Football: Burundi boys embittered by World Cup exit

FOOTBALL AROUND THE WORLD
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The Independent Online
In strife-stricken central Africa, football, as is the case in many other parts of the world, provides an often welcome distraction from the perils of every-day life. In Burundi, there were hopes that football could do even more, and show that a divided nation could come together - but those hopes have been dashed.

Thanks to the efforts of their courageous coach, Baudouin Ribakare, Burundi had entered the World Cup qualifying tournament with a team containing both Tutsis and Hutus, providing a glimmer of light amid the darkness of ethnic hatred that has engulfed the country. Last month, though, Fifa, the world governing body, expelled Burundi from the World Cup.

"The players are shattered," Ribakare said. "In sport we have no ethnic differences, everybody plays together. It was the only thing we had."

After beating Sierra Leone 2-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round, Burundi were looking forward to a qualifying group that also included Ghana, Gabon and Morocco. "We had nothing to fear from those teams. We would have given it our best shot," the defender Kazadi Mwilambwe said. It was not to be, though.

Fifa wanted Burundi to play their home matches at neutral venues because of the widespread armed conflict within the country. Unable to meet the extra costs involved, the football federation asked their government for more money. Before it received an answer, though, two senior officials of the federation sent a fax to Fifa saying that Burundi were withdrawing from the World Cup.

The government eventually approved the extra funding - but it was too late. The two officials who had sent the unauthorised fax to Fifa were sacked, but the motives for their actions remain unclear. Some fans claim they were bribed by one of the other countries in Burundi's group, others allege a plot by high-ranking Tutsi extremists to sink a mixed team coached by Ribakare, a Hutu.

Ribakare, who spent seven years playing and coaching in Germany, is bitter. "I had them playing German football, with a big dash of African style," he said. "They asked me to stay in Germany, but I couldn't. Germany doesn't need me, they have many coaches. But my country needed me."

Now Ribakare may move abroad again, while his players mourn their lost opportunities. "Our football did something positive for the image of country," Mwilambwe said. "Now they've screwed it up, the whole country loses."

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