By Ronald Mpaso
During the two-year closure of one of the country’s oldest sports arenas for renovation works, Football Association of Malawi and its influential affiliate Super League of Malawi would fix all big matches in Lilongwe.
This saw Bingu National and Civo stadiums hosting all international and Blantyre derby matches as the commercial city had no venue fit to host such high profile games.
Suddenly, life became unbearable for all Blantyre-based stakeholders in the game as they were forced to dig deeper into their pockets to play, watch or administer games in the Capital City.
But last month’s re-opening of Kamuzu Stadium has brought smiles on the faces of the football family in Blantyre as there will be no need for them to travel to Lilongwe to watch big games.
Blantyre is once again full of life during weekends as multitudes throng Kamuzu Stadium to watch either Nyasa Big Bullets or Be Forward Wanderers in action.
If anything, it is Lilongwe fans who are now spending on travelling down to Blantyre for Bullets’ or Wanderers’ league or cup matches.
The situation has further worsened for Capital City soccer lovers as they will have to trek down to Kamuzu Stadium if they want a piece of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier action between Malawi and Cameroon in the next two weeks.
Football of Association of Malawi (Fam) announced last week that the Flames will be back at Kamuzu Stadium on October 16 as they compete for a spot at next year’s Afcon finals.
Malawi last played at the soccer mecca about two years ago when they beat Swaziland (now eSwatini) 1-0 in a 2017 Afcon qualifier. Gerald Phiri Junior stunned the visitors with his trademark freekick which flew straight into the net.
Bingu National Stadium (BNS) officially opened its doors early last year with the Flames getting mixed results from their matches at the facility.
They drew 3-3 against Chinese club Guangzhou in a match played during the opening ceremony before going down 1-0 to Madagascar in an African Nations Championship encounter.
Malawi then won 1-0 against Comoros in their first group match of the current Afcon qualifiers before being held to a 1-1 draw by Lesotho in a friendly match on November 11 last year.
This means the Flames have posted just one win at the modern sports venue at senior level, with no victory at under-20 level.
But Fam General Secretary, Alfred Gunda, said the return to Kamuzu Stadium has nothing to do with results but organisation of the Cameroon match.
“The change is due to logistics of the game in terms of preparations and hosting the match itself since we are playing Cameroon back-to-back,” Gunda was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s edition of The Nation newspaper.
However, Fam is racing against time as the stadium is yet to be certified by world football governing body Fifa which condemned it as being unfit top host matches.
In a bid to make the dilapidated match venue safer for games, the Ministry of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development reduced its capacity to just under 15,000 from 22,000.
But Gunda maintained that the stadium is fit for the international fixture as it has a new artificial turf in addition to general renovation works that the government carried out during its two-year closure.
“The stadium is capable of hosting a match of such magnitude. The main concern was the artificial turf which has since been replaced.
“The challenge now is how to manage the crowd when hosting a match of such magnitude with the reduced capacity and not the facility itself. But we are confident that we can pull it off,” Gunda told The Nation.
But all is not lost for Lilongwe soccer lovers as they will witness the final of this year’s Carlsberg Cup at BNS on October 20.
Fam Competitions and Media Manager, Gomezgani Zakazaka, said the competition’s sponsor is interested in ensuring that the cake is shared equally to all soccer enthusiasts across the country.
“This is why the semifinal between Masters Security and Nyasa Big Bullets will take place at Civo Stadium in Lilongwe so that the entertainment reaches out to as many parts of the country as possible. This was also the trend in the previous tournaments which went as far as Mzuzu,” Zakazaka said.
Soccer analyst Madalitso Phiri described Fam’s decision to host the Cameroon match at Kamuzu Stadium as a gamble because Fifa has not yet certified the facility fit for hosting international games.
Phiri said in an ideal situation, the match should have been played at BNS as the venue is centrally-located for people from different parts of the country.
“Here is a stadium that cost billions to construct and we want to sideline it. Will it not become a white elephant? Was it not built to host such big games? So if we are taking such big games to Blantyre, which matches will BNS be hosting as our national stadfium?” Phiri querried.
But he said on the other hand, Fam may have opted to take the match to Blantyre because of the Flames’ poor performance at BNS which has also resulted into low patronage.
Phiri also questioned Fam’s capability of handling the match at a stadium with limited capacity, saying controlling the number of people entering the stadium for the match could be difficult.
“With capacity at less than 15,000, Fam will have to be very strict with entry into the stadium. Otherwise I foresee a situation where there will be too many spectators wanting to patronise the match against the reduced capacity.
“Soccer lovers in Blantyre have missed the Flames for more than two years and they are likely to attend the match in large numbers. So Fam must tread carefully on this matter,” he said.
Stakeholders must indeed find ways and means of ensuring that the multi-billion kwacha BNS is put to good use, otherwise it will not benefit Malawians if it remains idle.
The government and Fam should also make deliberate efforts aimed at ensuring that big games are hosted by all the three regions of the country for the cake to be shared equally.
International and Blantyre derby games can be played in the country’s major cities on a rotational basis as a way of enhancing national unity and a sense of ownership in the game.
No single city or region should lose out from hosting such big games.
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