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Where are the players?

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It has taken Ronny van Geneugden just 26 days, three winless and scoreless games in charge of the Malawi National Football Team to diagnose the Flames—that local players are not technically and tactically sound.

In doing so, the Flames Coach has simply echoed what his predecessors and indeed, analysts, have always said — that the country needs to fix its dysfunctional football production chain before hiring an expatriate coach.

“So, I want to try and see more tactical players with specific qualities. In this regard, we will be watching at least two games per week starting this coming weekend and I will be engaging club and developmental coaches very often,” the Belgian told www. fam.mw early this week.

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In further observing that his charges froze due to pressure in the African Nations Championship games they lost by 1-0 margins to Madagascar on April 22 and 29, Van Geneugden did not necessary say anything new.

Football Association of Malawi (Fam) hired a consultant from England, Andy Bell, in 2015 and he made similar observations that the Flames players train in a casual manner hence fail to cope with the pressure of real match situations.

Malawi conceded late in Antananarivo and two minutes after restart at Bingu National Stadium when the pressure to score two unanswered goals proved too much in front of a home crowd pregnant with expectations.

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English coach, Stephen Constantine, who presided over the worst run by an expatriate coach, losing six straight games between 2006 and 2008, also made similar observations about Malawian players’ shortcomings.

“The national league [Super League] is poor,” Constantine told Goal.com on January 14 2010.

“You will notice that 85 percent of the players in that national team are not from the local leagues. That will tell you something.

“So, that was one of the key areas we started to work on; methodology of coaching, how to build up from defence into attack. Tactically, that is really the main area because from an individual point of view, most African players are very skilful.

“It’s just that they are not schooled properly from an early age to deal with the tactical aspect of it. So that was the biggest thing we worked on for most of the time that I was there.

“It was all exercises; but tactical exercises—how to defend when we have got the ball, how to defend when we don’t have the ball; that kind of thing.”

It is clear that the more Fam hires an expatriate coach, the more the question of the quality of players crops up.

Flames Assistant Coach, Gerald Phiri Senior, told last Saturday’s Weekend Nation in last week’s edition that van Geneugden observed local players’ shortcomings.

“Ronny has been honest in his assessment of our football. He told me that the players in Malawi are technically and tactically not good enough. This is an area he wants to work on so that our players are sharp technically,” Phiri was quoted saying.

Yet when asked on April 8 2017, Fam President, Walter Nyamilandu, seemed so certain that the Belgian would instantly turn things around.

“I have just explained that there are short and long term targets for the coach,” visibly irritated Nyamilandu told the media at Fam’s Mpira Village, Chiwembe Township in Blantyre where the association was unveiling van Geneugden on a two-year contract.

On that day, the Fam boss had just handed van Geneugden the dual task of producing results with the incurable Flames while at the same time expecting him to instil a new playing philosophy across the board.

Three weeks later, a draw against Kenya and identical 1-0 losses to Madagascar have the Belgian echoing what neutrals have always felt is the biggest problem with Malawi football.

Between now and next month, Geneugden has said he will be watching two games every weekend so as to identify the players with the technical and tactical ability.

“I want to create a style of football, not only for the first team but also for youth teams. When results are not positive, at least, you should be able to see that ‘aah that is the style of play for Malawi,” the Belgian told the press when he was unveiled.

However, the country’s youth football structures have been neglected for a long time and the Super League is not competitive enough so, the coach will end up selecting the very same recycled players.

Furthermore, in most youth football leagues the focus is not on development but results.

Young players are simply not given time to learn and develop as was the case at the defunct Surestream Academy in Blantyre.

Additionally, the players’ development path is not clear they jump from grassroots football to the Super League.

Junior national teams do not participate in enough international competitions to aid the players’ development. Usually one graduates to the Flames after playing a few junior national team games.

Add to the Super League clubs’ failure to compete continentally, then you have serious problems for Malawi football.

In view of this, it is doubtful if the Belgian will find such technical players, who, according to definition, must be able to buy themselves time and space, play in tight areas, improvise, have a strong touch, skill and imagination.

However, time is not the best ally for the Belgian as his charges return to the battlefront next month in the Cosafa Cup and the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

If the Flames displayed their technical deficiencies against minnows, Madagascar, you have to be very afraid learning that Malawi will be up against reigning Africa kings Cameroon and Morocco in the Afcon qualifiers.

Van Geneugden has been in charge of the Flames for less than a month.

It may be too harsh judging him for presiding over three winless games, but no one has ever had a honeymoon with the Flames job. Malawi football is starved of success.

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