By Mabvuto Kambuwe
A grand opening deserves a grand closing. After five weeks of intriguing football, season four of the Airtel Top 8 Cup concluded in style last week.
The competition returned after one year absence due to Covid-19 pandemic.
It returned in style after Airtel increased the sponsorship from K198 million to K234 million for the next three years, translating to K78 million per year.
The stakes were also increased in this year’s edition.
But as usual in a game of football, there were moments of pain and joy throughout the competition.
At the end of the tournament, Nyasa Big Bullets broke the jinx and also ended Silver Strikers’ dominance in the competition.
Bullets needed courage or a bit of luck to win the competition 5-3 on post-match penalties after 1-1 draw in regulation time.
Stain Davie scored for the Central Bankers with a diving header after nine minutes into the match but youngster Lanjesi Nkhoma netted the equaliser six minutes later.
In all honesty, the final between Bullets and Silver lived up to its billing. It was a balanced affair as both teams had chances to wrap the match in regulation time but no team got the winner.
However, the final kept fans from both camps on the edge of their seats.
After 1-1 in regulation time, the contest went straight into penalties.
Bullets converted their spot kicks through Yamikani Fodya, Zicco Mkanda, Chimwemwe Idana, Gomezgani Chirwa and Nickson Nyasulu whereas Levison Maganizo of Silver saw his penalty kick saved by Ernest Kakhobwe.
On the part of Silver, Frank Banda, Davie and Innocent Shema converted their spot kicks.
It was the first time Bullets players lifted the trophy.
Bullets pocketed K17 million plus a trophy whereas Silver got K5.5 million.
It was time for Bullets to celebrate and enjoy their first ever Airtel Top 8 Cup success.
After the final whistle, red and white flags was the most outstanding feature in Blantyre.
The fans turned Kamuzu Stadium into a theatre of celebrations.
Surely, no one could have blamed them as it was the first time to win the Airtel Top 8 Cup.
But for Silver, it was a disappointing final and they left the facility crest fallen.
However, Silver have won the competition twice in four years.
The final was contested by two best coaches in domestic football, Kalisto Pasuwa for Bullets and Daniel Kabwe for Silver.
Both Pasuwa and Kabwe were aiming for a double after winning the TNM Super League and FDH Bank, respectively.
However, it was Pasuwa who had the last laugh after completing his first double in domestic football.
Pasuwa praised his boys for a job well done.
“Silver gave us a good run for our money. But the boys showed great character to win the Airtel Top 8 Cup,” the Zimbabwean said.
It was a journey that started on November 5, 2021 with Bullets and Mafco FC at Kamuzu Stadium before Moyale and Wanderers 24 hours later the following day.
Despite losing the final, Kabwe said it was a good season.
“I enjoyed myself and I learnt a lot both in the game and the culture,” Kabwe said.
Silver won the inaugural edition in 2017 after beating Mighty Wanderers 10-9 on post-match penalties at Bingu National Stadium before winning it again in 2019 following a 1-0 victory over Karonga United at the same venue.
Blue Eagles won the 2018 edition after 1-0 victory over Bullets at BNS.
Surely, this year’s Airtel Top 8 will always find space in the archives as it set several records. It was the first time the competition produced derbies in the semifinals of the competition this year.
In the semifinals , Bullets thrashed their rivals Wanderers 4-1, with Nigerian striker Babatunde Adepoju scoring all the goals against his former club. Vincent Nyangulu scored the consolation for Wanderers.
Then, it was the turn of Lilongwe derby involving Silver and Civil Service and the Bankers won 2-0 courtesy of Davie and Zebron Kalima’s goals.
Adepoju broke the competition’s record by scoring eight goals, including four goals in one match to clain the golden boot.
However, he had no chance to add to his tally as he did not play in the final due to two yellow cards suspension.
Former Wanderers striker Khumbo Ng’ambi and Joseph Kamwendo had won the golden boot award with three goals each in 2017 and 2018, respectively whereas former Silver forward Khuda Muyaba won it with two goals only in 2019.
In addition, for a fourth straight year, the cup eluded Malawi Defence Force (MDF) teams.
Two teams from MDF, namely Moyale Barracks and Mafco qualified for the tournament by virtue of finishing on position six and eight, respectively but exited in the quarterfinals.
Moyale were knocked out of the competition by Wanderers 5-4 on post-match penalties after 1-1 on aggregate.
On the part of Mafco, they lost 5-2 on aggregate to Bullets.
Perhaps, this should be food for thought for the military teams, having failed to reach the finals of the competition since it was introduced in 2017.
It was also the first time that a Blantyre-based team won the competition.
Additionally, this was the second final to be decided on post-match penalties after the inaugural edition ended 10-9 in favour of Silver against Wanderers in 2017.
Surely, the Airtel Top 8 lived up to its billing.