By Charles Mpaka
On Sunday January 23, two days before the Flames game tonight, fireworks caused a blaze that razed down a nightclub in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé, killing 16 people.
According to the BBC, the fireworks were lit when champagne was being served.
Tonight, fireworks shall be lit and champagne served— either by the Flames or the Atlas Lions – not for tragedy but festival, not in a nightclub but inside Yaoundé’s Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, the venue of the Round of 16 Afcon finals game between the two teams.
Cynics can call it with whatever demeaning adjectives, but it is a result that has lit up millions of faces hitherto darkened by so much grieving about national team football.
Yet, in this moment of inspiration, it will not be lost on anyone that going into this game, the odds have not necessarily shifted in favour of the Flames.
For, Malawi has no name in football. Morocco has a name in football.
Malawi does not have names in football. Morocco has names in football.
Malawi does not have history in football. Morocco has history in football – ranked 10th in the Fifa World Rankings in April 1998, at that point the first African national team in history to be ranked by Fifa in the top 10 national football teams in the world, the only African national team in history to have been at the top of the Fifa world rankings for three consecutive years, from 1997 to 1999.
Then, the head-to-head stats do not help matters.
In 10 encounters between the two teams between 1985 and 2019, Malawi has won once, drawn three times and lost six times.
Such is the gulf.
But, as this tournament has shown, size does not matter and history is irrelevant.
At this tournament, a lesson has been taught that there is also value in smallness. Comoros dispatched home the highly-rated Ghana in a manner so humiliating that the fall must have waken up the ancestors of the former Gold Coast.
The Ghambia, at the finals for the first time in their football history and the lowest ranking team at the tournament at 150, stormed into the Round of 16 via embarrassing the tournament’s veterans, Tunisia.
And Equatorial Guinea kindly supported Algeria, the defending champions, to an early and dishonourable exit.
After all, on the Flames, there is no burden of expectation. Many Malawians will admit in their heart of hearts that they did not give the Flames even the smallest of the chances to stand up and be counted.
Fam President Walter Nyamilandu did exhort the team to leave a mark, but it would not be surprising if he did not believe in what he said.
All through, Head of the Technical Panel the Mario Marinica sought to keep the expectation low.
“We want to have a team that is hardworking, able to create chances and score goals; however, I don’t want to raise hopes that later might not be much,” he said at one point while the team was at a training camp in Saudi Arabia, enroute to the tournament.
To many, there was not much to expect—not from a team sitting way south of the Fifa rankings, ill-prepared, short on budget, crowded with players of not so much football profile —travelling to a tournament populated by monsters of global football.
Perhaps, things had to be this low so that the team’s display should excite. Now we know that success is hardly fun when it is expected.
Being in Round of 16 is a point of success for the Flames. But there are voices here that are saying it is the character the Flames have shown that is the real success story.
The growth in sense of belief, the arrogance of new names, the audacity to harass the big names, the spirit to play to the final whistle, the instinct to stick out a foot to snuff out danger, the cohesion…. There are positives to pick from.
Football comes from character, the character to fight, to get right the finest of the margins, to make right decisions. The sum total brings goals. And success.
The Flames are far from being a polished product. But Zimbabwe and Senegal may have learnt a bit about the progress the Malawi team is making. Guinea might be looking back at what the result would have been had the Flames been at full strength.
Tonight is a defining moment for the Flames, a moment for the players to demonstrate, in victory or in defeat, the enduring nature of the progress they have shown thus far.
The burden of public expectation on the Flames is still light. Because by reaching this round for the first time in the nation’s football history, they have achieved what sadists, cynics and many patriots alike gave them no chance for.
The problem though is that with this achievement, The Flames have whetted appetites for the team to achieve a little more.
So, suppose they deliver that tonight, suppose The flames consume the lions inside Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium – just as the Barbary lions that roamed the Atlas Mountains and gave this Morocco team a name became extinct in the wild – there will be enough fireworks to light the whole world and champagne to make the whole nation drunk.