Malawi National Football team, ‘The Flames’ has only been to the Africa Nations Cup finals once in 1984.
The team’s performance in the last three qualifying rounds has opened doors of opportunity that could take it to the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa and Africa Cup in Angola.
The October 22 (FIFA) draw in Zurich, Switzerland however has brought them lingering doubts of proceeding to the finals.
The draw has pitted them against some of the best Africa’s footballing nations of Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Guinea in Group E of the 2010 South Africa World Cup African Zone qualifier.
Malawi, which is smarting from a successful third round competitive campaign in Group 12 where it clobbered minnows Djibouti 8-1 and 0-4 home and away respectively, ambushed African Champions Egypt 1-0 at home before losing 0-2 in Cairo also lost away to DRC 0-1 before upturning the tables at home where they beat the DRC Leopards 2-1.
After a successful stint in this qualifying round The Flames found themselves least ranked African team out of the 20 victorious teams that sailed to 2010 World Cup Africa zone final qualifying round.
According to latest FIFA rankings, Malawi is number 31 on the continent and number 109 on the world rankings while its other Group E competitors are far too high on the rankings like Ivory Coast which is at 29, Guinea at 41 and Burkina Faso 53.
The Flames Coach Kinnah Phiri says they have been put in a fair group, and hopes his charges can manage to outperform the others with more international friendly matches.
“We have to sit down with FAM [Football Association of Malawi] and strategise on which teams we can play against and this will need a lot of money to fulfil,” he said in an interview.
“We stand a better chance to qualify for the South Africa 2010 World Cup; our aim is to qualify for the World Cup. We are not only aiming at Africa Cup of Nation finals in Angola,” said Phiri.
The trickiest customer for Malawi in the group is Ivory Coast, the group favourites for World Cup backed by their impeccable pedigree that stretches to as far as 1965.
The Ivorians have been African Champions once in 1992 out of their 19 appearances at the finals.
They were runners-up in 2006, finished on third four times in 1965, 1968, 1986, and 1994 and became fourth in the 1970 finals.
FAM Chief Executive Charles Nyirenda says Malawi has played Ivory Coast several times the first one being as early as in 1974 when Malawi beat them 5-1 in Blantyre during Independence commemoration.
Malawi last played Ivory Coast in 1987 where it lost twice to the Elephants, as the Ivorians are known. The Flames lost 2-1 at home and 3-0 away in the Africa Cup qualifiers before losing 2-0 in all African Games.
Another team Malawi should also expect a crunch encounter in its fixture against Guinea.
There is one game where Malawi held Guinea to one-all draw consequently leading to the dissolution of the country’s football federation by government. Because of this, the team never travelled to Malawi for the second leg because by this time FIFA had suspended it due to its government’s interference.
The other team to face Malawi in the group, Burkina Faso once beat Malawi 4-2 in the 2002 World Cup qualifier although they were held to a one all draw in the return leg.
The Malawi Coach says the draw is a blessing in disguise for Malawi since all these are West African teams that know very little about Malawi’s type of soccer.
Looking at the teams in the group, FAM President Walter Nyamilandu observed that this is not an easy group.
“We are still underdogs in the group,” he intoned “But we have huge potential to cause major upset,” he added after a second thought.
Malawi’s first game is away against Ivory Coast on March 28 next year before playing Burkina Faso at home on June 20. It will play away against Guinea on June 20 and a return leg at home on September 5.
Malawi’s last game will be away against Burkina Faso, commonly known as ‘Les Etalons’ away on November 14 after sizing up with Ivory Coast at home on October 22.
Nyamilandu says they plan to have the team camp in Europe as part of preparations.
During the draw, FIFA President Joseph Blatter was quoted on the www.fifa.com saying 2010 is the first FIFA World Cup taking place in Africa.
“It is also the first time that six African teams will play at a FIFA World Cup,” he said.
Confederation of African Football (CAF) President Issa Hayatou praised Africa’s organisation for the first and second stage of African qualifying.
The draw in the other groups is as follows: Group A: Cameroon, Morocco, Gabon and Togo; Group B: Nigeria, Tunisia, Kenya and Mozambique; Group C: Egypt, Algeria, Zambia and Rwanda while Group D: Ghana, Mali, Benin and Sudan.