From the driver’s seat on the right hand side of his car, John Kaputa is talking – more like passionately preaching – about the human potential in football you find in Malawi. “We have the talent and a ridiculous passion for football, but we lack the structure to lead these passionate, talented kids to professionalism. Or at least to learn how to play organisedly,” he says, as we drive past a farmers’ market at the side of the M1 highway.
It felt like an art director had been shaping the landscape all along the way from the Chileka International Airport, just outside Blantyre, to the city centre. Right in front of a vegetable stall, seven barefoot kids play football on the dirt; only their ball is not a football. It’s a pumpkin.
Kaputa is 60 years old, but he looks, sounds and laughs like he’s in his thirties. He greets you on the phone by asking: “How’s Malawi treating you this morning?” as if he were an ambassador. As the Technical Director of the Football Association of Malawi (FAM), John is responsible for coordinating the implementation of a ground-breaking project that kicked off in October at the Chiwembe Technical Centre in Blantyre: a full-season youth football league for under-15 players, whose aim is to fill the gap between kids’ first contact with the sport and their potential rise in the ranks towards professionalism.
The fact that the Malawians were chosen to pilot the first of such development projects in the world was the result of the national association’s fruitful efforts. “Malawi wasn’t chosen from a raffle. The country has been clearly committed to grassroots football and, because of that, it looks ready to fill this void linking to the elite level,” explains the FIFA Development Officer responsible for overseeing the programmes in Southern and Eastern Africa, Ashford Mamelodi. “Any country that has ever achieved anything remarkable in football started with a foundation like this. Ultimately, the elite level benefits from it, but it all runs through the success of the foundation – even for the sake of those youngsters who don’t end up as professionals, but who grow up playing football in a structured manner.”
Malawi is one of the smallest nations in Africa. Its past as a British colony explains not only the left-hand traffic, but also the passion for football – by far the most popular sport in the country, even if the national team has never qualified for a FIFA World Cup™. In fact, “The Flames” have only played the finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations twice, in 1984 and 2010. The combination of the game’s huge popularity, the evident raw talent and the disappointing results in comparison seem to scream unleashed potential.
“I got here 20 minutes ago and I’ve already seen two playmakers just like the ones I need for my team,” rejoiced Ernest Mtawali as he looked for a place to hide from an already sweltering morning sun, before eventually taking his place in the stands to watch the opening round game between Zomba Urban and Chiradzulu.
The 51-year-old is the current head coach of the senior national team and a legend of Malawian football. He debuted with “The Flames” at the age of 18 and played professionally until he was 42, having spent a long time in the South African Premier League, besides stints in Saudi Arabia, France (Toulouse FC) and even Argentina (Talleres and Newell’s Old Boys).
“I’ll tell you something: in terms of natural skill and passion for football, Malawi is comparable to anywhere else in the world. I can’t believe what I’m seeing here. If we take such good care of the kids when they’re under 15 years old, it’s not too much to think of qualifying for the World Cup in the next decade or so.”
Indeed, what Mtawali defines as “taking care” is to go far beyond merely distributing kits and organising a match schedule. The building blocks of the project were laid with a 5-day course for 36 CAF-licensed football coaches. After having gone through the formation period, each pair of coaches took over one of the 18 teams playing the maiden season of the youth football league. The teams have been training a maximum of three times a week since mid-October, and will have played between 18 and 20 games each until the end of the competition in May 2016.
When the first season draws to a close, the FAM will select the best players from the 11 teams in the Central region and the best ones from the seven teams in the Eastern region. They’ll meet, train and should form the core of the under-15 national team. “Our goal is to repeat the process in the second season, only by then we hope to have a total 34 teams, coming from each of the 28 districts in Malawi,” explains Kaputa, struggling to control a range of lively gestures as he speaks.
“Hopefully our next generation of under-17 footballers will come from that process, and it will be stronger than ever. We want to grow a generation of heroes, definitely. But we will, at the very least, provide a generation with the chance to live football as a youngster should.”
For as much as it may be fun for small kids to kick a pumpkin around on the dirt, and only to dream of playing at a World Cup, a new dawn of real potential now awaits Malawi and its next generation of players.