Malawi shook off their underdog tag and defied Covid-19 complications, a coach reshuffle and discontent in the squad to reach the round of 16 in the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). It is the first time in the country’s history that its team have made it this far, and it comes in only their third participation in the continental showpiece.
The Flames, as Malawi are affectionately known, qualified as one of the four best third-placed finishers after collecting four points by beating Zimbabwe and drawing with tournament favourites Senegal. They face Morocco in the last 16 at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium on 25 January in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Reaching the last 16 is a remarkable achievement for the Flames considering that they are a modest squad with no big-name players. The squad were drawn mainly from the Malawian domestic league as well as the two tiers of top-flight football in South Africa.
The build-up to Malawi’s appearance at the Afcon was characterised by a coaching gamble reminiscent of what happened before the 1984 tournament held in Ivory Coast. But this time round the decision proved a masterstroke that inspired Malawi.
Ahead of the Flames’ maiden Afcon appearance in 1984, the Football Association of Malawi (FAM) fired local coach Henry Moyo soon after he had secured qualification and hired Scotsman Danny McLennan. He selected his own squad and dropped star forward Lawrence Waya, which resulted in Malawi’s defeat to Ghana and Algeria before drawing with Nigeria to crash out in the group stage.
This happened again in December 2021 when the FAM demoted local coach Meck Mwase after he had helped the Flames book their ticket for Cameroon. He was replaced by Romanian technical director Mario Marinică as interim coach.
Mwase, a former Jomo Cosmos defender, might have guided Malawi to the Afcon finals, but the team’s performance in the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers sealed his fate. Marinică was hired as a technical director to offer Mwase more support, but the latter was demoted 25 days after the Romanian’s appointment. The FAM revealed it took the decision because it had “become very clear that the team has technical and tactical deficiencies”.
New coach, new approach
Marinică hit the ground running and wasted no time in diagnosing the flaws of the Flames and Malawian football in general. In his report, Marinică observed that “the players’ recruitment system is done … haphazardly and very sentimentally. Physically, most players are short in key positions such as central defence and goalkeeping.”
Marinică then set about on his own scouting mission, which resulted in little-known players such as Civil Sporting Club defender Lawrence Chaziya, Silver Strikers midfielder Zebron Kalima and goalkeeper Charles Thom getting call-ups.
The Romanian also discarded the Flames’ short-pass game and asked his charges to adopt a more direct, fast-attacking football. In addition, he dismantled the starting 11 that had clinched the Afcon berth.
“We know that this is a challenge, but that’s what we are here for. We looked at the squad that participated in the World Cup qualifiers, analysed their performances and noted that something has to be changed so that we have players that we can rely on at the Afcon finals,” Marinică said.
When the Flames started their 10-day pre-Afcon training in Saudi Arabia, reports of a player revolt emerged amid claims that some were unhappy with their coach’s training methods and attitude. Marinică, just like McLennan did when he axed Waya in 1984, ended up dropping favourite players. Gone were the Flames’ playmaker, Gerald Phiri, second-choice goalkeeper Bright Munthali, Stain Davies and Phillip Ndlovu from the final 23-member Afcon squad. They were relegated to the list of reserves.
The Flames plunged into more problems as Covid-19 hit the squad hard, affecting Marinică and six players, including first-choice striker Gabadinho Mhango and rightback Stanley Sanudi, on the eve of the opening game against Guinea.
Marinică’s absence offered Mwase a chance to take charge of the games against Guinea and Zimbabwe, which provided the turnaround as Mhango returned to score a brace in the 2-1 win over Zimbabwe.
The inexperienced players brought a positive work ethic and healthy competition in the squad. It became clear that there were no longer invincibles in the team, who displayed remarkable defensive discipline to hold Senegal in a game in which the Flames had calls for a penalty ignored after the video assistant referee reviewed a foul on leftback Gomezgani Chirwa in the box.
Back home, Malawians’ support of the Flames, ranked 129th in the world, grew with each game. Fans filled the streets on 14 January after the 2-1 win over Zimbabwe chanting “Siine koma Gabadinho”, telling those who cared to listen that they cannot be faulted for the overnight celebrations because it was Mhango and his two goals that caused it.
Soon, individuals and companies started making pledges to the team. Real estate companies Hills and Associates and Sulsdec Green Villages rewarded Thom with land in Lilongwe, and ICT company Sparc Systems gave him $1 200 (about R18 000) for winning the Man of the Match award in the fixture against Senegal.
Sparcs Systems managing director Wisely Phiri told the media that the company felt proud to associate itself with the exploits of the 22-year-old goalkeeper, who stepped in for 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 does bring positive change to our youth. We wish our team all the best. They should know that the whole country is behind them,” Phiri said. Humbly, Thom said in reaction that “the biggest recognition should go to the whole team for the effort to get these results”.
Earlier, Hills and Associates also rewarded striker Mhango with a piece of land in Lilongwe valued at $5 625 for scoring those two goals against Zimbabwe. Furthermore, in recognition of their impressive showing, the company offered the rest of the players a 40% discount on any piece of land they may wish to buy.
A poultry and animal feed company, Kelfoods, also offered each player in the team a year-long supply of eggs if they beat Senegal. President Lazarus Chakwera 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 reached the last 16. Usually, the Flames players earn half that amount for a win.
The Afcon has helped ignite a spark in Mhango, who has struggled at his club Orlando Pirates but shone in the Afcon for the Flames. “It is history in the making,” he said.
“There are more things coming from Malawi. Next thing for us is going to be [qualifying for] the World Cup. Personally, the year 2021 was not good in terms of performance. There were a lot of things that happened and I needed to pull up my socks. As a team, I know that people put us [as] underdogs, but we will show them what we can do.
“My ambition is to see Malawian players, including myself, playing overseas. At the end of the tournament, I can foresee four or five players playing in Europe. I have been telling my teammates that in every game we have to show a fighting spirit, whether we win or lose, because the whole world is watching. We need to prove that we have talent in Malawi.”
Ahead of the meeting with Morocco in the round of 16 on Tuesday 25 January, the stakes are so high for the Flames and the players, according to vice-captain John Banda, that they are prepared to die with their boots on.
“The Morocco game is the biggest game of our lives and we are looking forward to it. We respect Morocco, but do not fear them. We played them twice in the Afcon three years ago and I played in both matches. With a proper game plan, they are a beatable side,” said Banda.