Less fancied Malawi national football team, the Flames, have emerged as surprise leaders in Group 12 of the joint World Cup/Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, ahead of African champions Egypt and seasoned campaigners, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In a weekend full of surprise results, the Flames shocked Egypt, beating the Pharaohs with a late Chiukepo Msowoya goal at the Kamuzu Stadium in the commercial capital, Blantyre to move level on six points with both the Egyptians and DRC, but top the group on superior goal difference.
African teams are involved in a joint 2010 African Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers and have been put in 12 groups of four each.
Group winners, together with eight best runners-up, will qualify for the next phase which will have five groups of four teams each that will then fight for the right to represent Africa at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, or gain a place at the 2010 African Cup of Nations to be hosted by Angola.
At the halfway stage in Group 12, Malawi, DRC and Egypt have six points each from three games, with the other team in the group, Djibouti at the bottom of the group with no point. The Flames, however, lead the group thanks to a healthy goal aggregate.
The Flames started the campaign with an 8-1 thrashing of Djibouti in Blantyre followed by narrow 0-1 defeat away to DRC before shocking the football world with a surprise win over the reigning Africa Champions in Blantyre on Saturday.
DRC collected their six points from wins over Malawi in Kinshasa and Djibouti, while the African Champions picked up their points from home wins over the DRC and Djibouti.
Malawi will travel to Egypt for the return leg this week, and will follow that up with a visit to Djibouti in September before concluding the fixtures with a home tie against DRC in October.
The Flames have never been to the World Cup and have played at the African Cup of Nations finals only once in the early 1980s.
But following an impressive start to the two tournaments, there is renewed optim ism about the team’s chances of at least making it to continental soccer showpiece in Angola.
The new Flames coach Kinnah Phiri expressed optimism that his players will make history. “If we managed to stop Egypt, the current reigning champions, what can stop us repeating the same with DRC?” he asked.
Even Egyptian coach Hassan Shehata admitted the Flames were a handful to the Pharaohs.
There were parties throughout the country to celebrate the historic victory. Even President Binguwa Mutharika joined the party, urging all Malawians to support the Flames.
Meanwhile, companies and individuals have pledged to offer monetary prizes to the Flames. Panapress.