Blantyre — Hundreds of soccer fans in Malawi braved heavy rain Friday to cheer and welcome Malawi's national football team, nicknamed The Flames, as it returned from Cameroon, despite failing to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) quarterfinals.
As the team arrived Friday at Chileka International Airport, soccer fans, many of them dressed in red, sang songs, praising the Malawi Flames with a welcome for heroes.
The honor was largely because of the team's outstanding performance during the games that allowed it to reach the round of 16, a knockout stage, for the first time in the country's football history.
The Flames lost to Guinea, one-nil, in their opening match, but then bounced back with a 2-1 victory over Zimbabwe and a hard-fought scoreless draw against 2019 Nations Cup finalist Senegal.
However, in the knockout stage, Malawi lost 2-1 to Morocco, booking itself a ticket back home.
Walter Nyamilandu is the president of the Football Association of Malawi. He told reporters upon arrival in Blantyre that although Malawi failed to proceed further at AFCON, Malawi's mission in Cameroon was accomplished.
"Nobody expected that we would go this far, and to reach a group of 16 teams is mission accomplished. We went there to reach a round of 16, and we achieved exactly what we wanted. So, we are extremely happy that now we are among the top 16 teams in Africa, and this is where Malawi belongs," Nyamilandu said.
Nyamilandu said much of the credit goes to coach Mario Marinica, a Romanian national who is the team's technical director.
The Football Association of Malawi in November last year tasked Marinica to act as head coach for the Flames during the AFCON engagements.
"The coach is here to stay. It depends [on] what role he has to play, and he is an asset because he is delivering," Nyamilandu said. "And it's a question where will we deploy him? We will sit back and make a sober decision about what is right for Malawi in the short term and long term. But as far as I am concerned, he has passed all the tests, and if anything, we should give him an open visa, a Malawi citizenship to stay here because he has proved that he can deliver."
Marinica told VOA this week from Cameroon, however, that he would love to introduce the new style of play he has instilled in the Flames to all the nation's football clubs.
"Obviously, we need this system to be implemented throughout the country, and as much as possible adopted by all the coaches in Malawi. I hope that in the near future, we will see consistent results and much better players produced throughout the country," Marinica said.
Sunduzwayo Madise is the board chairman for the Malawi National Council of Sports. He says the performance of the Flames at AFCON has given the country pride.
"It was the first time when you go to a country wearing a Malawian jersey and people see you, and they start clapping hands at you," Madise said. "Yes, in terms of FIFA ranking we may not be up there, but I think we demonstrated that we have got a spirit and I think that we gave our best shot. Unfortunately, we didn't go through, and I think we did very well."
From the airport, the Flames proceeded to the Amaryllis Hotel in Blantyre, which hosted a celebratory dinner and provided accommodations for the team.
The government is pledging to provide more funding to make the team among the best in Africa.