Malawi is on the verge of qualification for the Under-20 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final in Niger but they must overcome the last hurdle, South Africa, whom they face this afternoon in a potentially heart-melting encounter at Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe.
The Junior Flames yielded a goalless draw during the first leg of the third round against the Amajita last weekend and now need a victory of any magnitude to progress.
If qualification is attained, it will be the first time in two decades for the Junior Flames.
In 2014, under the tutelage of Ernest Mtawali, Malawi also came within touching distance of qualifying for the continental event only to fall at the last hurdle when they were eliminated by Zambia’s Junior Chipolopolo.
Coach Meke Mwase believes time has come to break that jinx.
“This team has been so dedicated in this campaign. They have been keeping faith when everything seemed lost. We are optimistic we can beat South Africa and progress,” said Mwase.
On the path to this point, The Junior Flames have upped the tempo when it mattered most. In the second round, they hammered Angola 4-1 away to overturn a 2-1 deficit suffered at home. To be thoroughly fair, they played like humans with lion hearts.
This is the spirit, Mwase says, the boys need to overcome the Amajita, who he observed have a powerful midfield and a sharp striking force.
“During the first leg, I noted that their weakest area is the defence. It was just unfortunate that we didn’t get a goal. Their midfielders and strikers are good and we must be aggressive enough to tame them,” he said.
Mwase also disclosed how the players are keen to reach the finals: “Time and again they ask me anxiously, ‘coach is this really the final game before we qualify?’ This just shows how desperate the boys are to reach the finals.”
Fransisco Madinga, Auspicious Kadzongola, Peter Banda, Kelvin Kadzinje, Chikondi Mbeta and Kenya-based Andrew Maliselo carry Malawi’s hopes that have been thrust on their shoulders to take the team to the promised land.
Captain and goalkeeper Charles Thom said in an interview on Wednesday that they are ready to give out something extra for the cause of their motherland.
“We are ready to give it our all. We know that it will be a tough match because South Africa are a good side, but we will fight our lungs out.
“Apart from doing our nation proud, we also stand to market ourselves to a wider audience if we qualify because such tournaments attract agents from all over the world,” he said.
Thom also urged the fans to turn up in large numbers and give their team the morale support they desperately need.
To reach the third round, the Junior Flames overcame Swaziland before humbling Angola while Amajita saw off Mauritius and Mozambique..
In the meantime, South Africa coach Thabo Senong is beaming with confident that his side can score goals that could see them qualifying.
“It’s another 90 minutes away from home. And one thing about this team is that we always score and defend well whenever we play away. I have no doubt that we’ll do well in Malawi,” he said.
Amajita goalkeeper and captain Khulekani Khubeka says they will be looking forward to getting an early goal so as to put Malawi under pressure in the 2019 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations second leg qualifier.
“Everybody knows how important this second leg is, it’s the last 90 minutes that will take us to Afcon. If we can try get a goal and then we can take things from there, because we will have an away goal advantage,” he told kickoff.com.
Their key players include striker Lyle Foster and midfielder Wiseman Meyiwa.
Should they qualify for the tournament, Malawi or South Africa would have to get to the semi-finals to qualify for the World Cup in Poland next year.