Flames coach Ronny van Geneugden’s (RVG) marriage of convenience with Football Association of Malawi (FAM) was doomed from the day he stepped out of the flight from Brussels, Belgium some 18 months ago.
Here is a coach who Malawi government disassociated themselves from even before he took his first-ever flight to Africa, arguing it did not have funds for an expatriate coach’s salary.
But FAM still went on to hire him using Fifa funds and invested a lot in ensuring the coach has all he needed to turn the Flames’ fortunes—a privilege no other local or expatriate coach has ever enjoyed.
Yet RVG is yet to convince Malawians why he had to leave his homeland and enjoy a $10 000 (about K7.3 million) package plus other benefits monthly.
In 2018, the Flames played nine games managed four draws and did not register any win and only scored two goals.
Cosafa Cup flop
Smarting from another disastrous 2017, RVG and the Flames started the new year with a 0-0 draw against Uganda in March in an international friendly. Then he took Malawi to the 2018 Cosafa Cup in South Africa where as usual, Malawi was booted out in group stage after drawing 1-1 against Botswana, 0-0 against Angola and lost 1-0 to Mauritius.
The Flames scored only one goal through defender Precious Sambani and lost for the first time to minnows Mauritius. The Flames earned praise for their passing game, but were despised for failing to create scoring opportunities.
2019 Afcon nightmare
In 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualification, the Flames lost 3-0 to Morocco in September then 1-0 to Cameroon in October. On the way back from Cameroon, the Flames lost 1-0 to Kenya in an international friendly match.
They managed to hold Cameroon 0-0 in the return leg a week later, but lost to Comoros 1-0 on November 17 to clash out of the qualification battle.
As reality sank in that the coach had failed to take Malawi to the finals, RVG insisted that he had made tremendous strides, saying he built a team of up-and-coming players that is improving with every game.
“This is a good blend of the old guys and the youngsters who are knocking on the doors and have shown the spirit to play at top level,” he said.
After the loss to Morocco and Kenya in September, pressure mounted for RVG, with concerned supporters threatening to march against the Belgian tactician.
Perhaps what prompted the anger was RVG’s statement that he was ‘impressed’ with the team’s performance despite getting hammered 3-0 and 1-0.
Even president Walter Nyamilandu had reservations on the team’s performance.
“I agree that it’s not pleasing at all. Though we were up against a giant, it’s not a result that we expected,” he said.
Nyamilandu said time had come for the Belgian to prove his worth when Malawi faced Cameroon in the back-to-back qualifiers on October 10 away, and on October 13 at home.
“They are tough matches and that’s why we recruited an expatriate coach. He has to show his expertise at this critical moment and he must prove his worth,” he said.
But Nyamilandu would later reignite the fire after carelessly equating the Flames to Barcelona during a press briefing on a demonstration against RVG.
Spat with seniors players
One thing that came out clear in 2018 was that the coach was not in good books with senior players such as Robert Ng’ambi, Gerald Phiri Jnr, Frank ‘Gabadinho Mhango and even his captain Limbikani Mzava who twice shunned Flames call up.
Mzava also openly criticised RVG’s overreliance on up-and-coming players, saying the team needed experienced legs.
In his response, RVG said: “When a player excuses himself for whatever reason, I cannot force them. Also, that gives some players a chance to show they are capable of doing the job.”
‘Thank me later’
On the overall performance of the team, RVG has maintained his stance that he found the Flames playing a not so palatable style, but has managed to introduce a unique possession football, sweet to the eye, whose only missing ingredient is goals.
“This is a young team with an average age of 22. It is like building a house you start with foundation then rise high up to the roof. We are building a game plan which demands that we must start at the back and build attacks going forward while passing, but that has to translate into goals which at the moment is not happening.
“But we will work hard to get there. I will have to build a good relationship with the local coaches so that this philosophy is also adopted locally. But I see a good future in these youngsters,” RVG said after the Cosafa Cup flop.
But soccer analyst Charles Nyirenda felt the coach was giving a wrong treatment due to a wrong diagnosis.
He said: “I insist that our coach should be given videos of the 2010 joint Afcon/World Cup qualifiers ie Malawi vs Egypt; Malawi vs Congo DR; Malawi vs Guinea; Malawi vs Ivory Coast and Malawi vs Algeria in Luanda at the Afcon final itself. He will immediately stop talking about Malawi playing a passing game because there was already such type football before he came. Further, there weren’t excessive back passes as we see today,” he said.
What the future holds
With three months remaining on his contract, pressure for RVG continues to mount, with members of Parliament also joining the fray.
But FAM seems tied at the moment and the only hint the association gave for this was when general secretary Alfred Gunda confirmed that the association would have to pay RVG a huge sum in compensation if it were to fire him.
“The contract has an exit clause for both parties. Of course, we can terminate his contract. But the contract provides that whoever walks away for the contract has to compensate the other party. I cannot go into details of the process and compensation involved because these are confidential matter,” he said after calls for RVG’s firing reached boiling point in October.