Exclusive Interview | Etienne Ndayiragije: “Any player you’ve seen in Europe with a lot of talent exists in Tanzania. I have seen them.”

“I’m like a constructor,” grins Etienne Ndayiragije, head coach of Tanzania’s Kinondoni Municipal Council FC. “If you give me a budget for a skyscraper I will build you that. If you give me a budget for a shed I will build you that.”

We are sitting in a quaint coffee shop in Dar es Salaam, just north of the city. The Burundian, sporting a black Adidas shirt with matching shorts, casually visible with the anonymity that is granted to a coach that is not managing a top side in Tanzania.

You may not have heard of him, but don’t be surprised if you hear about him in the near future. In a continent where the rinse and recycling of past-their-sell-by-date foreign coaches is the order of the day, Ndayiragije can make a case for being one of the most promising, most inquisitive sub-Saharan coaches in Africa right now.

There has been an influx of tough-talking, tactically literate Burundian coaches in Tanzania but it’s the driven and principled 40-year-old who has made the biggest impression, insofar that he is considered pound-for-pound undoubtedly the manager of the season in Tanzania.

Born in the Burundi capital of Bujumbura, in three seasons in the country, two with Mbao FC and currently with the Dar es Salaam based KMC FC, he’s added to his squeaky-clean CV that makes bigger, greater things a matter of time.

We started from the very beginning of his career, going back to his raison d’etre as a coach, to the moment that piqued his curiosity and led to him to choosing this path.

90 minutes with Aboutrika

“I was playing in Rwanda with Rayon Sports, we qualified for the African Champions League and were drawn against Al Ahly,” he explains. “We went to a team camp and we prepared ourselves for two months. We did physical training. We wore bags of sand amongst our shoulders. We said ‘we had to win.’ We went to Egypt and lost 8-0,” Etienne shakes his head in disbelief.

After just 15 minutes on the clock they were 3-0 down. Ndayiragije’s chest was tight. He was looking at the clock. He thought he and his teammates would die. “We were extremely tired. I said to myself ‘we did all that training and for what?’” I asked myself ‘what training did these guys do?’”

As the holding midfielder, he had the easy task of man-marking the smiling assassin Mohamed Aboutrika that day. “His first touch was incredible and when I got to him he was already away,” Ndayiragije concedes. “He gave 3 assists. I asked myself ‘what should I do?’ When I looked at his body he wasn’t that impressive but he kept getting away from me. Once I started studying to be a coach I knew about first touch and playing between the lines.”

That proved to be the game that would be the making of him, that would spark a rethink, initially about the gruelling training regime they had gone through only for the end result to be humiliation.

“Back then we believed in running. If I slept early and did a lot of running then my work was done.” That belief was well and truly picked apart. After that game, the vow that he gave himself was a simple one: “I will get to a place where I can play at that stage or can coach at that stage.”

And it would also spark up a curiosity that has remained to this day. That path down the avenue of coaching has taken him quite a way, starting in his home country Burundi then Comoros and then a return back home. Part of the learning process has been a formative nine months on assignments in France with Ligue 1 sides Nantes and Bordeaux as part of his UEFA coaching license.

Making a name for himself with Mbao

Why Tanzania? It was the logical next step to follow his league titles in Comoros and Burundi with Vital’O. He knew that, bar a handful of exceptions, teams don’t pay well but he could gain the exposure that could catapult him to bigger jobs.

Through his Tanzanian agent Denis Kadito he was connected to the agent’s hometown side Mbao FC. The Mwanza-based team were looking for a coach up for the task of keeping them Tanzanian Premier League football following their promotion.

The club’s board envisioned a squad chock full of hardwired professionals to carry out that task. So it was no surprise Ndayiragije received some pushback when he proposed a high risk strategy of going with youth, of setting these young players ‘a challenge’ to stay up.

The ambition didn’t stop there. When unveiled he boldly promised that his team would make it to the final of the Tanzania FA Cup, much to the board’s amusement. Come the end of the season he would quietly be having the last laugh. Mbao would reach the final, losing to Simba in extra time in controversial circumstances.

In hindsight, the board looked silly but they may have had grounds for pessimism back then. Mbao were only lifted to the Premier League as, despite finishing outside the promotion places, a place opened for them after the sides that finished above them were embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. To expect the team to go from that stage to challenging for honours with the triopoly of Azam, Simba and Yanga was perhaps wishful thinking.

Moreover, Ndayiragije wanted to start from scratch. He advertised open trials through the local radio and newspapers.

“The first day 100 players came, only 30 were successful. The following day 120 more came, only 40 remained. Every day new faces kept coming.” It certainly kept his eyes busy. “I am capable of having hundreds of players on the pitch and within 2-3 hours I can tell the ability of every player.”  

The players kept coming and Ndayiragije kept iterating until he got his formula. After three weeks, he had his squad of 23 and a thinner U20 squad that proved to be useful later on in the season when some of his squad went on strike due to payment issues.

During those trials the eagle-eyed Ndayiragije discovered the Mamelodi Sundowns-bound Habib Kyombo, who went on to be named the Tanzania Premier League Young Player of the Year, Pius Buswita (Yanga), Salmin Khoza (Azam), Jamal Mwambeleko (who went to Simba, now at Kenyan giants AFC Leopards) and others who have gone on to receive international recognition at various levels.

In the end, Ndayiragije was a victim of his own success. Shortlisted for the Tanzania Coach of the Year award at the end of his first season, the expectations at Mbao soon changed, with the club’s hierarchy setting him the target of competing for the title.

