Malawi National Football Team, the Flames, are on the brink of qualification for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, having defeated South Sudan 1-0 in Khartoum on Wednesday.
The win, courtesy of a deflected Gerald Phiri set-piece, saw Malawi staying in contention in Group B with seven points, one behind second-placed Uganda.
The Flames will host the Cranes at Kamuzu Stadium Monday to battle for the last slot after group leaders, Burkina Faso’s Stallions, settled their destiny when they drew with Uganda.
Since the inception of the Afcon tournament almost 64 years ago, Malawi have qualified for the competition twice, having started participating in 1976 despite affiliating to Confederation of African Football two years earlier.
Subsequently, there has been 23 Afcon finals since Malawi first started participating in Afcon qualifiers. The senior side’s appearance to the Afcon finals was in 1984 and 2010.
It took 8 years for Malawi to make its first Afcon finals and 26 years to return to the continental showpiece.
Now it is 11 years since the Flames made their second appearance at the finals.
On several occasions Malawi have been so close to qualification but failed to do so even when only needing a draw or win.
It has been a case of so near yet so far as the Flames have been falling at the last hurdle.
Former Flames captain Peter ‘Mjojo’ Mponda believes the side can qualify for the third time if well supported.
“To begin with, the team needs our best wishes to do well. It is unfortunate that some quarters, including current and former players, are not wishing the team well. Although supporters will not be there, the side still needs emotional support through goodwill messages.
“Then I also believe that the coaches and players know what to do. They must be determined to do well,” he said.
Local football pundit George Chiusiwa said the battle against the Cranes was a real test for the resolve, maturity and determination of the Flames players.
“This is because it is not only a tactical warfare to the Malawi players but it is also a psychological battle for coach Meck Mwase’s charges. They should be mentally and psychologically steady and strong because the pressure is on Malawi to win at all cost in order to qualify.
“Therefore, the Flames should handle pressure well, be mentally strong and approach the game as any other game while being technically cautious that Uganda have nothing to lose as the Cranes just need a draw to qualify,” he said.
Chiusiwa called on Malawi to be on the offensive to score goals to win the match but also cautioned the players to observe tactical discipline and remain focused throughout the game.
“Our huge shortcomings in such crucial games are lack of concentration, failure to contain psychological pressure, poor tactical discipline and technical inadequacies in executing systems of play depending on the match situation. Coach Mwase should look into these aspects,” he said.
Chiusiwa also observed that since Malawi badly need a win to qualify to 2021 Afcon finals, the Flames should not sit back or retreat as the visiting Uganda may have the same retreating approach for a draw will be enough for them.
“There is therefore a need for strong characters in Malawi’s midfield as the Flames will win the game in this department. A very intelligently organised midfield that will be attacking, providing good supplies to strikers and at the same time maintaining defensive cover is key to beating Uganda. In short, the whole team should play as a unit in a coordinated manner as coordination has also been constantly wanting for the Flames.
“Above all, we need not give the players any pressure as this will only adversely affect them. Thus Fam [Football Association of Malawi] and other non-technical people surrounding the team should not dictate what coach [Mwase] and his backroom staff should do when facing Uganda. External forces have in the past influenced the technical organisation of the team and psychological approach of the players and coaches to the game,” he said.
The absence of supporters could also play a pivotal role as, at times, home-fans turned their back on the Flames when the going got tough.
In most cases, the Flames have been concluding such campaigns away but now they have home ground advantage at their disposal in this swim or sink encounter.