After wandering in the wilderness for 11 years, the Malawi National Football Team reached the promised land when it beat Uganda 1-0 to qualify for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations finals slated for Yaoundé, Cameroon.
It was a rare afternoon as Flames achieved the feat at Kamuzu Stadium in the absence of supporters, who were not permitted to watch due to Covid restrictions on public gatherings technically upstaging the Likiliki song as the most trending in Malawi.
The Flames last qualified for the continental football showpiece in 2010 and, since then, Malawians have been at the receiving end of all kinds of pain inflicted by the senior side’s dismal form.
Patience paid off Monday as a handful officials were forced into cheering the Flames as they booked an automatic ticket to Afcon football fiesta.
Joy came in the afternoon when Richard Mbulu’s header was all Malawi needed to secure a place in Cameroon.
Wild celebrations were prevalent emotions at Kamuzu Stadium as players, countable fans that watched the game— including Sports Minister Ulemu Msungama and Football Association of Malawi President Walter Nyamilandu— went crazy after Mozambican Celso Alvacao brew the final whistle.
The country’s city roads were also filled by victory-starved fans who celebrated the victory.
Flames coach Meck Mwase only made a single change to the team that beat South Sudan last week, with Robin Ngalande introduced for suspended Gabadinho Mhango.
The visitors started brightly and controlled the game but, 15 minutes into the game, Mbulu underscored that football is about scoring when he headed home past Ugandan goalie and captain Denis Onyango after being supplied with a nice cross from Stanley Sanudi.
The goal never frustrated the composed and tactically disciplined Cranes, who dominated proceedings by capitalising on the Flames vulnerability in midfield and failure to keep possession.
The visitors nearly equalised in the 19th minute but Emmanuel Arnold Okwi effort hit the goal post.
Both teams were forced to make early substitutions, with Malawi introducing Francisco Madinga after Robin Ngalande suffered a knock and was rushed to the hospital.
Uganda also brought in Kizito Mugweri Gavin for injured Ronald Mukibi.
In the final half, Uganda continued piling more pressure as the Flames, who continued chasing shadows as the combination of Gerald Phiri Junior and John Banda proved less effective in midfield.
The main highlight of the second half came in the 64th minute when Sanudi’s shot was denied entry by the woodwork.
Moldova-based Peter Banda was also a marvel to watch and a thorn in the Cranes defence’s flesh with his deft runs.
The visitors enjoyed procession throughout but did not cause much trouble in goals as defence— manned by Limbikani Mzava, Charles Petro, Precious Sambani and Sanudi— ensured that Ernest Kakhobwe was safe.
The Cranes, that only needed a draw to qualify, threw everything into the game but Flames defended jealously to maintain their home unbeaten record in the group.
Mwase was excited, having guided the Flames to their third Afcon finals.
“It was a very long journey but we always believed that it was not over. We are happy that we have won and have qualified for the finals. We knew that we were playing at home but what we wanted to do was to play and win the game,” he said.
Mzava hailed the coaching panel and teammates for warmly welcoming him into the squad.
“I had always wanted to come to play for the national team but circumstances did not allow. I encouraged my fellow players that no one will do the job for us. So, we had to focus. Most of the times we fail at the last hurdle but we fought hard both in Sudan and here,” he said.
Nyamilandu said it was mission accomplished.
“This a huge feat. We have every reason to celebrate. The bar has been raised. We are amongst the best in Africa. The Malawi flag is flying high. I salute the players for bringing honour to the nation. They showed tremendous character to overcome Uganda and to overturn the tables,” he said.
Burkina Faso top the group with 12 points, with Malawi coming second on nine points.