John Kaputa has had a tougher task than most of his contemporaries in preparing for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. The coach has had to go out and search for virtually a new team as Malawi get set to make their debut appearance at a FIFA world finals.
A massive talent identification programme was launched through Malawi's school system and has kept the coach plenty busy since his side returned from March's African U-17 championship in Algeria where the central African nation obtained their ticket to Nigeria. They made it to the last four despite winning just a single game at the tournament because Niger, found to have used an over-age player, were disqualified.
The reality being that while Malawi achieved what they had never done before, they did so without much conviction and are quite conscious of the fact that qualification came via the back door. Malawi want, however, to make sure they take maximum advantage of the opportunity and came away from Algeria with the realisation that they needed to significantly strengthen the side.
"We have been across the country with a discovery programme in the schools looking for new talent. We have also taken two separate squads to Sudan and Angola for tournaments and we're going to marry the two to make our final selection," explains Kaputa, who is a former coach of both Malawi's U-23 and senior national teams.
"We knew we needed to strengthen up the squad after Algeria. We were really at a disadvantage because of our lack of height and we really struggled against the bigger boys," the coach continued. "I think I have found at least three to four good players who could beef up our squad."
Kaputa admits that the prospect of a first world championship is thrilling for Malawi. "We have never before been at a World Cup," he announced with obvious delight.
The target they have set themselves is progress past the first round and into the knockout stage. But it is a tough proposition for the Malawians, who are drawn in Group E with Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States."Definitely the opening game against UAE will be the crucial one," Kaputa admits. "Our future in the group will rely on how we do in this match."
Qualification for the U-17 side has been a major boon for youth football in Malawian football says the coach. "The senior team used to get all the focus and support and people in Malawi are now talking about the good news of the junior side. But we still need a lot more support."
A lack of resources means Kaputa is still scratching together a pre-tournament preparation plan. He hopes to embark on a training camp in Europe before heading directly to Nigeria, but if not he will have to rely on friendly matches against other teams from the region.
"Malawi has good skilled players who perform well individually. The problem is how to bring them all together as a group. Now that we have made the World Cup it is a good reason to do more groundwork. We need to get serious about our youth football," the coach concluded with an air of cautious optimism.