By Paul Bassey
Friday, September 1, As the Air Malawi Boeing 727- 300 series commenced its final descent into Chileka International airport in Blantyre, Malawi, a feeling of conquest enveloped me. (The six number of African countries I am yet to visit has now been reduced to five.)

When I first got the appointment by CAF to go to Malawi as Match Commissioner for the explosive Nations Cup Group K qualifier between Malawi and Tunisia, I said to myself, at last, Malawi here I come.

Without an Embassy in Nigeria, and with not many flight options to choose from, I settled for South African Airways from Lagos to Jo’ Burg, from where I connected Air Malawi to Blantyre through Lilongwe.

The warm reception at the airport by the protocol officer of the Football Association of Malawi ( FAM ) was nearly marred by the drive to the Protea Hotel Ryalls, reputed to be the best hotel in town……Have you ever come from a left hand drive environment to see yourself in a right hand driven car, literally going against traffic? I do not know the number of times I reacted, nearly warned the driver to BEWARE as we tended to get into the opposite lane……so dangerously confusing!

Malawi is a small, peaceful landlocked South African country, with a dense population of about 19 million. Known as the Warm Flame of Africa, no wonder its national team is referred to as ‘The Flames’.

Driving through Blantyre provides some insight of what to expect, economically, politically and otherwise, but I must say I was relieved to see infrastructures that provided some comfort, talking about  that “… where to run to, in case there is a problem” feeling. Specifically, I saw a Mountain of Fire Bookshop, Redeemed Christian Church and Christ Embassy buildings. Also here can be found Bata Shoe shops in every corner!

In Lagos, I was brought up by uncle who was a manager in Bata Shoe factory in Ketu. I was very close to that establishment and will never forget the Christmas parties for employer’s children and other staff welfare oriented programmes. Suddenly, Bata disappeared from Nigeria, wound up and went back home to Canada, I believed. But here in Malawi, Bata is alive and well.

Before I forget, I was here for a football match and what brought the reality home was a parked jet at the air port, one that had flown the Tunisians to town, for the battle of Group K, already won by Botswana. Surprise! Surprise!

Tunisia and Malawi on 10 points each were left to pick up the crumbs that will come with qualification as second best.

On paper, Malawi was the weaker of the two opponents, going by the FIFA ranking of 72 to 61 for Tunisia. The history of the group tells a different story as Malawi is yet to lose a match.  The Tunisians ( And Africa ) will not forget though, the surprise 3-0 pounding Malawi handed out to Algeria in the Angola Nations Cup before  succumbing to host Angola and Mali.

The  Malawian football boss Walter Nyamilandu on the morning of the encounter while addressing the spectators said:

“ Today Saturday September 3 is a very important day in the history of Malawian football as the Flames take on Tunisia in the 2012 Africa Nations cup qualifier at the Kamuzu Stadium.

“ A win for The Flames will mean we get 13 points and will just need a single point in the next fixture which is in October in the away match against Chad. On the same day, Tunisia will be hosting Togo, but should the Flames win today, we should have no problem as long as we earn at least a point against Chad. Besides the Flames are the only team yet to lose in this group.

“ I repeat as I did the last time out, that this match is very special in that you the fans, the 12th player will play your part to help the players psychologically just like you have done in past campaigns. If we win today, we can be assured of back to back qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations. The Tunisians will charge at us like wounded Buffaloes since they cannot afford to toy around and that is where the 12th player will play his part by dressing Kamuzu Stadium in red and cheering on till your voices go hoarse.

“ ….The fans must make Kamuzu stadium a no go area for visitors. It is now or never. The Tunisians must be welcomed by a sea of red. You have been wonderful in your support to the Flames in the past five years with your MAKE THEM SEE RED campaign and we at FAM applaud you for your support……….”

The fans did play their part, yet the Tunisians held on for a scoreless draw. As it stands, Tunisia goes back home for the last match in the group against Togo, while Malawi is away to Chad. Victory for the two of them will see Malawi going ahead on the head to head rule ( Their match in Tunisia ended 2-2 ). The Tunisians now stand a better chance though.

Need to tell you about our Ibo brothers I met at the stadium. They are in control of the spare parts market here.!

As you collate all the results that will give you an insight into probable qualifiers for  Gabon-Equitorial Guinea next year, spare a thought for the emotions of Protea hotel staff Patrick Sangala  who believes that the result not withstanding, ”…. The future of African football lies with Botswana…..Malawi….we are tired of the Tunisians , the Egyptians and the Camerounians”

Happy he did not mention the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

HAVE YOU SEEN NIGERIA?

Very soon, we will be thrown into the sports festival called the All Africa games, a competition where Nigeria flexes its muscles in the African continent, battling for supremacy with Egypt, Algeria, South Africa and the like. A competition where they can afford to win hundreds of medals. ( I wonder why the Senate President David Mark was not properly briefed, told that Team Nigeria will win so many medals that in other climes, going by his salary alone, his monetary incentive of 50 thousand naira per gold etc  was likely to leave him bankrupt! )

It is on the world stage that Senator Mark would have staked his money. At the World Judo Championship in France, the World Women Volleyball Championship, the World Athletics Championships in Daegu……  you can imagine the agony of struggling to look out for Nigeria in Daegu, South Korea. You can imagine the frustration of seeing athletes from Jamaica, Grenada, Puerto Rico, Botswana, Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago ( A country of less than 55,000 inhabitants) ……making hay while Nigeria struggled in vain.

Whenever races were called and athletes filed out, it was customary for me to shout out to my kids in the sitting room “…. Have you seen Nigeria?” the answer was always “ Not yet Daddy “ …..I liked the “not yet” bit.

There are times they shouted  “ …Yes Daddy” only for me to run upstairs and discover that it was either an “ Okoro “ of the United States or Femi Ogunode of Qatar!

Soon I pray, very soon.

See you next week.

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