Pacifique Niyongabire: The former A-League Men winger thriving in Canada
In December 2022, after struggling to lock down consistent minutes in the A-League Men, Pacifique Niyongabire moved abroad for the first time in his young career. Now, he starts regularly for Canadian Premier League side Valour FC. Niyongabire recently spoke to Front Page Football about his move to Canada, why his stints at Adelaide United and Perth Glory didn't work out, and his international career representing Burundi.
Pacifique Niyongabire celebrates his first goal for Valour FC in May. (Northern Tribune)
This year, former A-League Men prospect Niyongabire rediscovered the form that made him a highly coveted talent when he emerged during the league's COVID-interrupted 2019/20 season.
Niyongabire was seemingly poised to be the next young talent to break into Carl Veart's starting eleven consistently three years ago, particularly after scoring his first A-League goal in just his second game. But his stint in Adelaide didn't quite go to plan, with the winger moving on to Perth Glory. After not being a part of Ruben Zadkovich's plans out west last season, Niyongabire looked abroad and signed for Valour in search of the game time he needed to rejuvenate his career.
So far in 2023, Niyongabire has started 11 of Valour's 13 league games, contributing one goal and two assists. Most importantly, he's enjoying his football.
“I’m really enjoying my time at Valour FC; we have a great squad, and we play good football, and I hope that we can be a team that not only competes for the top spot, but that can also win silverware,” Niyongabire told FPF.
Despite being a left-field move, the Canadian Premier League route suited Niyongabire. In fact, at the time of his signing, three other former A-League Men prospects were also plying their trade in the league. Former Western Sydney Wanderer Tass Mourdoukoutas and ex-Brisbane Roar midfielder Jesse Daley are playing for York United and Cavalry FC, respectively. Luis Lawrie-Lattanzio had been Mourdoukoutas' teammate at York when Niyongabire signed for Valour before he returned to Australia with NPL SA side Campbelltown City.
Niyongabire has been in Canada for just over six months now, and he believes players can use the league to break out and put themselves on notice.
“It’s a league that is slowly growing, and it is a great platform for players who have standout seasons to get recognised in bigger teams,” he said.
The winger has had standout moments in his career. But at a professional level, he is yet to put together a full season of consistent minutes and meaningful contributions. This season is evolving into the breakout year Niyongabire has been looking for, with the Burundi international having impacted his new side from day one.
On his Valour debut, Niyongabire assisted their second goal against Mourdoukoutas' York, helping to seal a 2-0 victory to start the season. In May, he had a fruitful three-game stretch, picking up another assist against Forge FC, scoring his first goal against Pacific FC, and then being awarded the Gatorade Performance of the Match in Valour's 0-0 draw with Vancouver FC.
The last month has been more of a struggle for Niyongabire and Valour, who have lost three of their previous five games. Despite slipping to sixth and just outside the playoff spots, the club are still aiming high for the 2023 season, which is reaching its halfway point. Valour manager Phillip Dos Santos, who previously worked in the MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps, also wants his side to be ambitious in approaching their football.
“He (Dos Santos) believes in his players, and he wants us to express ourselves and show what we are capable of doing, which gives us the freedom to enjoy our football,” Niyongabire said.
“We are hoping that we can make [the] playoffs this season after falling short in previous years and hopefully go all the way.”
Along with the pressure of playing for an ambitious club aiming to significantly better their performances in recent seasons, where Valour narrowly missed out on the playoffs in 2021 and 2022, Niyongabire is also facing the new challenge of playing abroad for the first time in his club career. He admitted that an adaptation period was required upon moving to Canada.
“I think the first couple months were slightly difficult because I was so far from home, family, and friends for the first time, so it took a bit (of time) to get used to the environment,” Niyongabire said.
However, he has now settled well at Valour. He is seemingly a fan favourite, with pundits and critics praising the off-season acquisition for his performances.
