From Belgium with draws

In April last year, the country welcomed a new coach to replace fired Flames legend Ernest Mtawali.

Football Association of Malawi (Fam) had succeeded in keeping his identity under wraps until he landed at Chileka International Airport in Blantyre.

Curious journalists lay in wait to get acquainted with the ‘wiseman from the West’ who was expected to perform his miracles with the misfiring Flames.

Fam officials did their best in shielding their man from the inquisitive pressmen, who wanted to hear him speak.

The media only succeeded in getting his name -Ronny van Geneudgen -conveniently shortened to RVG. But Fam insisted that the Belgian would only interact with journalists at a later date.

It later transpired that he had never coached a national team before, meaning that the Flames were his first in international football.

When the day came for his interaction with the media, Fam president Walter Nyamilandu stated that RVG was entrusted with the responsibility of building a new team and cultivating a football philosophy right from the junior national teams.

Stepping his feet on African soil for the first time in his life, RVG had little to say during the interaction, choosing to limit his sentiments to what Nyamilandu had already alluded to.

It did not take long for him to be thrown into the deep end as he took up his first assignment. A barren draw in an away friendly encounter with Kenya’s Harambee Stars was followed by a 1-0 defeat to Madagascar in the 2018 of African Nations Championship (Chan) qualifying campaign.

The Flames went on to lose the return match again by the same margin in the return match at Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe.

This was followed by the team’s poor showing at the Cosafa Cup tournament in South Africa where the team failed to score in three preliminary matches and got booted out.

Fast forward to April 2018, the Flames have now played 12 games under RVG with two wins, seven draws and three defeats.

But Nyamilandu believes that in RVG, Malawi has the best coach.

“There have been tremendous improvements since he came. The team is on the right path. It is able to play a passing game, create scoring chances and the only problem is scoring which I believe will soon end,” he said.

However, RVG’s mission of building a new team has, in the past year, raised questions due to his inconsistency. He is a man well-known for changing his squad every now and then.

Under RVG, the Flames have gone through a continuous fall on the Fifa rankings. The Flames have, for the past four years, failed to break it into double digits on the Fifa rankings.

This has seen Malawi languishing outside the top 100 teams on the rankings. The Flames last made it into the double digits some four years ago when they rose to position 91.

It was expected that RVG’s coming would make a difference but not much has changed. This reflects badly on the country’s poor state of football which has, in turn, affected the marketability of local players.

After a meteoric rise to position 91 by the end of 2014, the Flames miserably dropped to position 111 after just a year.

In 2016, Malawi improved their ranking to position 102 but dropped again by 15 steps to 117 at the end of last year. Currently, the team is ranked 120.

Fam General Secretary, Alfred Gunda, said the Flames’ poor ranking is a cause for concern but a number of interventions are being pursued to change the status quo.

“It is a cause for concern because everybody would want to be rated highly. Going forward, we have put in place some measures to help reverse the trend. We are only calling for patience as the measures cannot bear fruits overnight,” Gunda said.

Unlike in previous years when the Flames used to be inactive during Fifa-sanctioned international friendly match days, the story looks different especially for the past year as Fam has been organising matches for the team.

However, apart from failure to get results in those games, facing weaker opponents has been the team’s major undoing factor in the quest to improve on the Fifa rankings.

Gunda said the Flames have to up their game first before thinking of attracting strong teams for friendly games.

According to Fifa, the number of points that can be won in a match to determine a team’s rising or falling on the rankings depends on several factors such as the importance of the match, strength of the opposing team in terms of ranking and the confederations to which they belong.

Due to financial constraints, the Flames can hardly attract big teams that demand a lot of money. This means the Flames cannot travel to Europe or other continents for friendly games like what happened in 2002 when, under the guidance of Danish mentor Kim Splisboel, the Flames camped in England for some weeks.

But RVG could take solace in the fact that in six Fifa-sanctioned matches played with a full squad, the team is yet to taste defeat as they have won twice and drawn four. It is for this reason that the coach feels betrayed by Fifa rankings.

“We do not need to look at these rankings [seriously] because we do not know if the statistics are really right. If we consider our performance and results, where we played six games without a loss, then it is a big question why we are going down every time,” RVG told The Daily Times in December last year.

Some weeks after his arrival in the country last year, the Belgian trainer said he wanted to lift Flames to a better position on the Fifa rankings. He found the team on position 100 but he has failed to live up to his promise despite getting full support from Fam.

Former Nyasa Big Bullets chairperson, Kondi Msungama, said RVG has nothing to show for the year he has been in the country.

“We are where we were. From the games we have played, there are no promising results for which to commend the coach,” Msungama said.

Building a team is certainly not a one-year task but RVG needs to inspire confidence in his ability to turn around the Flames fortunes.

As he steps into the second year of his coaching job with the Flames, RVG should remember that a coach is judged by his team’s results and not just how it plays.

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