Malawi are on the brink of setting a new football milestone. Victory over Chad away on 8 October will ensure the Flames return to their second successive CAF Africa Cup of Nations and continue their elevation up the pecking order of the African scene. The appearance of The Flames at the 2010 tournament in Angola came 16 years after their only other trip to the continental championship, in Côte d’Ivoire in 1984, and to now reach back-to-back events is a clear signal of steady improvement from a country with a hitherto low profile in the world game.

Former international Kinnah Phiri coached Malawi to their place at the last finals, and in a profession renowned for its turbulence, he has kept his job and built on the previous success. With three points in the hot and arid conditions of N’Djamena, his side will finish undefeated. They would be second in Group K behind Botswana, but with a ticket to the 2012 AFCON finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. They are currently on 11 points from two wins and five draws, level with Tunisia, who have a home game at the same time against Togo. But Malawi have a better head-to-head record and need only concern themselves with obtaining victory.

“Chad is going to be a very tricky game,” admits the coach, who as a footballer remains one of Malawi’s all-time greats and was just coming to the end of his career when his country qualified for their first Nations Cup in 1984.

“When you look at our first game against Chad, when we beat them 6-2 at home, it was not easy, even if the score was strongly in our favour. You cannot call them a small team because they have some really good players. And at this time of the year we can expect a tough game because I think they will also be using the match to prepare for the start of the World Cup qualifiers. It is going to be tricky.” But in same breath, Phiri admits: “We are confident we will make it. We can ensure that we will be working hard and preparing properly.”

Bringing structure to the fire
Phiri will have a full-strength squad at his disposal save for uncertainty over captain Peter Mponda and key striker Esau Kanyenda. Mponda has yet to play since suffering a cruciate ligament injury in March, although he has been making good progress. “I have seen him training and although he is still not confident in the tackle, he can offer us a lot in other ways. I will pick him and then make my final decision closer to the time.”

Kanyenda broke his arm in the opening minutes of Malawi's last qualifier against Tunisia in Blantyre in September. He needed to have a pin inserted after the scoreless draw to help the bone re-grow. “I’m not sure whether he will feel he is ready to play. It is up to him,” he says of the Russia-based striker.

But for the two players who are doubtful for the trip to Chad, the rest is a settled outfit that Phiri has had together for more than three years now. “We have managed to build and create a side over the years,” he explains. “I started by really creating two teams, one made up of the foreign-based players and a second of the best local talent. I have promoted local talent slowly and phased out a few of the older professionals. It has proven a good transformation.

I have promoted local talent slowly and phased out a few of the older professionals. It has proven a good transformation. 

Malawi coach Kinnah Phiri

“There has always been a good quality of player in Malawi, we just needed more structure and discipline. I have brought that to this team. Obviously participating in the last Nations Cup gave us a huge boost of experience, but it really all started in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers when we eliminated DR Congo and beat Egypt in our group. We also then played the Ivory Coast and Guinea in the next round, so we got the right exposure against the best players,” added Phiri, whose side have been drawn into a Brazil 2014 qualifying group along with Nigeria.

“But our biggest achievement will come if we can go to the Nations Cup back-to-back. That will be history alone for us. And if we get to the Nations Cup I think the players will have the right experience to do much better, and they will have the confidence to go far. We will show that we can compete.”