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Sports

Hosts Rwanda play for more than football at CHAN 2016

media The Rwanda national football team, in November 2015. AFP PHOTO / SALAH LAHBIBI

Rwanda kicked off the Orange African Nations Championship (CHAN) with a 1-0 win over Ivory Coast in a tournament that will shape Kigali's perceptions abroad. Organising successful games will enhance the host city's image in the eyes of the world and take it from a conflict-ridden nation to one that could welcome the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN).

The all-African contest involving 16 teams kicked off on Saturday night in Kigali, to around 35,000 supporters who thronged the capital's Stade Amahoro.

Click here for our coverage of Africa Cup of Nations 2015

For Rwanda's biggest sporting event ever, visa fees were waived for those travelling abroad, to allow the maximum number of fans to attend.

The teeming crowds, together with a goal by defender Emery Bayisenge on the 16th minute, gave the Amavubi the three points they needed to secure victory over Côte d'Ivoire.

The hosts had a chance to go 2-0 up on the hour mark but Elephants' goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare managed to keep it out.

The Ivorians were predicted to win an easy victory, having thrashed Rwanda four times in the past; but the reigning Africa Cup of Nations champions did that with a squad that had only one home-based player.

It's a very different scenario at the CHAN, where the focus is all about honing domestic talent. Africa's other football tournament deliberately snubs international players like the Ivorian Yaya Touré, to promote players who have fallen through the cracks.

Many see the CHAN as a vital stepping stone to the Cup of Nations and a way of bridging the gap between domestic and international football.

Dossier: Rwanda remembers genocide 20 years later

Getting off on the right foot here, could potentially enable Rwanda to lobby the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to let it organise the CAN 10 or 12 years down the line.

East African football, for a long time disregarded, could see new appetite that would boost the credentials not only of local players but of the host countries themselves.

Rwanda for one.

Kigali, is still trying to shrug off its past: a genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people and damaged international perceptions. It knows that pulling off successful games will set a benchmark for progress that some critics still contest. For the hosts, victory is not just on pitch, but off-pitch where it matters the most.

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