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Lessons from Under-20 Cosafa tournament

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South Africa’s North West Province, which borders Botswana, fringed by the unforgiving heat of the Kalahari desert to the west, is endowed with precious minerals.

No wonder then, that it is affectionately known as the Platinum Province.

In the past two weeks, the hilly remote province, while hosting the 2016 Cosafa Youth Championship which wound up yesterday, was also blessed with football gems originating from countries within the Cosafa region.

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Others also made it from as far as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is from this international tournament where the Malawi Under-20 National Football Team, in the aftermath of its disastrous showing in the Cosafa Championship, must, for once, draw extra lessons in football development.

A 0-0 draw against Zimbabwe at Moruleng Stadium was followed by a 3-0 battering by Zambia.

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The Junior Flames exited the competition with a 1-0 loss to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a confirmation that the Junior Flames might be a mere gold deposit but not the gold itself.

It was the first time in many years that the Under-20 team failed to score in this competition.

It was also the first time that the Junior Flames’ handlers risked big dents on their resumes to, for once, take to the tournament a visibly genuine Under-20 side.

Issues of ages are contentious but the sight of centre-back Kondwani Mwaila fidgeting and refusing to man-mark after heated exchanges with goalkeeper Christopher Mikuwa, when the game was in motion, was enough for one to conclude that one was watching kids.

You know kids when they jump while aiming to head the same ball, run and fall with the ball on their own. That was the case with this Malawi side.

From Head Coach Gerald Phiri Senior’s body language, you could see a man battling with the thoughts of ‘maybe I should have gone by tradition and drafted in this team some 25 year-olds, win games and earn praise back home.’

Indeed in Malawi circles, coaches privately argue that it is impossible for a genuine Under-20 player to compete strongly in their respective tournament.

“Yes, it is disappointing that we are out without even scoring a goal. Yes, I know people need results but that should not stop us as a country from taking the long and painful route to development,” Phiri said after the game against the DRC.

Save for two players, including captain Mike Mkwate, who plays for Nyasa Big Bullets, the rest of the players were drawn from Premier Divisions of regional leagues and the FMB Under-20 National League.

That Malawi paraded at the competition a genuine side was common knowledge.

Even neutrals such as South Africa’s Russian veteran coach, Victor Bondarenko, agreed.

“I have seen a lot of talented players from the Malawi team. I do not want to be specific but the only thing this team lacks is experience,” he said.

“With more games, you can have a strong team for the future. But overall, it has been a good tournament.”

Bondarenko talked about the need for more games, which is a luxury in Malawi.

Going into the tournament held in South Africa, the Junior Flames had last participated in an international competition in 2014.

There are too many gaps, stops-and-starts in the development chain of Malawi football.

Even the jazz about the Cosafa bronze-winning Under-17 side is sadly dying down.

Yet, research has shown that it takes 10 years of continuous training and playing for one to develop into an elite athlete.

So after the latest Cosafa tournament, beyond the losses and the embarrassments, the issue that matters the most is what will happen to the team going forward.

“We need to continue playing more games and draft into the team one or two more players,” Phiri said.

Of course, it is his wishful thinking.

If the Junior Flames slip into hibernation again, then it would be injustice to goalkeeper Mikuwa, who has great reflexes, positional discipline and shot-stopping skills but needs polishing on distribution.

Defender Precious Sambani has the heart and the strength, but he gets too carried away on the overlap.

Hadji Wali and Mwaila are solid in defence but they both lack the physique and the latter has a bad temperament.

Midfielder Azriel Johnson has the height and football brain.

He offers something different– -directness of play to a team whose instinct is to dribble and showboat. However, the Zimbabwe- based midfielder lacks endurance and tactical awareness.

Mkwate pulled the strings quite well in midfield, but as a leader, he needs to toughen up, fight for balls and defend.

Attackers Frank Chizuze and Fransisco Madinga are obviously talented, but they are so feeble mentally such that they kept freezing in the most crucial moments of the team’s three games.

Striker Abel Mwakilama lacks the height and aggression. His runs are also amateurish.

But these are teenagers. They have room for learning. It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to invest in these boys.

Just like in mining, it takes patience and investment in football to go the development route in a country, such as Malawi, where winning, even through age-cheating, is everything. But do not be surprised if this Under-20 slips into oblivion.

We have seen it happen with the Under 17 side despite Football Association of Malawi promising to keep the team active and together.

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