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Burundi Hopes of World Cup Unity Dashed

November 22, 1996

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) _ Baudouin Ribakare had a brave dream.

The Burundi national soccer coach was going to take his united team of Tutsis and Hutus to the World Cup finals and perhaps ease, just a little, the deadly ethnic hatred that grips his nation.

Under his leadership, Burundi’s battling soccer stars notched up a string of victories that led fans to believe the World Cup place was in their grasp.

Then the dream was shattered.

On Oct. 31, the international soccer federation disqualified Burundi from the World Cup qualifying competition. FIFA said Burundi’s soccer authorities failed to guarantee participation in all matches.

In Burundi, fans see more sinister explanations.

There are dark rumors of official corruption, even a plot by ethnic extremists to scuttle the success of Ribakare’s mixed team.

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

Against the odds, Ribakare had molded a team from this tiny, war-ravaged nation that could take on the best in Africa.

After beating Sierra Leone 2-0 in pre-qualifying, Burundi was looking forward to a qualifying group that also included Ghana, Gabon and Morocco.

Burundi were definitely the underdogs. But for a team that licks civil war, grinding poverty and international sanctions every time it assembles for a match, the task seemed simple _ win the group and book a ticket to France in 1998 for the finals.

``We had nothing to fear from those teams. We would have given it our best shot,″ said defender Kazadi Mwilambwe, taking a break from training on a windswept pitch beside Lake Tanganyika.

The problems started when FIFA insisted Burundi play its home matches out of the country because of the skirmishes between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army.

Just to get to their first scheduled match against Morocco, players would have been forced to drive north to neighboring Rwanda along an ambush-prone highway because of international sanctions on air traffic. From Rwanda, they could fly to Morocco.

But extra travel costs involved in playing all the games away forced the soccer federation to ask for more money from the government.

While the government was debating whether to supply the money, two senior officials of the Burundi Soccer Federation sent a fax informing FIFA that Burundi was pulling out.

While FIFA announced the disqualification in Geneva, the government in Burundi approved the funding. It was too late to save the team.

The soccer federation officials concerned were fired, but the mystery over why they sent the crucial fax remains. They produced documents showing the finance ministry had ruled out providing the extra money.

But fans have their own theories: someone taking a bribe from one of the other teams in the group or a plot by high-ranking Tutsi extremists to sink a mixed team coached by Ribakare, who is Hutu.

Whatever the reason, the exclusion is a bitter blow for Ribakare, who has spent seven years using his experience as a player and youth coach in Germany to build up the Burundi team.

``I had them playing German football, with a big dash of African style,″ says the coach.

``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 he’s not so sure.

Ribakare works for free to coach the national team and one of Burundi’s top clubs, Moiniema Fantastic FC. Now he’s getting lucrative offers from abroad.

``I’ve got lots of African countries looking for me,″ he says sadly. ``I don’t know if I’ll stay.″

Meanwhile, hopes that soccer unity could have helped overcome divisions between Tutsis and Hutus will not be realized.

``Our football did something positive for the image of the country,″ said Mwilambwe, the defender. ``Now they’ve screwed it up, the whole country loses.″

End advance for Nov. 23-24

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