It is a far cry from the position Niyongabire was in ahead of the 2022/23 A-League Men season, with Perth Glory happy to let go of the winger, instead investing minutes into new signings such as Ryan and David Williams and Adam Taggart, whilst promoting promising youth talents such as Adam Zimarino.
In 2021/22, Niyongabire had been a bright spark in a tumultuous season for the Glory. He made 17 appearances, and although being wasteful at times in the final third, he still registered three assists and showed some promise in a side that won only four games.
Before moving to the Glory, Niyongabire was an exciting youngster at Adelaide United, emerging from the club's youth system and making 23 appearances for the senior side. Ironically, his breakout moment in a Reds shirt came against future club Perth, scoring their fifth goal in a 5-3 win over the Glory, which was Carl Veart's second win as the then-caretaker manager. The stunning goal was well-known for Niyongabire's somersault celebration, a trait he shares with former A-League winger and brother Elvis Kamsoba.
Veart was then appointed the club's manager ahead of the 2020/21 season, and Niyongabire became a consistent option off the bench. But he did not progress any further at the club, with Veart preferring Ryan Kitto and Ben Halloran on either side of his attacking set-up, whilst the talented Mohamed Toure became more prominent as a backup option.
Despite having moments in Adelaide and Perth that proved he could have received more opportunities, Niyongabire believes he needed to do more when given a chance to show his quality.
“Opportunities don’t always come, but when an opportunity presents itself, especially as a forward player, you have to grab it with both hands, and I don’t think I completely did, though I played well in many games I lacked stats in the final third, regardless [of] the minutes played,” he said.
Niyongabire has been building his international career away from club football, having declared to play for Burundi, the country he was born in, in November last year. He made his international debut in a 4-0 friendly defeat to Ivory Coast after being a late inclusion in the squad. Niyongabire scored his first Burundi goal against Guinea U23 in the next match.
He has become a regular feature in the Burundi set-up. He was called up again for a two-game series against Indonesia in March, where Niyongabire scored again in a 3-1 defeat in their first meeting. Most recently, the former Young Red came off the bench in Burundi's 3-2 win over Namibia in June in a 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. The win has set up a huge final qualifier for Burundi against giants Cameroon in September, where a win would see the small African nation qualify for the continent's biggest football tournament, held from January to February next year.
Niyongabire opened up about representing his country and what he hopes to achieve internationally.
“There is definitely a different level, playing international football, but it’s only the beginning. I hope I can continue to improve and become a valuable player for my country,” he said.
“I really hope to compete at the next African Cup of Nations and come up against some of Africa’s best players. But to also qualify for the World Cup one day would definitely be a dream come true, and I don’t doubt that we can, but we just have to keep improving and trusting the process.”
With an international call-up and arranging a transfer abroad, the end of 2022 and the start of this year were busy for Niyongabire. But before flying to Canada to settle in at Valour, the 23-year-old, who spent most of his junior years in South Australia and is a product of the state's football system, decided to try out some coaching, helping out with the Barça Academy camp that was held in Adelaide in January.
Over one week, Niyongabire coached the Barcelona methodology to a group of young players aspiring to replicate the professional career he has forged for himself at Ellis Park, the home of NPL SA club, the Adelaide Comets.
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Niyongabire says coaching isn't a long-term ambition. But it was nice to be involved and pass on the information he has grasped throughout his journey.
“I wouldn’t say coaching is something I plan to do in the future, but I really enjoy helping the younger generation coming up with the little information that I have acquired by being around professional clubs because I feel like [a] younger me would've loved to receive that kind of information to help adapt to the game quicker,” he said.
From coaching, moving abroad, and playing internationally, it's certainly been a whirlwind past 12 months for Pacifique Niyongabire. But now he's receiving regular opportunities overseas and is playing his part in Burundi's quest to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. He might not have believed it if you told him that this time last year.
Niyongabire is just another example of how quickly things can change in a footballer's career, particularly for young players who can't find their place in the often restricted nature of Australia's football system.
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