Douala (AFP) – An unusual managerial set-up has helped Malawi reach the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations for the very first time as the Flames prepare to take on Morocco, one of the tournament favourites, in the last 16 on Tuesday.
The Flames are appearing at just their third AFCON, and their first since 2010, but they qualified from their group as a best third-placed side after beating Zimbabwe and holding Senegal, the continent’s top-ranked team.
Whatever happens against Morocco in Yaounde, their tournament is already a success despite the eyebrow-raising decision to bring in Romanian-born Mario Marinica and demote existing coach Meke Mwase to the role of assistant.
Marinica was appointed Malawi’s technical director in November after the Flames failed to make an impact in World Cup qualifying before being put in charge of the team in Cameroon, although the idea is still that Mwase will resume his role as coach after the tournament.
“We have a very good relationship,” Marinica told AFP.
“It might sound a little bit unusual but we work extremely well and I believe that after the AFCON I will probably go back as a technical director and will try to help Malawian football become a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.”
The immediate short-term goal for Marinica, who moved to England 30 years ago to begin his coaching career, is to plot the downfall of a strong Moroccan side and they can draw confidence from holding Sadio Mane’s Senegal 0-0 in the group stage.
“So far the team’s performance has been absolutely tremendous,” he said of a Malawi side largely made up of players based at home or in South Africa.
One of those to catch the eye has been Frank ‘Gabadinho’ Mhango, the Orlando Pirates striker whose double secured the 2-1 win against Zimbabwe.
“Yes, ‘Gaba’ was the player who scored two fantastic goals when we needed but throughout the tournament the team has been doing very well,” Marinica said.
“Every single one of them has worked extremely hard and they have stood out for their hard work, determination and togetherness.”
He believes in the prospect of an upset against a Morocco side ranked 28th in the world –- Malawi are 129th -– but his remit goes beyond Tuesday’s game.
– Journeyman –
“Realistically Malawian football has to be revamped and we’re starting this revamping process.
“It has to go from grassroots all the way to the top to the Super League, and players and coaches have to change their approach.
“So far I am extremely pleased that everyone seems to be embracing this philosophy, and we hope that next time players will come better prepared physically, tactically, mentally and technically.”
Marinica is far from the only journeyman European to have ended up coaching at the Cup of Nations.
He went from Romania to England in 1992 to obtain his coaching badges before his tutor, Leyton Orient manager John Sitton, offered him a job at the London club.
“I worked there for a while and then I moved to lots of other clubs.
“I worked for about 18 years with the FA in a variety of roles and I worked with a number of clubs including Arsenal and Crystal Palace, a little bit with Fulham and Chelsea.
“I worked with clubs in Romania, in Hungary, in Africa, in India. I don’t know how many countries I have worked in but I think about 27 if I’m not mistaken.”
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