There is a sense of a bygone era about Malawi, a feeling of stepping into another time and place. It is not that the country is markedly different to its central African neighbours, nor any more immune from the modern day social and economic ills of the continent. But there is an air of innocence, a refreshing uniqueness about it.
Malawians like to claim they are the 'warm heart of Africa' and the spontaneity of their people is one of the first things to strike visitors to this land. Maybe it is to do with the heavy Scottish Presbyterian influence, the legacy of missionaries reflected these days in commonly used first names like McDonald, Hastings and McLeod. This lingering cultural conservatism may explain why Malawi has little of the racy edge of the modern world, or it could be the effects of the long-standing dictatorship of Hastings Banda that kept the country time-bound for decades.
The explanation could also lie in Malawi's geographical isolation. As a landlocked country, it was never on the traditional trade routes and therefore not as exposed as countries closer to the coasts.
Whatever the reason, Malawi's people are chatty, helpful and jolly, and always eager to please their guests, despite living in one of the poorest countries in the world. In a world becoming increasingly regulated and self-centred, it is more than anything the people of Malawi who make their country such a refreshing destination.
But for all its uniqueness, Malawi does share many similarities with other places across the globe, not least a great passion for football - even if success for the country on the international football fields has been limited.
Malawi's senior side, the Flames, have been to just one CAF Africa Cup of Nations tournament, qualifying in 1984, now a quarter of a century ago. There have been a few narrow failures since, however, and by reaching the last phase of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, Malawi have demonstrated that they are a growing competitive force. The individual talents of some of the country's top players have certainly not gone unnoticed, and more and more of their footballers are heading to clubs in Europe. Striker Esau Kanyenda, for example, plays in the Russian second division, having previously been on the books of Lokomotiv Moscow, while Russell Mwafulirwa is based at Swedish second division club IFK Norrköping. The vast majority of Malawi's remaining professionals are at clubs in South Africa, long a preferred destination for its footballers.
Indeed, Malawi's close connection with the World Cup host nation extends beyond football, also encompassing a busy history of trade and the long-standing hire of Malawian labour for the South African gold mines.
That Malawi are now heading to Nigeria for the FIFA U-17 World Cup while their South African counterparts stay home is a tribute to Malawian football's own golden thread of young talent and source of delight for the country's patient fans. "We are very proud of the achievement and we think we deserve it, even if we came through the backdoor," says Football Association of Malawi President Walter Nyamilandu Manda, himself a former international.
The reference is to Malawi's unusual qualifying route to the tournament which appeared to have been cut off after they were knocked out in the first round of the African U-17 Championship in Algeria, only to be handed a semi-final place when it was discovered opponents Niger had fielded an overage player. Malawi ended the tournament in March losing four of the five games they played, yet still getting a ticket to the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Making the final four of the continental championship ensured qualification, and has provoked a massive search for talent to bolster the team for the Nigeria tournament, where they have been drawn in their first round group with the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Spain.
"We have carried out a massive programme in our schools to discover new talent and we have sent two separate teams to recent tournaments in Angola and Sudan," explains coach John Kaputa. "That has helped us to make our final selection of the squad that is to train for the tournament. We know we need to beef up the team from the one which played in Algeria. We were disadvantaged there by our lack of height and we need some physically stronger players. It is not a massive overhaul but there will be three or four good new players."
While Kaputa has some elaborate plans to further prepare and develop his young squad, he is also well aware that the harsh reality of Malawi's finances will not allow for all his wishes to be granted.
"To train in Europe and get some quality matches before going to Nigeria would have been best. But at the end of the day we just need to make sure that we are sharp for the event," Kaputa says. "We have skilful players who can perform well. The problems that we have always had is how to bring them together as a team."
The squad certainly will not lack for experience when it comes to the man in charge of their Nigerian campaign. Before steering the U-17s to the country's first ever international tournament, Kaputa had also served as Malawi's senior team coach and taken charge of the U-20s. "I think it's important to have a coach at youth level who has also had experience with the seniors," he says. "I feel the youngsters are better coached because of that experience - and I've been enjoying coaching them."
When it comes to Nigeria itself, Malawi have modest ambitions, according to both the Football Association President and his under-17 coach. "We'd be delighted to get past the first round, which makes our first game against the UAE the most vital for us," says Kaputa. "Our future in the tournament depends on that result. We are now on the world map, but there is much more groundwork that needs to be done. We need to be serious and the team needs to be ready."
Nyamilandu says his main desire is to show the world that talent can be developed even in a poor country. "We might not have the resources," he explains, "but we are from a country that is just as passionate about football as any other. This is historic for us, as it has never been done before in the history of Malawian football. It will be a challenge, but the difference will be in our fighting spirit. Our guys will wear their hearts on their sleeves."
This article is from the October issue of FIFA World, the new FIFA magazine. You can read every issue of FIFA World online by clicking the link on the right.