He might not be the most highly qualified football coach the country has ever produced. In fact, he could be the least qualified coach in the TNM Super League.
According to Football Association of Malawi (FAM) records, he holds a C Licence obtained in 2010, but Mighty Wanderers coach Elia Kananji’s achievements speak a different story.
He has won the Super League and the Carlsberg Cup back-to-back with Bullets and Mighty Be Forward Wanderers.
Coming from a humble background, his motivation is that football is his life?
“Football brings food on my table. After retiring at Escom United, I was just idle and I was struggling to make ends meet. I was encouraged to start coaching by Tiya Somba-Banda, who at that time was Escom United treasurer and so my career started with Escom Reserves [now Blantyre United],” Kananji explains.
Somba-Banda would later register the coach for the C Licence training and after some reluctance, Kananji decided to attend the course.
“At first, I was not confident, but my colleagues such as Leo Mpulula encouraged me and when he left for Azam Tigers in the 2012/2013 season, I ended up heading the technical panel. That season we almost won the league title, only to finish on third position and that is how Bullets noticed my achievement and hired me,” he recalls.
At Bullets, Kananji won a double—the TNM Super and Carlsberg Cup—but he was unceremoniously fired because the club wanted a highly qualified coach with a CAF B Licence for the CAF Champions League campaign.
The Nomads, who were patiently waiting in the wings, immediately roped Kananji in as head coach and six months later, he wrestled the Carlsberg Cup from the team he helped win it in 2014.
Ironically, the opposite bench had the so-called highly qualified coaches such as Mabvuto Lungu and Lloyd Nkhwazi, who both have CAF B Licence.
That feat alone gave Kananji a place in Malawi football history as the first coach to win the Carlsberg Cup two consecutive years, but also with two different clubs.
But what makes Kananji exceptional? According to Somba-Banda, it is his orderliness.
“I first met him when he was team manager for Escom Reserves. I noticed something in him. He was always on top of things, very organised— ensuring that the team’s requirements were presented, discussed and agreed upon in good time,” Somba-Banda recalls.
“He was so focused knowing that the success and good performance of a team does not only depend on the drills on the ground, but also the welfare and physiological preparedness of the players and the team in general.”
Football Association of Malawi (FAM) has set up CAF B Licence as the cut-off point for all Super League coaches.
Yet Kananji’s impeccable record has left football officials failing to reinforce the policy of barring underqualified coaches from plying their trade in the elite league.
Since he only has a FAM C Licence, Kananji has to undergo FAM B Licence before he can be considered for the FAM A Licence and then the CAF B and finally, the CAF A Licence that the majority of local coaches sat for in June this year.
Kananji was not part of that training. When he tried to enquire if he could undergo the training, FAM turned him down.
“I was told I am not qualified to undergo the CAF A Licence because I have a C Licence,” Kananji explained. “I couldn’t understand why I was turned down because the majority of the people that underwent that training are not even active.”
“Most of them are not even attached to clubs. They had to be fished out training just because they hold the B Licence. Now, what is the use of promoting such coaches when some of us who have a proven track record are not considered?”
The coach, however, acknowledges that his Achilles heel is that he did not go further with education after dropping out of school.
“It’s not by choice. I was orphaned at a very young age. I grew up in a household where you never knew if you would have the next meal. School fees was a big problem and I had to drop out of school. Thank God football saved me,” Kananji said.
The coach says being underqualified has affected his career.
“Imagine at Bullets I was denied the chance to coach a team that participated in CAF just because I don’t have the necessary qualification,” Kananji explained.
He also has to endure ridicule from supporters due to his poor education background.
“I am aware of what people say about me. I just ignore them and focus on my job,” he said.
“I have three children. My first born Kelvin aged 17 sat for 2015 MSCE examinations. The other two, Jerome and Hamsa, are still in primary school. My target is to make sure that I educate my children so that they don’t end up like me.”
At 39, Kananji says he is ready to go back to school so that his coaching career can reach maximum potential.
His club Mighty Be Forward Wanderers say they are aware of his predicament and will work tooth and nail to make sure that he goes for further studies.
“As Wanderers, we have told Kananji that we would like to see him upgrading. Whatever hurdles were there for him before we will make sure we surmount them,” Wanderers general secretary Mike Butao said.
FAM general secretary Suzgo Nyirenda said Kananji has to wait until the association holds B Licence course next year.
Asked if with his poor academic qualifications background Kananji will be considered, Nyirenda said the association’s technical committee, would look into his case.
Whether Kananji upgrades or not, one thing that is clear is that the coach’s performance has ignited a debate on whether qualifications do really matter in football coaching.