butter and tinned sardines I returned to the Isimbi and settled down to watch the live Premiership action with a chilled Tusker beer (another elephant logo!) and a packet of Bellini Croustilles.

It turned out to be something of a goal-fest with Arsenal hanging on for a 4-2 away win at Villa Park, after looking like they were going to throw a comfortable lead away again, and a Man U demolition of Big Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn by 7-1, in which Dimitar Berbatov equalled the Premiership record of five goals in a game!     

Elsewhere in the sporting world Glawster dogged it out against Saracens to maintain their lofty fourth place position in the Rugby Premiership whilst Martin Johnsons’ resurgent national team received a reality check from the Springboks at Twickenham, but  down at the Gabba England’s cricketers were embarking on what would turn out to be an improbable recovery*.     

On Sunday morning I was woken by the familiar call to prayer at the nearby Kigali mosque  closely followed by choral harmony from its Christian neighbours. CNN was headlining ‘war games’ in Korea, a cargo plane crash in Karachi and winter wonderland scenes from across Europe. It seems back home everyone is bracing themselves for the earliest significant snowfall since November ’93!

Enough of that, it was pleasantly warm and the sun was shining as I set off for my final breakfast in Kigali, a tomato and avocado croissant with a large Americano, in the Simba café ,  Nakumatt’s only serious rival, which interestingly seems to be favoured as much by the black middle class as well as expats.

Simba, as the name suggests carries a lion’s head logo and the store is guarded at pavement level by two concrete felines whose design features, although scaled down, owe a lot to Landseer’s lions in Trafalgar Square. ‘Paw prints’ with the slogan ‘make your mark’ are set into the steps that lead into Simba’s dimly lit den.    

Some time later as I stood at the International bus depot, taking in the sights and sounds of Rwanda’s bustling capital for one last time, watched over by the circling kites and a low flying pelican, I marvelled at the speed with which the Kigali Tower centrepiece has been erected over the last three months and reflected that this young, clean, safe and upwardly mobile city has made great strides in the last fourteen years and is well on the way to fulfilling Paul Kagame’s vision of a hi-tech hub for the continent of Africa.

*The first glad tidings  I heard from the World Service this morning was ‘mission accomplished’; an astonishing Ashes comeback with Alistair Cook and Jonathon Trott breaking batting records left right and centre!    

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The English Patient
June 30, 2010

English football requires radical surgery if the national side is to recover and ever thrive again. It has been said before (after every major football championship since ’96) and it is being shouted from the rooftops, by the media once again, after Sunday’s dismal and embarrassing exit from the 2010 World Cup. But will those in power listen?     

The obvious and likely response, to the debacle of the last few weeks, is likely to see Fabio Capello heading out of the door but to be replaced by who? The current consensus seems to be that we’ve tried two overpaid foreign managers who didn’t deliver so let’s go back to an English manager; someone with in-built national pride who can communicate more easily with the players and sing the national anthem with gusto!  Remember Steve McClaren? He was supposed to fit the bill, but might have done better auditioning in the West End for ‘Singing in the Rain’!

I don’t think changing the coach/manager is the answer. They should stick with Capello, who has a better track record, at club level, than any of the other likely candidates being touted around. If he can’t revive the English patient then I suspect nobody can.

Do we really believe cheeky chappy ‘Arry Redknapp or big Sam Allardyce are going to turn the national side around? Just look at their career records!  Roy Hodgson, who has international experience as a coach , might be a better choice but he has opted for the lesser of two evils by joining another ailing English patient, Liverpool!

In my book, the best British club manager by a mile (and I haven’t forgotten the Scottish knight here) is Martin O’Neil. However Martin is Irish, intelligent, outspoken, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and would only take the job on his terms, so nothing going for him then!      

I think we should stick with Fabio for the next couple of years and involve him in a full top to bottom enquiry into the state of the ‘English game’  involving both the FA and the Premier League. The key questions are  simple and blindingly obvious. Do we want a successful national team or the mediocrity we have just endured?  If the answer is yes, how do we balance the needs of the national team, with the needs of the clubs and the money-making machine which is the Premier League?

The fans should also have an important say. Is the average football fan prepared to put the quest for a successful national side (once every two/four years) before that of the club side they follow, week in week out?

Needless to say the questions are much simpler than the solutions, but perhaps we need look no further than the example set by the Germans, who I’m sure would have beaten us (perhaps not so easily) even if Lampard’s ‘goal’ had been given.

The domestic Bundesliga is not as interesting or entertaining as the English Premier League, German club sides with the exception of Bayern Munch  have a modest record in the Champions League and yet whenever a major international tournament comes around the national side is always well conditioned, technically adept, tactically astute and monotonously successful (as we know to our cost) being three times winners of the World Cup and the European Championship.

Mind you, I do fancy Argentina to beat them in the quarter finals!

I suspect nothing radical will happen and in four years time the English patient may well be on the way to the morgue, whilst the Premiership coffers grow fatter and fatter!

The ‘golden generation’ has come and gone without ever looking like it would deliver, in Germany 2006 or Spain 2010. If we are serious about future international success the ‘new generation’ (worryingly thin on the ground) has to be given the right opportunities and conditions within which it can develop and flourish.

At the very least the following should now be seriously considered:

  • Reduce the number of Premier League teams to 18
  • An agreed minimum quota of English qualified players in every first team squad
  • An agreed minimum quota of English qualified players in every starting line up
  • The Carling Cup to go, or be officially downgraded to a competition which develops young home-grown talent   
  • A mid-season winter break in January

Now let’s leave the footballers in their misery for a while and turn our attention to the summer sports where we continue to enjoy a degree of success.

The England cricket team have now tied up the 50 over series against the Aussies and now well and truly own the bragging rights, having beaten them in all three forms of the international game during the last twelve months. Let’s hope their good form continues throughout the forthcoming Test series against Pakistan as they prepare for this winter’s Ashes tour.    

All eyes now turn to Wimbledon where tennis fans have enjoyed the recent glorious weather, oblivious of the trials and tribulations in South Africa, and Andy Murray has seemingly glided through to the quarter finals without dropping a set. HM popped in for her first visit since 1977, when Virginia Wade won the ladies’ singles – the last British champion! Could history repeat itself 33 years later, but this time in the men’s singles?