- Madagascar into the top 100 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking
- Les Barea reaping the rewards of historic campaign at Egypt 2019
- Team aiming high but still grounded
Did not enter. Withdrew. Eliminated in the preliminary round. Banned. Those are the four outcomes experienced by Madagascar in qualifying campaigns for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations between 1957 and 2017, during which time no fewer than 31 tournaments passed them by.
Les Barea finally saw a light at the end of this 60-year tunnel in October 2018, when a 1-0 victory over Equatorial Guinea secured their spot at the 2019 edition in Egypt. Regarded as massive underdogs in a high-calibre Group B, the pre-tournament narrative surrounding Madagascar was that they would be happy just to take part, accept three defeats and return home having learned valuable lessons for the future.
Instead, the Malagasy side finished top of their pool and eventually reached the quarter-finals – an exceptional run that has translated into a 12-place surge in July’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they are now 96th.
“We’ve been building this team for two-and-a-half years, and the aim was to qualify for the Cup of Nations,” said team captain Faneva Andriatsima. “And it wasn’t easy, with Senegal, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea in our group. Finally, last October, we became the first team to qualify for Egypt, which gave us a good amount of time to prepare and head up there full of confidence.”
Madagascar’s 2019 Cup of Nations campaign
- Guinea 2-2 Madagascar (Group B)
- Madagascar 1-0 Burundi (Group B)
- Madagascar 2-0 Nigeria (Group B)
- Madagascar 2-2 (4-2 on pens) Congo DR (Round of 16)
- Madagascar 0-3 Tunisia (Quarter-final)
Well prepared, full of enthusiasm and propelled by a desire to bring further happiness to 25 million Madagascar inhabitants who had barely finished celebrating their qualification, Les Barea came out of the starting blocks strongly, drawing with a Guinea side featuring Naby Keita, before getting the better of fellow newcomers Burundi in the second match. But the best was yet to come.
In their third and final group encounter, Madagascar defeated Nigeria, leapfrogging the African heavyweights into first place in the process. They subsequently saw off Congo DR in the last 16. While these results were surprising, they were nevertheless deserved based on the standard of play the team produced.
“In terms of our play, I leave it up to them – it’s really their duty to produce attractive football, because they know how to do it,” the team’s French coach, Nicolas Dupuis, recently told France Football. “Passing the ball back and forth and retaining possession must become what we're known for. Defensively, we’re capable of – unlike a lot of African teams – performing as a unit. These are the things that give us a bit of an edge.”
Another potential explanation for the team’s achievements in Egypt stems from the image that they had before Dupuis took up the reins in 2016. “I felt like our opponents were overconfident and didn’t take us seriously, but we knew what we were capable of,” said the Moulins-born coach, who juggles his international responsibilities with his club post at FC Fleury 91, in the French fourth division. "We were the only ones who knew how strong we were, no-one else.”
Considering Madagascar’s relative global anonymity over the past few decades, it is perhaps slightly unfair to accuse their opponents of having underestimated them.
Madagascar in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking:
- Average placing since the launch of the World Ranking: 135
- Ranking in June 2019, before the Cup of Nations: 108
- Lowest ranking: 190 (March 2014)
- Highest ranking: 78 (December 1992)
Their performances in Egypt may have propelled them into the last eight and into the top 100 of the FIFA Ranking, but the islanders know that the most difficult task is not to reach a higher echelon, but to stay there. “It’ll be tough to do better than that next time,” said Dupuis, who has made the most of the support offered by the Malagasy authorities and FIFA-funded development projects over the past few years. “We have to use what we achieved as a way of showing that hard work pays off. We have to keep working, because, otherwise, it’ll just be a flash in the pan.”
Andriatsima concluded: “We’re still a small team with few resources, but we’ve got a lot of heart. We played intelligently and got a bit of good fortune, and look at where we are now. We represented our country with dignity. Even though we got knocked out in the quarter-finals, we were able to unite the Malagasy people spread all over the world. I hope that we’ll be at the next Cup of Nations in two years’ time.”