Despite going down to defeat in their first two games in the section and standing on the verge of elimination from the tournament, there is no sense of dejection in the Malawi camp. John Kaputa's smiling charges have lost none of their enthusiasm or their desire to keep on improving with every game, and though the Young Flames are far more comfortable on the pitch than they are dealing with the media glare off it, coach Kaputa is more than happy to assume the role of their spokesman.
"I think we are doing extremely well considering this is our first international tournament," says Kaputa, who, as a one-time national team coach and something of a footballing institution in the small African state. "The players have never played at this level before and they have never been at a World Cup before. The African Championship in Algeria was the first step for many of them, and some of the players didn't even take part in that tournament. I am very proud of them for all the hard work they are putting in."
The Malawians began the tournament with a 2-0 defeat to United Arab Emirates before going down 1-0 to USA. On both occasions they created a steady stream of chances and could quite conceivably have come away with victories. The Young Flames hit the woodwork not once but twice against the Emiratis with the game still scoreless. And although the Americans dominated possession in their next game, it was the African new boys who carved out the clearest opportunities before Cuthbert Seengwa's unfortunate error condemned them to another loss.
"We had plenty of chances to score in both games but we just couldn't put them away," laments Kaputa, who is anxious for his youngsters to finally get on the scoresheet against the Spaniards. "The players give their absolute all. They always try to get forward and they're making lots of good chances. All we need to do is convert some of them."
Fanning the flames
Having seen what they can do on the big stage, Kaputa is hopeful his charges can kick on and raise Malawi's international profile further. "The players have a lot of quality and a lot of them will go on and play in the qualifiers for the next FIFA U-20 World Cup. They are the ones who have put the nation on the footballing map of the world and they deserve all the support and affection they get from the people at home."
"This tournament has been a wonderful way for them to broaden their experience and improve their game," he continues. "All the players come from the national academies and they play one game a week. Coming here allows them to see what it means to train every day and take part in high-quality matches. It's going to stand them in very good stead for the future."
The stars of the African side are skipper Bruno Milanzi and the small but irrepressible Tonny Chitsulo. And although the experienced Kaputa is reluctant to single any player out for special praise, he is well aware of their importance to the team.
"We try to treat everyone equally and give them the same chance to develop. But some have a special talent. Milanzi has great vision and passing skills and is an excellent striker of the ball too. Chitsulo is a quicker and more explosive player. He is good with the ball at his feet and he's intelligent too. In general, though, they've all shown a lot of quality and a terrific work rate."
Before signing off with a cheery wave, the former national team boss had this to say about Sunday's game. "The players are going to give it everything against Spain. It's the toughest match of all but the boys have played two really good games and I'm sure they're going to improve in every area."