It might look like a far-fetched dream, but Flames coach Meke Mwase believes he could be the first Malawi coach to take the team past the group stages of the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
The journey starts this Saturday when Malawi plays away to Botswana’s Zebras in the first leg of the qualifiers’ first round in Francistown.
“It has been a very long time since Malawi made it [to the group stage]. We hope to reach the group stage and possibly go beyond that. That is my target,” said the coach on Tuesday after the last training session in Blantyre before leaving for Lilongwe from where they are expected to fly to Francistown this Wednesday.
The 2022 Fifa World Cup qualification format for African teams saw 26 highest ranked teams, according to the July Fifa rankings, exempted from the preliminary round, leaving 28 participating teams in that round.
Of these 28 teams, the 14 highest ranked teams, including Malawi ranked 126, were paired against the 14 least ranked teams in first round.
The 14 winners from this round will join the 26 exempted teams in the group stage (second round) and will be divided into 10 groups of four teams.
Mwase hopes Malawi can reach this stage and make it to the third round where the winners in each round will play each other with the five winners qualifying for the final to be staged in Qatar.
“Our preparations have gone on very well. We are very lucky that we did not have any injuries. We don’t have any serious injuries,” said the coach.
The only slight hitch, however, is South Africa-based Richard Mbulu, who has just recovered from malaria but still had a run in the last training session, notching in some beautiful goals as well.
“He just needs to rest a bit, but otherwise, the doctor has certified him fit,” said Mwase.
The Flames strikers recently rediscovered their scoring boots as Gerald Phiri Jnr and Frank ‘Gabadinho’ Mhango emerged joint top scorers at Cosafa Cup in Durban, South Afrcia.
Mwase hopes this form will continue in the World Cup qualifiers.
“We are going there to play as a team. We will be cautious because we are playing away. May be if we are lucky God will smile at us and win as well. In football it’s all hard work that counts. We are happy that both the foreign-based and the local-based players have all shown that they want to play and win the game for Malawi and will work extra harder on the match day,” he said.
The coach said it was not easy to pick the final squad.
He said: “Most of the players that I have picked are the ones that I took to Cosafa Cup in Durban. There are two or three changes, especially with the coming in of professionals.”
Commenting on the opponents, Mwase said he does not expect any surprises.
“We have played them [Botswana] in Cosafa Cup where we have been in the same group. But I don’t know if they are going to change their squad. But we have done everything possible to find out their strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
Soccer analyst Charles Nyirenda believes Mwase can reach the group stage.
“It is quite possible for Mwase to achieve this. Moreover, we just need to get past Botswana to make it to the group stage. After that that’s when it will be tough as we could be paired against the continent’s heavyweights. But this is football. With good preparations, anything is possible,” he said.
The last time Malawi made it that far was in 2007 during the 2010 South Africa World Cup qualification.
The Flames finished as Group 12 runners-up with Egypt as winners and qualified for the third round while Democratic Republic of Congo were third and Djibouti anchored the group.
In third round, Malawi finished third in Group C to qualify for the Angola 2010 Africa Cup of Nations alongside group winners Ivory Coast (who also qualified for the World Cup final) and Burkina Faso.
The full squad is as follows:
Goalkeepers: Brighton Munthali, Ernest Kakhobwe; Defenders: Charles Petro, Stanley Sanudi, Peter Cholopi, Dennis Chembezi, Precious Sambani, Gomezgani Chirwa; Midfielders: Chimwemwe Idana, Chikoti Chirwa, Peter Banda, Micium Mhone, Yamikiani Chester, John CJ Banda, Phiri Jnr, ChimangoKayira; Strikers: Hassan Kajoke, Gabadinho, Mbulu, Robin Ngalande.