Malawi’s flame lit at CAN: New Frame

Malawi shed their underdog label and defied Covid-19 complications, a coaching reshuffle and squad discontent to reach the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon ). It is the first time in the country’s history that his side have made it this far, and it is only his third appearance at the continental showpiece.

The Flames, as Malawi are affectionately known, qualified as a top-four third after picking up four points by beating Zimbabwe and drawing with tournament favorites Senegal. They will face Morocco in the Round of 16 at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium on January 25 in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Reaching the knockout stages is a remarkable feat for the Flames considering they are a lowly team with no big name players. The team was mainly drawn from the Malawi national league as well as the two top tiers of football in South Africa.

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The preparation for Malawi’s appearance at the AFCON was characterized by a coaching bet reminiscent of what happened before the 1984 tournament held in Ivory Coast. But this time around, the decision proved to be a masterstroke that inspired Malawi.

Prior to the Flames’ first Afcon appearance in 1984, the Football Association of Malawi (FAM) sacked local manager Henry Moyo shortly after securing qualification and signed Scotsman Danny McLennan. He picked his own team and dropped star striker Lawrence Waya, which saw Malawi lose to Ghana and Algeria before drawing with Nigeria to crash out in the group stage.

It happened again in December 2021 when FAM demoted local coach Meck Mwase after helping the Flames book their ticket to Cameroon. He was replaced by Romanian technical director Mario Marinică as interim coach.

Mwase, a former Jomo Cosmos defender, may have guided Malawi to the Afcon final, but the team’s performance in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers sealed his fate. Marinică was brought in as technical director to offer more support to Mwase, but the latter was demoted 25 days after the Romanian’s appointment. The FAM revealed they made the decision because it “became very clear that the team had technical and tactical shortcomings”.

New coach, new approach

Marinică took over and wasted no time in diagnosing the faults of the Flames and Malawian football in general. In his report, Marinică observed that “the system of recruiting players is done … randomly and in a very sentimental way. Physically, most players are short of key positions such as central defense and goalkeeper.

Marinică then embarked on his own scouting mission, which allowed little-known players such as Civil Sporting Club defender Lawrence Chaziya, Silver Strikers midfielder Zebron Kalima and goalkeeper Charles Thom to to be called.

The Romanian also brushed aside the Flames’ short-passing game and told his proteges to adopt more direct and fast-paced football. Additionally, he dismantled the starting 11 that clinched the Afcon spot.

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“We know it’s a challenge, but that’s what we’re here for. We looked at the squad that made it to the World Cup qualifiers, analyzed their performance and noted that something needed to be changed in order for us to have players we can rely on in the Afcon final,” said Marinica said.

When the Flames began their 10-day pre-Afcon training in Saudi Arabia, reports of a player uprising emerged amid claims that some were unhappy with the training methods and the game. attitude of their trainer. Marinică, much like McLennan did when he knocked out Waya in 1984, ended up dropping his favorite players. Gone are Flames playmaker Gerald Phiri, second-choice goalkeeper Bright Munthali, Stain Davies and Phillip Ndlovu from Afcon’s latest 23-man squad. They were relegated to the reserve list.

The Flames plunged into more trouble as Covid-19 hit the squad hard, affecting Marinică and six players, including first-choice striker Gabadinho Mhango and right-back Stanley Sanudi, on the eve of the Champions League game. opening against Guinea.

The turnaround

Marinică’s absence presented Mwase with a chance to take charge of the games against Guinea and Zimbabwe which provided the turnaround as Mhango came back to score a brace in the 2-1 win over Zimbabwe.

The inexperienced players brought a positive work ethic and healthy competition to the team. It became clear there were no longer any invincibles in the team, which showed remarkable defensive discipline to hold off Senegal in a game in which the Flames saw penalty calls ignored after the video assistant referee reviewed a foul on left-back Gomezgani Chirwa in the box.

Back home, Malawian support for the Flames, ranked 129th in the world, grew with every game. Fans took to the streets on January 14 after the 2-1 win over Zimbabwe chanting “Siine koma Gabadinho, telling those who wanted to listen that they can’t be blamed for the nightly celebrations because it was Mhango and his two goals that caused it.

Soon individuals and companies began pledging the team. Property companies Hills and Associates and Sulsdec Green Villages rewarded Thom with land in Lilongwe, and ICT company Sparc Systems gave him $1,200 (around R18,000) for winning the man of the match award at the of the game against Senegal.

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Sparcs Systems managing director Wisely Phiri told media that the company was proud to be associated with the exploits of the 22-year-old goalkeeper, who replaced the injured Ernest Kakhobwe in the game against Senegal.

“Football is more than just a sport. It plays a role in international development by putting the country on the map and bringing positive change to our young people. We wish the best for our team. They must know that the whole country is behind them,” said Phiri. Humbly, Thom said in reaction that “the greatest recognition should go to the whole team for the efforts made to achieve these results.”

Earlier, Hills and Associates also rewarded striker Mhango with land in Lilongwe worth $5,625 for scoring those two goals against Zimbabwe. Additionally, in recognition of their impressive performance, the company has offered the rest of the players a 40% discount on any pitch they wish to purchase.

A poultry and animal feed company, Kelfoods, also offered every player on the team a one-year supply of eggs if they beat Senegal. President Lazarus Chakwera has pledged to reward each player with $1,200 if the Flames beat Senegal. The FAM promised a similar amount to each player if the team made it to the last 16. Usually, Flames players earn half that amount for a win.

Renewed passion

The Afcon helped ignite a spark in Mhango, who struggled at his club Orlando Pirates but shone in the Afcon for the Flames. “It’s history in the making,” he said.

“There are more things coming from Malawi. The next thing for us will be [qualifying for] world Cup. Personally, the year 2021 has not been good in terms of performance. A lot happened and I needed to pull up my socks. As a team, I know people put us [as] outsiders, but we’ll show them what we can do.

“My ambition is to see Malawian players, including myself, playing abroad. At the end of the tournament, I can expect four or five players to play in Europe. , we have to show a fighting spirit whether we win or lose because the whole world is watching. We have to prove that we have talent in Malawi.

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Ahead of the meeting with Morocco in the round of 16 on Tuesday, January 25, the stakes are so high for the Flames and the players, according to vice-captain John Banda, that they are ready to die with their boots on.

“The Morocco game is the biggest game of our lives and we’re looking forward to it. We respect Morocco, but don’t fear them. We faced them twice in the AFCON three years ago and I I played both games. With a good game plan, they are a beatable team,” Banda said.

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