Almost overnight, The Constructor had his role objective changed from building a shed that could sustain extreme weather to building a skyscraper that could collide with the financial muscle of the big clubs. Ndayiragije was at odds with that, believing the expectation was unrealistic and contradictory according to their budget.

Starting from scratch with KMC

So in the summer of 2018 KMC came calling, with a bigger budget, a focus on youth and, in his eyes, realistic expectations, Ndayiragije, who is not one to shake hands with teams that don’t quite meet his expectations, had met his match.

Again, similar to Mbao, he started from scratch. “The only thing I got when I signed with KMC was the name of the team and the colour of the team, no ball, no cones, no players,” he says.

Open trials were held again. He looked for 11 players that will be able to start the league and 11 under 20 with the potential to fight for positions. That young and old combination is apparent in most positions. For example, in goal former Tanzania international Juma Kaseja has the promising Burundian international goalkeeper Jonathan Nahimina for competition.

Just like at Mbao in his first season, his team has grown more intrepid as the season has progressed. He has recreated a similarly plucky, energetic and dynamic side despite the constraints. Narrow losses to giants Yanga and Simba and a semi-final one in the FA cup to Azam have occurred but the young side have walked away with broader shoulders.

Etienne Ndayiragije putting his KMC team through some fitness training

He has done it all with a core of good young players rather than any spectacular ones that any coach couldn’t unearth. It begs the question: if there is talent in Tanzania (which some people dispute based on its appalling track record of exports) why are other coaches not unearthing it at a rate that he’s doing so?

“There is talent in Tanzania,” says Ndayiragije. “Any player you’ve seen in Europe with a lot of talent exists in Tanzania. I have seen them. The only difference is growing them. You see players with natural-born ability, but they don’t progress and lose their way. That is down to coaching.”

Tighter budgets in a country like Tanzania results in everything being watered down, and that includes technical benches. Ndayiragije foresaw the environment he would be operating in as a young coach in East Africa by taking the necessary qualifications, accepting that he would have to be managerial factotum that could equally be “the analyst, the fitness coach, the youth coach and the scout” in this testing environment.

“I taught myself all of those things so I can be more complete as a coach. Because if you want to operate in Africa you need to be able to do all those things. Teams don’t have the budgets to have full technical benches.”

That prescience mindset has bode him well. On most days he does the youth coach part by training KMC’s U20 team in the mornings, and then the head coach part with the senior team in the afternoons in the quiet surroundings of Tanzania’s School of Law in the Ubongo area of Dar es Salaam. Such is his proficiency on fitness matters that during the off-season he has helped a Tanzania national team player playing abroad to fine-tune himself for the upcoming season.

The secret to KMC’s success

His team KMC has been one of the stories of the season in the Tanzania Premier League in their first season at the top level, at the time writing sit in fourth position behind the big three, and its cadre of youngsters linked to moves away. Ndayiragije himself is being linked with a move to Azam.

He pinpoints the team’s camp which players have to be in at all times during the season, unless given time off, as the backbone of their success. The rented accomodation was one of Ndayiragije’s first requests to the club’s leaders when he became coach. It is an incubator to keep players away from outside distractions and form them as footballers.

“I have built a good camp so they all live together. The standard of living here is low, people don’t have food,” he explains. “Players live with their families, they can’t say to their wives ‘I need to eat at X time and I need this type of food’. Dar es Salaam is also hard to move. One player was living far and it took him 5 hours to get home and 6 hours to arrive. He’d eat chips on the way in. And we have training almost every day.

“In camp there’s a special chef. And they are cooked the right food, they eat together, and there’s a bus that takes them from the camp to training and back. It’s all about food and rest. I speak to them and teach them about life. I remind them most of them are from poor families.”

The proof of the camp’s success is not only in the results but also the physique of the young team. The bodies of his youngsters have undergone a big transformation from the beginning of the season to now, wowing the players themselves and the club’s directors. Players have gone from thinking he’s an angry African uncle to expressing their gratitude.

The camp has a major house rule. Phones are taken from players 48 hours before the game to foster optimum focus. Initially an issue of contestation, players gradually got used to it. A player at an in-form club in Tanzania can be in high demand, with phones ringing from agents, friends, family, lover(s) and journalists. Instead of being preoccupied with their phones they avoid the many distractions and bond as a team.

“Now you see them discussing team issues,” Ndayiragije says proudly. “These last 3 or 4 games, some of them came up to me and said they would like to change the line up I have picked. They took responsibility and made changes to the line up.”

Though he considers himself a long-term coach, he is conscious that he is working in a short-term environment. That is the lay of the land in the country where for most teams budgets barely stretch over a season. Short term contracts for players means it’s not easy to plan two or three years ahead.

He’s tried to operate in a long term way through taking his trusted men Yussuf Ndikumana, Emmanuel Mvuyekure and George Sangija among others from Mbao to KMC. The benefits have been twofold. Firstly, the former two he took from Burundi to Mbao and now to KMC, so they know the expectations and are the pacesetters to the others. At the same time, it means a considerable chunk of the squad are players that have been managed and honed by him for over two years.

The conscious and subconscious racism and prejudice in the world of football and society means there is a ceiling for African black coaches, particularly those that haven’t had stellar careers. However, the forces working against him don’t seem to bother the Burundian.

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You’re here interviewing me, that’s created an impact,” says Ndayiragije.

“I’m not jealous of others. What I know is for a football coach to get a job at a top team is something that happens at the right time.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: