One of the most highly regarded of all names in African football, Tunisia are in serious danger of missing out on their first CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in two decades. The Carthage Eagles have famously fallen behind Botswana in Group K, but the four-time FIFA World Cup™ participants have also been hurt by up-and-coming Malawi and their 22-year-old international Chiukepo Msowoya.
With Tunisia up 2-0 at half-time in a qualifier towards the end of last year, it was Msowoya who stunned the capacity crowd at Stade 7 November in Rades by immediately pulling one back with an unstoppable shot after coming on as a substitute just before the interval. Shaken and prodded by the new man up front, Tunisia eventually gave up a late penalty, which Esau Kanyenda converted for a famous away point.
"Scoring the goal in Tunisia was very important. It gave us the belief that we can compete with the best," recalls Msowoya, who plays his club football for South African Premier League team Orlando Pirates. "Even after going behind, we stayed focused and we were determined to get a result. Drawing in Tunisia shows us that we can compete with the best."
Unlike table-topping Botswana, The Flames of Malawi are no Nations Cup virgins, having qualified in 1984 and made a big splash at the showpiece of African football in Angola last year. Although they lost twice (against Angola and Mali), they opened their tournament with a sensational 3-0 victory against 2010 World Cup finalists Algeria. For Msowoya, who came on in all three matches, it was a springboard to bigger things.
The right move
Msowoya started his professional career with Escom United in the Malawian top fight before moving to Mozambique, where he signed a contract with Muculmana. After a falling out in Maputo, he was loaned to Rwandan club APR. "When I played in Angola, some clubs saw me, and I was invited for trials in Germany. But Pirates made a three-year offer and I decided to take it,” he recalls, happy for the ending. "Orlando Pirates is a big club with a big chance to win the league."
Msowoya has not featured as regularly as he would like to for the Buccaneers and by mid-March had a solitary league goal and one goal in the cup to his credit. But if his club performances have been far and few in between, his international career has been much more promising. In the very next game after impressing against Tunisia, the Flames were at home to Chad, eager to build on their performance from Rades. And again Msowoya played an important role as he scored two goals in the space of four minutes en route to a 6-2 victory after again coming on as a substitute. "It was great to score those goals, and I know everybody is looking to me because I score goals, but we have many players who can score," he explains.
As the qualifying heads into the final stretch, the side from south-east Africa is well positioned to take one of the two spots from the group that are on offer for a place at the finals. Although Botswana are looking very likely to reach their first-ever finals, needing just three points from their remaining three matches to guarantee their qualification, Malawi is currently just a point behind Tunisia, but they have a game in hand, a better goal difference and face the Carthage Eagles at home.
A victory for the Flames in their next match at home in Blantyre against Togo, will see them move into second place and into the driving seat. For Msowoya it comes as no surprise that Tunisia is struggling, while Botswana and Malawi are flying high. "The standard of the so-called smaller countries has improved and they are getting better and better,” he says. “They do not fear the big teams and they go into every match knowing that in football anything can happen. There is no reason why Malawi can't beat Tunisia. Botswana managed to do that two times in this campaign."
Msowoya does not begrudge regional neighbours Botswana their success, even if they are Malawi's rivals. "I am very happy for Botswana as they might go [to the finals] for the first time. We have already been there and it is a wonderful experience."
And he is also confident that football in his country can continue to move in the right direction. "They have to have the right strategy in place, and they need to build academies to develop young talents. They have to continue to focus on the way forward and for that the government has to support the sport and help build the infrastructure to make sure Malawi becomes a strong footballing country."
Msowoya, whose wife still lives in Malawi while they are waiting to have some paperwork sorted out, is hoping that he will eventually have a chance to play in Europe. "I don't mind for what team, or in what country, I would just love to play in Europe, and if I get a chance, I would definitely take it," he says.
A second performance on the biggest stage African football has to offer might just be an excellent venue to showcase his talents, and if it is his goals that get the Flames to the finals, all the better.