Flames coach Ernest Mtawali did not play any role during Super League awards presentation at Comesa Hall in Blantyre; but his presence was undeniable. As patrons admiringly greeted him, he smiled cheerfully, that smile of a man at the height of his powers.
But beneath his heart, Mtawali knows that at the nearby Kamuzu Stadium, a bigger portion of his fate lies. It’s here where Malawi, after playing away to Guinea, will, four days later, face the West Africans in a return Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifying fixture in March.
Ahead of the double encounter, Mtawali is seemingly a divided man; his philosophy and plans and dreams are undergoing hasty changes. Since taking over mid last year, the former midfielder has been featuring young players in what he dubbed as team rebuilding.
But in a sudden turn of events, he has declared that he will involve more experienced players during the Guinea matches. Among the targeted names are midfielders Joseph Kamwendo and Robert Ng’ambi.
“The young players can’t be trusted because they are still learning the ropes. Against Guinea I will call up more experienced players,” Mtawali remarked after Flames lost to Uganda 2-0 at the Cecafa tournament in December.
Mtawali is currently in South Africa to assess Malawian players ahead of the Flames camping which starts next month.
But the trip has not gone without criticism. Former Flames captain Peter Mponda describes it as unnecessary mission.
“What information can’t the coach get through phone calls and e-mails? Doesn’t he watch South Africa league games on television to monitor the targeted players?” Mponda probes before adding, “This is unnecessary adventure.”
Mponda says the only way the trip can prove successful is if the coach makes peace with Ng’ambi, whose future with the Flames looks utterly bleak after he was benched during the Afcon qualifier against Swaziland.
‘It’s good that the coach realises he needs experience. The most consistent player now is Ng’ambi and Ernest must, at all cost, convince him to return,” the retired defender says.
But Football Association of Malawi (FAM) has defended the trip as crucial.
“The coach needs to meet coaches at clubs keeping our players,” FAM president Walter Nyamilandu narrates. “The best way to get crucial information is to meet someone physically, that is why he didn’t opt for e-mails and phone calls.”
Since the domestic season is on break, FAM has approved a lengthy four-week Flames camp in a bid to make the local players fit.
Meanwhile, former player and coach Shadreck Mpesi has urged Mtawali to ask South Africa clubs to release for camp Malawian players that are not featuring.
“Gerald Phiri Jnr is not playing because of work permit. Such players must join camp early so they can gel with their colleagues,” he reasons.
With uncertainty surrounding Flames chances of playing friendly matches, Mpesi expects the coach to include a bulk of players that played at Cecafa and World Cup preliminary qualifiers against Tanzania.
“I don’t expect the coach to make several changes because the team has been gelling well. Let him not be carried away by foreign-based players,” he cautions.
Malawi currently lies third in the 2017 Afcon qualifying group L with one point from two games while Swaziland and Zimbabwe are top with four points. Surprisingly, Guinea, widely seen as favourites to qualify, anchor the table with one point.
Back at the TNM Super League awards: when Mtawali was leaving with a few friends, the moon had slipped out of sight, only its glow still visible along the rim of dark clouds.
Are these nightly signs a prophecy of future doom, condemning the coach as an inheritor of a sad footballing history? Or do the dim lights from stars offer a glimmer of hope? Time will tell.