Mada­gas­car reach fi­nals for first time

His­tory beck­ons for the Mala­gasy af­ter half a cen­tury

World Soccer - - World Service - MARK GLEE­SON

Af­ter al­most 50 years and 16 at­tempts at qual­i­fy­ing, Mada­gas­car will play in the African Na­tions Cup fi­nals fol­low­ing a 1-0 vic­tory over Equa­to­rial Guinea. Njiva Rakot oh a rim al al a’ s42n d-minute goal in the high­land town of Von­tovorona en­sured a nervy win and an unas­sail­able po­si­tion in the top two of Group A.

Vic­tory in Su­dan in their open­ing game in June last year set the tone and they have been led to new heights by Ni­co­las Dupuis, a feisty French­man who has been in charge since Fe­bru­ary 2017. Much of that suc­cess has come from the coach per­suad­ing French-born tal­ent such as Thomas Fon­taine, Jerome Mom­bris, Fa­bien Boyer and Ro­man Me­tanire to play for the coun­try. Ligue 1 play­ers Zacharie Boucher of Angers and Stras­bourg’s Ludovic Ajorque could also be per­suaded to com­mit to the cause as Dupuis be­gins prepa­ra­tions for the fi­nals.

Foot­ball on the is­land na­tion re­mains mostly un­de­vel­oped and amateur, and the Mala­gasy have also been largely iso­lated be­cause of their geo­graph­i­cal po­si­tion to the east of the con­ti­nent.

“When I was named coach said that the team had to play more friendlies,” says Dupuis. “Play­ing three or four games a year would not help us ad­vance.

“Since then, we’ve used all the FIFA dates to play friendly matches. I also set about re­cruit­ing play­ers with Mala­gasy roots and sell­ing them the am­bi­tions we had. They’ve all taken up the chal­lenge and be­come deeply in­volved in our project. We’ve gone through a rich and unique ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The de­ci­sive match had to be played away from their usual home venue, the Ma­hamasina Sta­dium in the cap­i­tal An­tana­narivo, af­ter one fan was killed and 41 oth­ers in­jured in a stam­pede in Oc­to­ber when they drew with Sene­gal. That led to a three-match sta­dium ban and Mada­gas­car’s next home qual­i­fier – against Su­dan – will be played at a smaller club sta­dium in An­tana­narivo.

Join­ing them in Cameroon next sum­mer will be Sene­gal, who topped their group, and Egypt and Tu­nisia, who oc­cupy the first two places in Group J, where min­nows Niger and e Swa­tini (for­merly Swazi­land) pro­vided lit­tle op­po­si­tion.

Novem­ber’s penul­ti­mate round of games – the top two in 11 of the 12 groups will go through to the fi­nals next June – should go a long way to de­liv­er­ing more teams for the ex­panded field at the 2019 fi­nals, in­clud­ing one or two other po­ten­tial new­com­ers.

Bu­rundi and Mau­ri­ta­nia are still in the race to book a first-ever berth at the fi­nals and bring to 42 the num­ber of coun­tries who have played at the fi­nals.

Bu­rundi, for whom Saido Ber­ahino made his de­but in Septem­ber, are chas­ing a top-two fin­ish in Group C, while Mau­ri­ta­nia, coached by for­mer France mid­fielder Corentin Martins, lead Group I af­ter beat­ing An­gola in their last game and will qual­ify if they beat Botswana in Nouak­chott on Novem­ber 18.

Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Uganda and Zimbabwe should also book their places, while Kenya must await CAF’s de­ci­sion on what to do about Sierra Leone, whose two games against Ghana in Oc­to­ber were called off when FIFA is­sued a ban for govern­ment in­ter­fer­ence in the foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tion.

CAF could award both matches 3-0 to Ghana or dis­qual­ify Sierra Leone, in which case their results will be ex­punged. Ei­ther out­come would see Kenya go through to the fi­nals.

Un­usual...cel­e­bra­tions have been rare for Mada­gas­car

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