A fierce power struggle between coach Ernest Mtawali and his assistant Nsanzurwimo Ramadhan, a failed 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualification bid and an atrocious outing at Cosafa Cup, highlights the Flames’ misadventures in 2016.
After Malawi’s elimination in the Russia 2018 World Cup qualification by Tanzania, the Flames started the year with a mission to qualify for the Gabon 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
Coach Mtawali inherited a team that had derailed its campaign by an embarrassing 1-2 home loss to Zimbabwe in 2015 under Young Chimodzi.
His first assignment was in September 2015 in which the Flames managed to hold Swaziland to a 2-2 draw away in Mbabane giving hope that 2016 would bring good tidings, only if Malawi were to win the remaining matches in Group L.
With the next match against Guinea set for March 25, Mtawali had a good five months to prepare for the away fixture.
The Flames managed a draw against Guinea in Conakry, a result that was largely described as fair considering Malawi’s poor away record.
But the team threw caution to the wind in the return leg some five days later as they gave up a 1-0 lead through Chiukepo Msowoya header and lost 2-1 at Kamuzu Stadium.
With two games to wrap up the campaign, hope started fading as Malawi was pushed to position four with just two points from four games.
Malawi’s survival depended on the Flames beating Zimbabwe away in the return leg in June, but disaster struck in Harare where Malawi was clobbered 3-0 by the Warriors.
The Flames proceeded to Namibia for the Cosafa Cup where Mtawali hoped to restore the team’s tattered image.
The Flames managed a draw against hosts Namibia in a strength testing match that gave the team some confidence after the Harare debacle.
The team started their campaign on a high note beating Angola 3-0 through a Gabadinho Mhango hat-trick.
The Flames went on to beat Mauritius 1-0 though a Miracle Gabeya goal. Malawi needed just a draw against Lesotho to proceed to the quarter-finals, but fate would not allow Mtawali’s charges that opportunity.
The Flames lost to lowly-ranked Lesotho 1-0 to be eliminated from the competition in group stages.
That loss to Lesotho’s Likuena, which was the first for Malawi in over three decades, sealed the technical panel’s fate as FAM went on to announce that it would not renew Mtawali’s contract after its expiry in August.
FAM fired Mtawali citing that he lacked discipline and tactical competence.
He was also accused of working in isolation as he had a poor relationship with his assistant Ramadhan.
The association assigned Ramadhan for the Flames’ last academic Afcon qualifier against Swaziland in 2017 Afcon which Malawi won 1-0 courtesy of Gerald Phiri Jnr’s goal.
Assessing Mtawali’s performance, experienced coach Yasin Osman told The Nation earlier that Malawi’s underachievement under Mtawali was due to lack of financial support and criticism towards his team rebuilding exercise.
Osman pointed out Mtawali’s efforts to bring in new players such Isaac Kaliyati, Stanley Sanudi, Miracle Gabeya, Dalitso Sailesi, Rafiq Namwela, Gerald Phiri Jnr and Brighton Munthali—all Under-20 graduates—who became the backbone of the Flames.
But analyst Charles Nyirenda blamed the team’s poor performance on poor tactics due to Mtawali’s inexperience.
“The head coach was inexperienced resulting in no steady team whose starting line up we could not predict,” he said.
But the coach defended his move arguing he needed time to assess the players before coming up with a first XI.
“I needed, at least one year to work with the players and know their strength and weaknesses,” he said.
Though much of the blame was on Mtawali, poor funding also played a role.
Malawi failed to play a friendly match against Botswana as part of preparations for the Zimbabwe match.
The Flames almost failed to travel to Guinea for the Afcon match.
FAM embarrassed government by taking a begging bowl to Prophet Shepherd Bushiri who donated K40 million for the trip to materialise.
The Flames poor performance in 2016 reflected on the Coca-Cola Fifa rankings.
Malawi started the year 2016 on position 106 and moved two steps up in February and maintained the position in March.
April saw Malawi dropping three places to positions 107, but went up one place in May.
In June, Malawi returned to position 107, but the following month, dropped to 133, the worst position in recent times.
In August, Malawi improved to position 127. In September, the Flames were one of the best-movers as they rose to position 99.
But Malawi just managed to stay in the top 100 for the month of October and returned to the danger zone in November at position 103. n