The road to the 2023 African Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in Ivory Coast begins this afternoon as Malawi national football team face Ethiopia in Group D at Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe.
Both countries are seeking back-to-back qualification to the continent’s most glamorous football competition as they qualified for the delayed 2021 Afcon finals in Cameroon earlier this year.
The Flames will hope to take advantage of home ground to frustrate the Ethiopians and get a positive start in the group which also includes Egypt and Guinea.
Last time the two sides met in an Afcon qualifier was in 2014, when Malawi won the first leg 3-2 at Kamuzu Stadium but the return leg ended in 0-0 draw in Ethiopia.
But in 2021 the Flames lost 4-0 away in Addis Ababa in an international friendly.
Head to head record between the two countries indicates that both teams won three games, drew six times, losing three in 12 meetings.
Under coach Mario Marinica, Malawi have transformed, reviving the faith and giving hope to soccer loving Malawians.
This has been evidenced by the fast selling of Flames replica shirts as everyone wants to be associated with the national team.
The Flames have also improved of late, having booked a last-16 berth at Afcon in Cameroon in which they narrowly lost 2-1 to pre-tournament favourites Morocco.
This was preceded by a 0-0 draw against eventual cup winners Senegal. The Flames also beat Zimbabwe 2-1 and lost 1-0 to Guinea in the group stages.
On the other hand, Ethiopia bowed out in the group stage.
Ethiopia’s advantage is that they had two test matches against Lesotho before the Malawi match.
Although both games ended 1-1 on Saturday and Tuesday respectively, the matches gave coach Wubetu Abate an opportunity to assess his players ahead of the fixture against the Flames on June 5.
Abate was quoted by Ethiopian Monitor as having said the two matches will help his players get in shape ahead of their Group D matches against Malawi and Egypt.
“These friendly matches are coming at the right time because we need that competitiveness in the team to be tested before the qualifiers. These matches have helped us to prepare and test some of the systems that we can use or not,” he said.
On the Malawi game, Abate said it would not be an easy match because the home team will be determined to make use of home ground advantage.
“But we have prepared well and go and battle to get a good result,” he added.
In contrast, Malawi did not play any friendly game, which is a cause for concern for the Romanian mentor Marinica.
“We would have really loved to have a friendly because the players have not played together for five months. Unfortunately, that was not possible. The qualification campaign.
Said Nyamilandu: “Their presence is a strong message of intent that Malawi means serious business on Sunday [today].
“It’s a huge morale booster for the Flames to know that the number citizen, who is the Commander in Chief, will be at the battlefield on Sunday to personally rally the team.
“This will make the players die for their country and go the extra mile to conquer Ethiopia.
“Their presence underscores that government is fully behind the Flames in a bid to qualify for 2023 Afcon.”
Nyamilandu said FAM and the entire football fraternity highly appreciates the love and sacrifice the President and Vice-President have shown towards the cause.
He added: “They have just ignited the fire.”
Minister of Youth and Sports Richard Chimwendo Banda said the presidency’s presence speaks volumes of its support to the national team.
“That they have taken time off their busy schedule to join football-loving Malawians in cheering their team demonstrates their passion for the Flames.