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Page last updated at 18:20 GMT, Saturday, 16 January 2010

Malawi on the verge of football history in Angola

By Piers Edwards
BBC Sport, Luanda

The Malawi team bond together in training
This is Malawi's first appearance at the Nations Cup since 1984

Malawi's squad know they stand on the brink of history ahead of Monday's final Group A clash with Mali in the Angolan city of Cabinda.

After the red-hot opening day victory over Algeria, when the tournament outsiders thumped the World Cup finalists 3-0, a win will take the Flames to the quarter-finals.

"This is perhaps the biggest game ever in Malawi's history," coach Kinnah Phiri told BBC Sport.

"Reaching the last eight would be everything for us and make the whole nation proud.

"It would be history and having been absent from the finals for 26 years, to get there in our second Nations Cup would be no mean achievement."

Even if the Flames fail to make it through Group A, which hosts Angola lead by a point from Malawi and Algeria (with Mali bottom), FA officials already deserve a pat on the back.

For when Walter Nyamilandu assumed the Malawi FA (Fam) presidency in 2005, memories of the Flames' solitary Nations Cup appearance in 1984 had grown dim.

In fact, the Malawians had not come close to qualifying in years, with two close campaigns - 1990 and 1998 - interrupting several bottom-place finishes.

Since the 1984 appearance came after beating Madagascar, following an initial walkover against Zaire (now DR Congo), reaching Angola 2010 is all the more impressive.

"After beating Djibouti 8-1 in our first qualifier, people just thought Djibouti were weak," Phiri says.

"But then we beat (reigning African champions) Egypt 1-0 and people started to take notice.

"Since then, we haven't stopped: beating DR Congo in the first qualifying group (which Egypt topped), Guinea in the second and we drew with group winners Ivory Coast as well."

Indeed, Malawi's path to Angola was anything but easy, seeing off the Congolese in the first round before ousting Guinea in the final stages.

So what engineered the change in fortunes from a team with just two Europe-based players?

"This is all to do with sound management, starting with the top where the FA president is doing a great job," captain Peter Mponda told BBC Sport.

"We don't have problems like before, where there were always money issues and we only played teams geographically close to us."

Malawi coach Kinnah Phiri
Reaching the last eight would be everything for us and make the whole nation proud.

Malawi coach, Kinnah Phiri

Not this time, with Malawi warming up for Angola with impressive friendlies - and results - against Nations Cup rivals Ghana (0-0), Mozambique (2-1) and Egypt (1-1).

Yet it was victory over the mighty Pharaohs in qualifying that Phiri credits with revitalising his nation.

"After beating Egypt, they built up so much confidence that they are no longer shaken no matter who we play," the former international adds.

But while this belief may explain recent results, how did Fam make one of Africa's big underachievers fly?

"When I took over, all the youth programmes had been abandoned and the sole focus was on mainstream football - our Super League," Nyamilandu's booming voice tells BBC Sport.

"There was no attention to the foundations so we've tried to have junior national teams - U17, U20 and U23s - that were just not there before.

"We also created a youth league, which we never had, and now we're seeing the fruits."

Indeed they are for last year the Malawians celebrated an unprecedented feat as they contested a maiden Fifa World Cup - even if their U17s lost all their group games in Nigeria.

Incredibly, Malawi made the finals despite having no youth academies which has prompted Fam to order Phiri to scour the countryside for talent.

"The biggest challenge Malawian football now has is how to maintain this success," says Nyamilandu.

"The secret lies in the rural areas so we have a programme to go out there to continue to identify talent."

This was how several members of the U17s were unearthed, which means Nyamilandu's dreams have grown even bigger.

"Our intention now is to go to the World Cup in 2022," he explains.

"But we can only go to 2022 if we contest every Nations Cup, so we're talking to the private sector about sponsorship so that we can put youth programmes in place.

"We think the academies can provide a shortcut to building a new generation that can take us to the World Cup."

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see also
Caf acknowledge Malawi complaint
15 Jan 10 |  African
Malawi boss awarded new contract
13 Jan 10 |  African
Angola 2-0 Malawi
14 Jan 10 |  African
Malawi 3-0 Algeria
11 Jan 10 |  African

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