The Cosafa Castle Cup, which is on the bend, might be treated like trivia, like the side-effect of domestic football calendar, but it is to Malawi what the Fifa World Cup championship is to current holders Germany.
The premier regional football showpiece, which roars to life in South Africa’s platinum-rich North-West Province from June 25 to July 9, is the only realistic international competition which the Flames, with sound planning, can win, but have never won.
There is no other competition on the international football calendar which the Flames have ever looked like winning.
The Flames qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals once in every 25 years. They have never been any closer to a sniff of World Cup final qualification. So the two competitions are horizons away from the team that is ranked 117 in the world.
In fact, the last time the Flames walked to the winners’ podium was in 1988 during the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup exploits. That was 29 years ago when the Flames Captain, Limbikani Mzava, was not born.
However, year in, year out, the Flames often go to the regional championship ill-prepared, hastily-assembled and focused not enough to be considered favourites.
Part of the reason is that the language that features highly at Football Association of Malawi and the country in general is that of the Afcon and World Cup qualifiers.
The consensus in Malawi is that the Cosafa Cup is small yet there are no longer small cups, let alone teams, on the world stage.
If anything, other teams in the region have treated the Cosafa Cup with utmost seriousness, using it as a springboard for bigger challenges.
Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia used the regional championship as a bedrock for their Afcon qualifications.
Nonetheless, if you are to believe the Flames Coach, Ronny van Geneugden, his charges return to the Cosafa Cup hoping for the title, whose holders are the hosts Bafana Bafana.
“Any sportsman or sports team goes to a competition with the aim of winning the championship, and we are no exception. We will go to the Cosafa Castle Cup hoping to win it,” van Geneugden told the press in Blantyre on Tuesday.
The Flames travel to South Africa after beating Comoros 1-0 on Saturday; the first time Malawi scored once in four games in all competitions under the Belgian.
You can forgive van Geneugden for raising his expectations and that of the nation. He is new to the cup and Malawi football.
But the Cosafa Cup has cost jobs of Young Chimodzi, Ernest Mtawali and the man at the helm must get his act right, lest he be the next victim.
People in Malawi think the Flames, even at their lowest ebb, should be good enough to stroll into Cosafa Cup glory.
Part of the reason the Flames are incapable of winning the cup is the lack of continuity in playing and coaching personnel. The Flames go to the Cosafa Cup under a new coach on a yearly basis.
Chimodzi was sacked after the 2015 Cosafa Castle Cup Plate Division exploits in South Africa. Mtawali too got the bullet after 3-0 and 1-0 group stage wins over Angola and Mauritius, respectively, were dashed by a 1-0 loss to Lesotho in Namibia last year.
This year, due to loss of form and injuries, players such as Isaac Kaliyati, Chiukepo Msowoya, Wonder Jelemani, Miracle Gabeya, Rafik Namwela and Joseph Kamwendo, who were part of last year’s Cosafa squad, are absent from the current squad.
Overall, the closest the Flames came to winning the cup was in 2002 and 2003 when, in both occasions, Malawi succumbed 4-1 and 5-1 to South Africa and Zimbabwe in two-legged finals.
Danish coach Kim Splidsboel, after camp training in the United Kingdom, built a solid team in 2002; little wonder they qualified for their maiden final. Alan Gillet from England built on Splidsboel’s foundation to achieve another final appearance in 2003.
Yes, football authorities then saw sense in going for overseas camp training for the Cosafa Cup. Now, everyone thinks Cosafa is easy to win.
The hosts Bafana Bafana, after winning 2-0 in Nigeria over the weekend, saw the sense in playing a friendly against Zambia on Tuesday so as to prepare for the Cosafa Cup. Not in Malawi.
Scanning through Malawi’s preliminary round group, one gets scared a little bit at the profile of the opposition!
Malawi are, save for other group members Mauritius, the least ranked in the category that includes Angola and Tanzania.
Against Angola, Malawi have won thrice and lost five times so the Panthers are the favourites. Malawi have won 11 times against Mauritius while drawing four and losing four other games.
Matches between Tanzania and Malawi are always close contests. Malawi have defeated the Taifa Stars 11 times, losing six and drawing four games.
To clinch a quarter-final berth and meet seeded Bafana Bafana, Malawi need to beat all the three opponents because, as experience showed last year, a single loss can mean disaster for the Flames.
Van Geneugden goes into this year’s competition with little or no knowledge of his opponents, their style of play and tactics.
The coach has had the privilege of playing four back-to-back games but, as you would expect, he, in the previous three games, was experimenting, trying to find the right balance and combinations.
The coming of foreign based players means that he is still trying things. The Flames go to the Cosafa Cup not in the best of shapes. They are still work in progress.
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