The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifying groups draw last week cast a distinctly dark and unpromising fog over the Malawi national team. In all honesty, to be paired against Cameroon, the four time continental champions, is as scary as the team’s nickname sounds; The Indomitable Lions.
But this story, a tale laced with horror and discomfort, does not end there. The Flames, weak as they have proven when it matters most, will also face rejuvenated Morocco, a side coached by two time Afcon champion Hervé Renard.
Comoros Island or Mauritius, who clash in preliminary knockout phase, will complete group B.
In the past 32 years Malawi has only qualified for Afcon finals twice, in 1984 and 2010. From this history of underachievement and the hurdles that lie ahead, many analysts are already seeing the Flames’ path to the 2019 finals a hard one.
Football Association of Malawi (FAM) president Walter Nyamilandu, yes, that man, who refuses to submit when defeat looks inevitable, was weighed with an enormous sense of submission when reacting to the draw.
“Qualifying for the finals will be a daunting task. We will need your support,” he asked delegates at the annual general meeting (AGM) in Lilongwe on Saturday.
Nyamilandu banked Malawi’s hopes on an expatriate coach, an idea FAM has been ceaselessly advocating following the national team’s underachievement over the past six years.
“We need an expatriate coach, someone with the deep knowledge of the game. This is the only way we can improve our national team,” he added.
For the first time, Confederation of Africa Football (CAF), unlike in the previous arrangement, has included the host, in this case Cameroon, in the qualifying rounds.
CAF has explained how teams will qualify from this group in which Cameroon, whether they finish last will still progress by virtue of being hosts:
“If the host team is the winner of the group, the runner-up will automatically qualify to the final tournament. (In such a scenario) no other team will be eligible to qualify from this group.
“If the host team is the runner-up, only the winner of the group will qualify to the final tournament.
“If the host team is either in 3rd or 4th place, the winner of the group qualifies to the final tournament and the runner-up will be eligible to qualify as one of the best runners-up.”
Football analyst David Kanyenda says the qualification format gives Malawi a great advantage predicting that Cameroon will not be fielding strong teams having already qualified.
“We stand a fair chance. In the majority of the groups only one will automatically qualify. In our group its three teams fighting for one spot because Cameroon are already through as hosts. I don’t see Cameroon flying in their star players to feature in these ‘friendly’ matches,” he explains.
Kanyenda further states that Flames’ destiny will be decided in games against Morocco.
Another analyst Felix Ngamanya-Sapao has asked Fam not to focus much on reaching the 2019 finals but build a team that can challenge for places at 2021 and future Afcon finals.
“In the 2019 qualifiers we need to feature players that are young and can play for the Flames in the next 10 years. The youthful players will undoubtedly gain composure which will help them forever,” he said.
History against Malawi
According to www.11v11.com, a website that keeps football statistics, Malawi has a poor record against the top seeded sides Cameroon and Morocco. In seven attempts against Morocco, the Flames have won once, drawn twice and lost four times. The last clash was in 2007 and the Lions of Atlas won 0-1.
In the past battles against Cameroon, Malawi has triumphed once and lost twice while securing two draws. Their last meeting was in 1995 and the Flames lost 1-3.
Mauritius have not been a source of trouble for Malawi who have triumphed 11 times in their 19 meetings four of which were draws and four losses. Strangely though, 11 of all the past matches were friendly encounters.
If Comoros reaches the qualifying group stages it will be the first time they will be facing Malawi.
The games start in March this year but Malawi currently does not have a permanent coach. The Super League which provides a bulk of national team players is on off season until April.
Morocco, who once won the tournament are ranked 60, Cameroon are 54th while Malawi is on 102. The wide ranking gap between the Flames and their key rivals foretells that the road to the 2019 finals will be bumpy more so when preparations will be shoddy. n