MARK GLEESON is a freelance journalist in South Africa.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. But the central African nation is also known for its love for football. The game is one of the few forms of genuine entertainment in Malawi.

There is old world charm about Malawi, a country that markets itself as the "warm heart of Africa". It is indeed a friendly place, devoid of the cynicism of the modern world and caught almost back in the 1950s when life was maintained at a genteel pace andpeople greeted each other with warm feeling. This might make the central African country a popular destination for tourists, particularly those who backpack around the continent, but it has also left the country's football a step or two behind their contemporaries in the African game.

Malawi is tragically beset by the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. The economic prognosis is not good and life for the majority of its 10-million-odd citizens remains a daily battle of subsistence living and survival. But this has not prohibited a deep passion for the game, reflected by the fact that Blantyre's Chicheri stadium is usually guaranteed a full house of some 50,000 spectators every time the national team plays.

With more than half of the country's population still rurally based, football is one of the few forms of genuine entertainment and enjoys an exalted status, unlike many other African countries where more and more of the new alternate features of modern-day life are cutting into crowd attendances.

It was only last year that television was introduced into the country, adding to the sense that Malawi is still playing catch-up with the rest of the footballing world. But, like many other places, there are high hopes and ambitions and plans to lift the profile of the country's footballers.

Just one victory at home
The national team are known as the Flames but have not exactly been setting African football alight in recent times. Malawi garnered just one point in the recently-completed African qualifiers for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ and did not even make it to the group stage of the 2002 African Nations Cup qualifiers, bombing out in the qualifying rounds.

In the last 18 months, they have won just once at home, but the win over South Africa in the quarter-finals of the regional Cosafa Castle Cup did much to lift spirits. For Malawi there is no greater pleasure than the humbling of one of African football's superpowers and it is an achievement they have proven capable of in the past. Wins in the last two decades over the likes of Cameroon, Morocco and Egypt attest to their capabilities, although for the fans triumphs of this calibre are too few and far between.

"I think that Malawian football is progressing right now, there is a lot of raw talent out there," says the Danish coach Kim Splidsboel, almost halfway through his two-year contract at the head of the national team.

Splidsboel is Malawi's first expatriate coach in more than ten years and has only been able to take up the post because of a co-operation agreement between the Danish government and Malawi's National Sports Council.

"Obviously there is a problem in terms of finance and facilities and money is needed to help with the development of the players and the education of coaches. We need to go out of Africa to play international tournaments and develop the under-17 and under-20 players because this is where the future lies," says Splidsboel. Malawi are desperately trying to entice invitations from teams around the world but do not have the profile that makes them an attractive proposition.

"Hopefully countries who are preparing for the World Cup next year will want to practice against a side that plays in a typical African style and we might be given the chance to take our team to other places in the world and gain some experience," says Splidsboel.

Only one player in Europe
Experience, the coach believes, is key, although his side is bristling with young players who have come through the junior ranks.

More Malawians are now playing professionally, but currently there is only one in Europe: Daniel Chitsulo, a teenage striker who has an amateur contract with 1. FC Cologne in Germany. The rest go south to South Africa, where Malawian footballers are popular for their flair and goal scoring ability. Ernest Mtawali is a former Footballer of the Year in South Africa while defender Patrick Mabedi plays at glamour club Kaizer Chiefs.

With the growing list of foreign-based players, expectation is always high when the national side play, despite the poor results of recent years. "There is a lot of pressure in this job. But I'm here to try and develop the side and try and help them qualify for the African Nations Cup or even the World Cup," adds Splidsboel. "But people have to be patient and sometimes coaches are not given enough time to build. But the Malawians have been understanding so far. We have to think big and people have to believe we can do it."

Football in Malawi was introduced by the missionaries at the turn of the century but only formalized in the 1930s with two separate football associations - the Nyasaland Football Association for colonists from Britain and the Nyasaland African Football Association for the indigenous people.

The local side played their first international after the Second World War, travelling to neighbouring Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, for two games against club sides. In 1962, Ghana's fabled Black Stars came for a visit and won 12-1 against the Nyasaland African side in Blantyre.

Independence came in 1964 and the Football Association of Malawi was formed in 1966, although it was another year before the country joined FIFA.

To date, Malawi's success has come in the East and Central African Senior Challenge Cup and qualifying once for the African Nations Cup finals but their proudest moment was winning bronze at the 1987 All-Africa Games in Nairobi.

A return to those glory days is eagerly sought by the Malawian fans.