Malawi's only previous appearance in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals came more than two decades ago, but the Central African nation have their sights firmly set on an imminent return. A home win over DR Congo in Blantyre on 11 October will likely ensure the Malawians' progress to the last phase of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers, which are also serving to determine the field of 16 sides for the 2010 Cup of Nations finals in Angola.
While a place among the global elite at South Africa 2010 would be a dream come true for Malawi, striker Essau Kanyenda thinks it's much more realistic to set their sights on the African continental stage.
Malawi's only previous trip to the African party came in 1984 when Côte d'Ivoire last hosted the event. Kanyenda was less than two years old at the time and The Flames drew with Nigeria but lost to both Algeria and Ghana and went home after finishing at the foot of their group.
Malawi's goal machine
Kanyenda, a teenage scoring prodigy who has gone on to become the country's first major footballing export, believes the chance of a return to the African championship 26 years on is a strong possibility. "I think we have a good chance to make it. What makes me confident is that we are playing at home and our supporters will be there to motivate us. The players know there is a real chance for us to qualify, and we have great hope that we can do it."
A win over the Congolese would be a step in the right direction. It would ensure Malawi finish second in Group 12 behind leaders Egypt, who are expected to finish top of the standings unless they suffer a shock loss at home to minnows Djibouti.
Malawi would need to finish among the best eight group runners-up to advance to the final round draw in Zurich on 24 October. The final phase of African preliminaries for the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals begin next year, and in order to make the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations line-up, Malawi would need to finish in a minimum third place in their group.
"It's our best chance to qualify for a long time," adds Kanyenda. "Our squad has the confidence to do it."
The scoring acumen of the 26-year-old is crucial to the team's hopes of success. Kanyenda is on the books of Russian club Kamaz, having previously played at FC Rostov and Lokomotiv Moscow. He has been in Russia since 2003, joining from South African club Jomo Cosmos, where he was the league's leading scorer.
South Africa return
To return to South Africa in 2010 is a dream he says he harbours, but that might be aiming a little too high. "Our side has developed a lot since coach Kinnah Phiri came back in charge. He has improved the way we play. But Malawi need to have more players outside the country. Qualifying for a big tournament will give experience to our players and develop our quality in the national team."
Kanyenda missed the last FIFA World Cup qualifier, an away win in Djibouti because of injury. "I started training about two weeks ago and it's all going well again. I'm looking forward to the match against the Congolese. I played against them in Kinshasa in June and I expected them to be better. I must say they did not impress me."