Monday, 8 May 2017

Malawi – 19th Century Football in a 21st Century Arena

April 29

Hello everyone!

100 is often a good number in sport. Scoring a century in cricket draws great acclaim; 100 is seen as the benchmark 3-dart average for a professional player. Being ranked the 100th best country in the world at a sport, however, isn’t something to shout about.

Malawi’s national team certainly haven’t had their share of success. Ever. The ‘Flames’, as they are known, have qualified just twice for their continental football tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations. They were knocked out of qualifying for the next World Cup in the very first stage of qualification, along with other football luminaries such as Mauritius, Somalia and Central African Republic.

Malawi's old, flag, used between 2010 and 2012, was
the only one available outside the stadium

Natives see their football team – or more specifically, the administration running football in their country – as a very bad joke. This was made evident recently when Malawi almost withdrew from Africa’s secondary continental competition, stating that they didn’t have enough money to participate.

BBC reporting the withdrawal, which was partly due to
a disagreement with the government over hiring a foreign coach

Money was miraculously found (no easy feat in a country currently dealing with a major corruption scandal called ‘Cashgate’) and Malawi were entered into the qualifying stages of an event I’ve never heard of. Having read up on it, I think it’s a great idea. It’s a tournament played between national teams, with the catch being that no expatriate players can take part. It encourages players from their local league to take centre stage, which is great considering the talent drain which has happened from Africa over the last 20 years.

Africa's version of UEFA is based in Egypt

Malawi were deemed rubbish enough to be placed in the very first round of regional qualifying, to play Madagascar. Disappointingly, their nickname was nothing to do with lemurs, instead being Barea, a type of zebu. I had to Google both.

Zebus are the only type of cattle that lives in
tropical rainforests

The less tropical surroundings of Lilongwe's fancy new stadium
The second leg of this titanic match-up was Malawi’s first FIFA-recognised game in their new national stadium. If you’ve followed my previous blogs, it’s the spaceship that can be seen from our back garden.

View of the Bingu National Stadium from our garden in August 2016
We took the opportunity to check out the Bingu National Stadium (named, as many things are here, after the former President whose brother currently runs the country) at close quarters.

The stadium doubles up as an athletics arena
The Chinese-funded stadium has been beset with problems since construction started, ranging from power outages to some people stealing the copper wiring from the electrics. It does look, however, like it belongs in the 21st century.
An example of Chinese influence

The spaceship has landed!
Unfortunately, the football team and its administration seem stuck in the dark ages. The lack of moveable posts in the stadium meant that the national team actually came to train at our school earlier in the week.
This photo followed a rather bizarre training drill involving
doing diving headers from 6 inches off the floor
The stadium is within walking distance of our house. There is a car park for people to use, though many drivers seem to prefer the side of the road…

Parking: anything goes
The stadium was probably one-third full to its 41,000 capacity. Tickets are 2,000 MWK (£2) but when the average monthly wage is 15,000 MWK, it’s quite a significant outlay. Sensibly, most people choose to sit in the shade.

Our second half view - we were just to the right of the large
green sign for the first half

Open stand - unless you looked foreign, in which case you
were moved into a nicer seating area
The stadium experience in itself was particularly interesting. Sights in the stands included a man selling boiled eggs, a man dressed in full chef’s garb, and another entrepreneur carrying a camera and printer to take instant photos for supporters.

The man would often wait for the egg to have been eaten and
collect the shell from the consumer

Fresh from the restaurant, obviously
Then there’s the atmosphere. Vuvuzelas blaring. Anthems being loudly and proudly sung.

The match itself was fast-paced, with the lack of qualify reflecting both team’s position far down the world rankings. It was almost comical watching the number of air kicks, shanks and misplaced passes. Malawi’s fear of shooting ended up costing them, with a 1-0 defeat to Madagascar resulting in them – along with the Seychelles – being the first teams eliminated from their region. In spite of this, the fans were still supportive of both the team and their new manager.

Madagascar's team talk must have been inspiring -
they scored minutes after the restart
The stadium, an unnecessary extravagance in a country beset with many other problems, would grace anywhere in the world. Malawi’s football team…wouldn’t. The Flames have been extinguished from continental competition for another year.

Malawi supporters flock out of the stadium

Love you all,