Africa’s biggest football festival—the Africa Cup of Nations—rolls into life in Gabon this evening with the Flames, for the umpteenth time, joining their fans as armchair viewers of the showpiece.
And while the focal point is on the 31st edition of African football spectacle in Libreville with the hosts engaging Guinea Bissau in the opening match, the Flames have pressed the fast-forward button to the 2019 edition whose draw was held on Thursday.
The Flames have been pitted against hosts Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and the Atlas Lions of Morocco in Group B. Both teams are competing at the finals of this year’s showcase. The final slot will be filled by winners between the Comoros and Mauritius.
This means that if Cameroon emerge winners of the group, the runner-up will automatically qualify to the final tournament, but no other team will be eligible to qualify from this group. In the event that Cameroon finish second of the group, only the winner of the group will qualify.
And if Cameroon will finish third or fourth, the winner of the group will qualify while the runner-up will be eligible to qualify as one of the best runners-up.
Reacting to the draw, Flames captain Limbikani ‘Pupa’ Mzava described it as tough, but said Malawi can defy the odds and qualify with proper planning and preparations.
“It is not that we are as hopeless as we are perceived to be, but I think our preparations and planning leave a lot to be desired and in the end we are caught off-guard.
“For example, the qualifiers are starting in under six months and there is no coach in place and we do not have a tentative programme in place. Over and above that, we have also been betrayed by lack of adequate funding,” he said from his base in Durban yesterday.
Seasoned tactician Yasin ‘Titch’ Osman said there is need for FAM to call for a stakeholders meeting to brainstorm on how the Flames can prepare for the qualifiers.
“That aspect should have been covered by now so that we should know what direction we are going to take, but the situation is even more tricky because we do not have a coach in place and yet the qualifiers are supposed to start in June. He will need time to get to know the players and so on. The problem is that FAM is experimenting too much when it comes to coaches. A coach needs to be given ample time.
“Personally, I think the best way forward is to maintain players that are still young and embark on serious preparations. Of course, funding is always a challenge but we could court neighbouring countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa and then engage an extra gear as we progress by engaging big teams from West and North Africa,” he said.
Osman said it is only through frequent friendly matches that a coach build a team.
“It is also important that we take part in tournaments such as Chan [Championship of African Nations], Cosafa Cup and the Cecafa Challenge Cup and funds permitting camping in Europe could also make a difference.”
FAM president Walter Nyamilandu said the 2019 campaign will offer the Flames a chance to rise to the occasion and show their mettle.
“We will leave no stone unturned in the preparations for the tournament, we are ready to upset the tables and give teams a run for their money.
“It’s a tough draw and all things are possible. We are determined to go all the way. This should be a signal to all of us to render full support to the Flames so that we can embark on thorough preparations,” he said.
The Flames have only qualified twice (1984 and 2010) for the tournament.
There will be three two-leg preliminary ties during March involving the six lowest ranked sides with the overall winners securing places in the group phase.
One round of mini-league fixtures are scheduled for June this year and five for next year with the 12 group winners and the best three runners-up joining hosts Cameroon in the finals.
The following is the full draw: Preliminary round: Sao Tome and Principe v Madagascar, Comoros v Mauritius, Djibouti v South Sudan
Group A: Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Sao Tome or Madagascar; Group B: Cameroon, Morocco, Malawi, Comoros or Mauritius; Group C: Mali, Gabon, Burundi, Djibouti or South Sudan; Group D: Algeria, Togo, Benin, Gambia; Group E: Nigeria, South Africa, Libya, Seychelles; Group F: Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone; Group G: Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Zimbabwe, Liberia; Group H: Ivory Coast, Guinea, Central African Republic, Rwanda; Group I: Burkina Faso, Angola, Botswana, Mauritania; Group J: Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Swaziland; Group K: Zambia, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia; Group L: Cape Verde, Uganda, Tanzania, Lesotho. n