- Category: Sports Extra
- Written by Peter Kanjere
As Malawi football searches for answers as to why 48 years after attaining independence it cannot export a player to a big club in the rough and tumble of European football, SportsXtra picks one critical dimension of the problem.
Continued disregard of physical attributes in Malawi talent identification programme could be a stumbling block on the dream road to Europe. Other African countries that have exported footballers to Europe offer an interesting case study.
Most southern African countries have, at some stage of their football, had the distinction of selling their finest talents to big leagues such as in England, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Portugal, Belgium and France.
In Zimbabwe, Benjani Mwaruwari hoisted his countryâ€™s flag in the difficult-to-impress English Premier League with Portsmouth before their relegation to the Championship.
South Africans such as Benni McCarthy have done it in England at Blackburn Rovers.
Zambian Jacob Mulenga is a top player in the Netherlands for Utrecht FC. Namibian Collins Benjamin had a feel of the Bundesliga with SV Hamburg.
Mozambican Mexer is a respected figure at Portuguese Super League outfit Sporting de Portugal. Angola has Manucho at Real Valladolid in Spanish La Liga having had stints with Manchester United and Sunderlandâ€”yes having signed straight from Angola league side, Atletico.
So, why always Malawi football?
The height factor
The top southern African players mentioned above, with an exception of Bafana Bafana skipper Steven Piennar, have something special about their heights. Mulenga (1.86 metres), Mwaruwari (1.88 metres), McCarthy (1.83 metres), Benjani (1.82 metres), Mexer (1.87 metres) and Manucho (1.87 metres). Piennar stands at 1.70 metres and he appears to be an isolated case.
Comparing to the last Flames squad that beat Chad at Kamuzu Stadium, one gets interesting facts about the heights of the starting XI: Simplex Nthala (1:79 metres), James Sangala (1.76 metres), Moses Chavula (1.67 metres), Foster Namwela (1.8 metres),Â Limbikani Mzava (1.78 metres), Dave Banda (1.74 metres), Chimango Kaira (1.70 metres), John Banda (estimated at 1.67 metres), Joseph Kamwendo (1.67 metres), Robin Ngalande (1.70 metres), Jimmy Zakazaka (1.68 metres).
In short, the tallest in the Flames side that faced Chad was Namwela. From the last Under-17 side that qualified for the 2009 Africa Youth Championship, the tallest player was Mzava. Remember why French side Monaco could not sign the Flames young defender in April?
â€œThe coach liked me, but the problem is that they want a taller guy than me. They needed a tall player. They say I am good with everything and that I am strong. The only problem was with the height,â€ Mzava told South Africaâ€™s Soccer Laduma magazine on April 23 2012.
The statistics about the heights of the few southern African players to have rubbed shoulders with the best in top European clubs is vindicated by the physical attributes of Malawians who came close to that level of football in Europe, Esau Kanyenda and Russel Mwafulirwa.
Kanyenda played for Russian top league side, Rostov with Mwafulirwa spending some three years at Swedish top league outfit, IFK Norrkoping.
Their heights? Kanyenda stands at 1.83 metres whereas Mwafulirwa is (1.86 metres). Arguably, the tallest Malawian player in Europe could be Clement Kafwafwa who plays for LFA, a fourth-tier side in Denmark. He stands at 1.90 metres.Â
Ever wondered why more talented Malawian defenders have failed to attract decent offers yet the rejected stone Kafwafwa is, to quote Charles Nyirenda, â€œeating sausages in Europeâ€.
Ian Hawkey touches on the subject in his all encompassing book Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football: â€œSooner or later, when you speak to a coach in Europe who might be interested in a young player,â€ says one scout employed to survey African talent for a leading British club, â€œthey ask you â€˜So, what is his aerial elevation like?â€™ They want big, tall, strong players first of all.â€
Height factor ignored from grassroots
The Malawi playersâ€™ physical handicaps start from the grass roots, where developmental coaches show blatant disregard for height as a prerequisite for specialised positions of goalkeepers, defenders and strikers.
Granted with the latest Under-17 selected, you can bet your last kwacha that the choice of junior national team players has disregarded the obvious need for physique.
Since the national teams are the only platform for Malawi footballers to showcase their talent to the world, do not be surprised that other up-and-coming footballers would also experience what Mzava faced in Israel and France.
Of course, the other dimension to the reason is on temperament and technique but most teams in Europe are willing to gamble on young African players with flaws in these areas. Not when it comes to physique.