Thursday, December 9, 2010

‘AFCON-obsession’ limits Flames lunge into elite bracket

By Richard Chirombo

Call them ‘Malawi AFCON Limited’!

For 46 whopping years, the Malawi Senior National Football team has played the role of a vessel that sails in circles: taking unnecessarily long to reach the desired destination.

Soccer analysts acknowledge that this has done Malawi soccer more harm than good, culminating in the unenviable crown of perennial under-achievers. The ituation has prompted soccer analysts and administrators to take a fresh look at Malawi’s progress on the football highway, and map the right way to the Promised Land.

Soccer analyst Felix Ngamanya-Sapao blamed Malawi’s snail-paced journey to soccer glory on amateurism. He said, while the concept of professionalism was just creeping in, a majority of transactions are still conducted on amateur and semi-professional level, reflecting on lack of seriousness.

“Elsewhere, soccer means business- big business. Things are different in Malawi in that our elite league (The TNM Super League) is semi-professional; players are still waking up to the idea of engaging soccer agents on contractual matters; many of our football sponsors do it just to fulfill their corporate social responsibility, as opposed to getting business returns out of it; while playing soccer is still viewed by both clubs and players as a part time thing and not a careers, among other reasons,” said Ngamanya-Sapao.

All these challenges play the role of unnecessary cargo, weighing down on the vessel that sails in circles.

And yet, according to soccer commentator Moses Dossi, it is not all there is to Malawi’s lack of progress. The notion that expatriate coaches make for quick progress has taken us aback, too, and this on many occasions.

Dossi said, for the most part, foreign coaches took Malawi’s soccer standards towards the downward road-of-shame, in part because of the language problem, and partly because they did not fully comprehend the local situation.

“Of course, we have registered some relative successes experimenting with foreign coaches, but the end was not mostly good. Kim Splidsboel tried his best, and took us somewhere, but Burkhard Ziese and Steven Constantine are a good reminder of how far back we have gone with foreign coaches,” said Dossi.

The former football commentator, popularly known as ‘Man on the Touchline’ in his hey days, urged for continued faith in local coaches, pointing at the ‘inspiring’ tale of current Flames mentor Kinnah Phiri.

After years of sailing in doldrums in the endless sea, last going to the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals in the 80s, Kinnah took the Flames, as Malawi are known, to Angola. Not that the Flames had never been to the once war-ravaged nation before; they had been there countless times, this time on Confederation of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) business.

But COSAFA is a competition unrecognized by the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), which posed an immediate challenge to football associations: reluctances by professional clubs to release players for national duty. It also parades, on the face of it, soccer’s small entities.

“Our appearance in Angola was not a fluke; it was deserved. This tells us that local coaches, given the opportunity, can deliver the goods. Just give them the necessary materials and resources,” said Dossi.

It is a sentiment supported by the Flames’ mentor himself. Kinnah felt that, for a long time, local coaches were looked down upon, a development that has contributed to dwindling soccer standards since the locals did not feel duty-bound to assist the foreign coaches.

“How do you offer help when your input is not valued? But things have changed, though I would ask local coaches to support each other. Some local coaches do not feel proud when a fellow coach has been offered the mantle, and this has a negative impact on the national team because some of the players are drawn from local clubs. We need to put our hands together,” said Kinnah.

However, Kinnah also feels that another major problem in Malawi has been our habit to limit our horizon to AFCON, which he said has contributed to the country’s stagnation outside the elite bracket of the world’s top 70 clubs.

This has closed the English Premiership door on our players. United Kingdom’s top flight teams- the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Sunderland only source talent from countries within official FIFA ranking’s top 70, leaving Malawian players out of contention.

Kinnah said AFCON should not be the limiting factor. The country’s tendency to limit its horizon to reaching AFCON finals has translated into long periods of inactivity when there are no scheduled games.

“Ideally, the Flames should aim at breaking into the top 70 to increase chances of our players playing in the English Premier League. This means playing against Africa’s top sides even when there are AFCON, COSAFA, or other international competitions’ games. That is the only way we can achieve big results in the world,” said Kinnah.

Football Association of Malawi (FAM) President, Walter Nyamilandu-Manda, acknowledges the need to cast our eyes beyond AFCON finals, saying that has, in fact, always been at the back of his mind.

“We should not limit our horizon to reaching AFCON finals. If we want to make it into FIFA’s top 70, we need to put in place a sustained programme of action. We need to be consistent; we need to draw up a strategic plan of action and follow it to the latter, irrespective of whether we are preparing for AFCON games, COSAFA, CESAFA, or international friendly games,” he said.

Nyamilandu-Manda said, however, that football administrators always face the problem of inadequate resources to turn their dreams into reality. He said most programmes were being frustrated by lack of finances

“So, it is not just a question of having a limited scope. We need financial resources to take our game to another level,” said Nyamilandu-Manda.

Just recently, Flames captain Peter Mponda preferred the truth to being cool, and lamented that senior national team players receive “pittance” allowances. He said K15, 000 for a win was not even enough for his children’s toy needs, imploring soccer officials to review the same.

“Our counterparts receive much better perks,” said Mponda.

He struck a common choral chord because fellow players and Nyamilandu-Manda concurred with the captain-fantastic.

The allowances were quickly revisited in a temporary arrangement in the game against Tchad, and the Flames were ‘spoiled’ with K30, 000 each for pummeling the rookies. Mponda said it was a good beginning, but the amount could not be a better-end.

These challenges have not gone unnoticed by the powers-that- be. Sports and Youth Minister, Dr. Luscious Kanyumba, told The Malawi Mail government was aware of the challenges facing soccer, vowing to do ‘everything possible to bail ourselves out of this quagmire’.

“You may agree with me that President Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika has taken the lead in developing sports in Malawi. The Presidential Cup, his sponsorship of Bingu Tigresses, invitations extended to athletes who do well in various disciplines and increased funding to sports associations through the Malawi National Council of Sports are enough indication of this zeal,” said Kanyumba.

He said it was government’s wish that Malawi excels in all sports disciplines, and urged the private sector to help government fulfill this wish.

“We thank the private sector for their untiring efforts in sponsoring various sports disciplines. We are grateful to TNM (sponsors of the Super League), MTL (for sponsoring a netball and football side), Standard Bank, among others, for their continued interest in sports development. We would, however, like to ask others to emulate this good example,” said Kanyumba.

Only then, he said, can Malawi’s aspirations be unlimited.

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