Burundi football scores amid dearth of matches

Burundi’s Primus Ligue is much more than an antidote for supporters who suffer from football withdrawal following the suspension of most leagues during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“To be honest, I didn’t even know where Burundi was,” said Ian Freeman, 34, a fanatic of English Championship side Luton Town. Freeman is one of many European supporters who are now paying attention to Burundi’s Primus Ligue. 

The small, East African nation only reported its first positive case of Covid-19 on 2 April. As a result, the league, the Burundian Cup and even beach football competitions continued as normal last weekend and the weeks before while most leagues were suspended. Round 27 of the league will go ahead as planned this weekend, and on Sunday 5 April the clubs and the Football Federation of Burundi (FFB) will meet to discuss the way forward.  

For Freeman, and the majority of new fans, following the Primus Ligue is a result of football withdrawal symptoms. On 21 March, he placed a wager on Rukinzo, which were favourites to triumph over last-placed Les Lierres. Rukinzo won 2-0 and Freeman pocketed a £15 return (about R330). 

Football fan Mick Read, from London, was slightly more familiar with the Primus Ligue. He remembers watching Burundi’s most successful club, Vital’O FC, in the 1999 CAF Champions League.

“I miss it [football] terribly. I am usually at a live game twice a week during the season. With no British football, I do have a bet on the leagues still playing. Nothing big, just a bit of interest whilst there’s no domestic football,” Read said. 

In addition to the influx of new gamblers, betting companies are also desperate to capitalise on Africa’s last-standing football league. Local betting houses in Burundi, which never used to include the Primus Ligue in their betting menus, have mimicked international corporations to add it to their slim football selection at the moment. Speaking to BBC Sport, the GAL Sport Betting website claimed that it had lost more than 99% of its business due to the coronavirus pandemic. In East Africa, the gambling industry is a multimillion dollar cash cow and an important financial crutch in the region.

A dynamic coaching scene

For those even remotely familiar with Africa’s domestic football scene, Burundi’s Primus Ligue figures low in any ranking of world leagues and their strengths. Although the league has 16 sides, a semblance of a promotion and relegation pyramid, a women’s league and cup competitions, according to sports journalist Landry Rukundo it can barely justify calling itself professional.

“The infrastructure is not really adapted for modern football,” Rukundo tells New Frame. “Salaries are almost non-existent for certain players or clubs. Some clubs only give bonuses for winning matches, so I would say our league is not really very professional. 

“That said, it is a league that produces a lot of talent. At the end of every season, there are 10 to 15 players who leave Burundi to play in the Maghreb, Turkey, the United States or, of course, the East African community.”

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In recent years, the likes of Fiston Abdul Razak and Cedric Amissi have become marquee signings abroad. A golden generation of sorts, bolstered by recruits from the diaspora (Saido Berahino and Gael Bigirimana), helped propel Burundi to their first Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) appearance last year in Egypt. However, Burundian football’s best export is not its players, but its coaches.

Rukundo confirms that, over the past decade, the FFB made a conscious effort to invest in training local coaches.

“There are coaches in Rwanda, Uganda or Tanzania who are doing very well. They completed their coaching badges here in Burundi. Now they have CAF A badges; there aren’t many coaches in the East African community with that qualification. Clubs in Rwanda and Tanzania also pay more than in Burundi, so coaches naturally go to where the grass is greener,” he said.

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Much of the merit of producing great coaches is due to instructor Dominique Nyonzima, a senior manager in the technical and development department of CAF (Confederation of African Football). Nyonzima was the man who spurred more than 20 coaches to obtain CAF A licences. These days, more than 10 Burundian coaches train clubs, national teams and academies abroad.

Etienne Ndayiragije is perhaps Nyonzima’s best case study. The Bujumbara native has been appointed manager of the Tanzanian men’s national team after eliminating his birth nation en route to helping the Taifa Stars to the second round of 2022 World Cup qualifiers. He has been described as “forward-thinking” and “progressive”, and he does all he can to help his fellow peers when he finds the time. Speaking to New Frame, Ndayiragije recounted how coaches from Burundi get together to share tactical expertise and man-management tips.

“Whenever there is a break in the football calendar, even if it’s three or four days, we take the opportunity to meet and share what we think, or something new we discovered. For example, I used to work in Comoros and when I would come back to Burundi, I would say, ‘Hey guys, there’s something I discovered. I think we should share it,’” said Ndayiragije, not realising the rarity of that kind of solidarity in modern football.

“It can be tactics or physical training, psychological tips, or even how to deal with journalists. Last time, one of the coaches explained mental strength very well.”

In addition to Ndayiragije, there are Francis Haringingo and Masudi Juma, who both won titles with Police and Rayon Sports in Rwanda. Cedric Kaze is in Canada, coaching at an academy affiliated with FC Barcelona. Amars Niyongabo holds the reins at OC Bukavu-Dawa in the Demoratic Republic of Congo, while Daniella Niyibimenya runs Burundi’s Under-17, Under-20 and senior women’s national teams. Even Olivier Niyungeko, the coach who helped Burundi to qualify for its first ever Afcon in 2019, is a part of Burundi’s trailblazing group.  

Political obstacles spell financial hardship

Unfortunately, a lack of finance can often curtail talent, despite ingenuity and shared resources. During the 2019 Afcon, the FFB relied on collectives of local businesses to raise tens of thousands of dollars. The National Assembly also donated $15 000 (about R270 000). The sums did not add to much as it later emerged that Burundi had the worst-paid coach on their books. It was revealed that Niyungeko was earning a paltry €450 (about R9 000) a month plus bonuses. Another story emerged of British journalists being asked to help import boots for the entire squad days into the tournament.

“The biggest problem facing football in Burundi is a lack of financial muscle,” said Ndayiragije. “We don’t have the muscle to fight against good teams with good players. Bringing up a good generation of players requires a lot of money. Last time I spoke to a governor he told me, ‘We are waiting for the new elections.’ If all goes well, he will see what he can do in terms of investing in sport.”

The last presidential election in Burundi revived traumatic memories. Incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term sparked nationwide protests as many Burundians regarded it as a breach of the constitution. At least 70 people were killed in the subsequent violence.

Nkurunziza’s party, the Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy), has sent him off with a generous severance package this time and nominated his ally, General Evariste Ndayishimiye, to run in his place. Ndayishimiye and Nkurunziza were both rebel leaders who signed a peace treaty with former president Pierre Buyoya in 2003. Even if May’s elections are peacefully conducted, the financial forecast for Burundian football will likely remain grim.

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