Madagascar: Big population, but no longer small in football terms

The island nation have qualified for the African Cup of Nations for the first time, after a convincing qualifying campaign.

By Kieran Ahuja

Madagascar have typically not had much luck in the footballing world. In a continent where teams such as Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa often qualify for the world cup, the island nation has been both metaphorically and geographically on the periphery. In the six decades that the AFCON has been running, the competition has been held 31 times – with Madagascar, until now, continually failing to qualify. They’ve had more success looking eastwards, being the winners of the Indian Ocean Island games in 1990 and the runners-up in 2007. But, these wins are against teams who you’ve probably never heard of (Comoros? Mayotte?), most of whom come from islands with sub-million populations.

Madagascar can be seen as a national football team who’s results do not match up to their potential. With a population of over 25 million, it’s pool of resources is much deeper than that of better national teams—for example, Iceland, who got to the quarter finals of the 2016 European Championships (beating England in the process) and earlier this year were ranked as the 18th best national team in the world by FIFA, only have a population of just over 300,000. Uruguay, with a population of around 3.5 million, are currently ranked 6th best in the world; in 2011 they were ranked 2nd.

So, with their tens of millions of potential players, why aren’t Madagascar better than they are, even continentally? The reasons are myriad, but behind the curtain of Madagascar’s stunning beauty lies a tragic recent history. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the country has been entangled in violent civil war – they are one of the only countries who became poorer between 1960 and 2010. Three-quarters of all modern cases of the Bubonic Plague (who’s fatality rate is between 30 and 60 per cent) occur in Madagascar. The nation is perpetually embroiled in bloody civil dispute; since an incident in which police shot and killed two civilians back in April, anti-government protests have become part of the norm.

Even Madagascar’s football tradition is marred by tragedy. In September, a pre-match stampede occurred when thousands of fans all tried to enter the stadium via its only entrance before Madagascar’s qualification game against Senegal. The incident left one person dead and 40 injured, two ‘critically’. Poor stadium management means that incidents like these are not uncommon; a similar incident in Angola left 17 dead in February 2017. In November, FIFA appointed a normalisation committee to restructure The Malagasy Football Federation, who were forcibly disbanded due to their contravention of FIFA’s ‘Regulatory Requirements’.

However, Malagasy football is hopefully on the upturn. The normalisation committee appointed to manage the Malagasy Football Federation has committed to completing its work by May 2019, hopefully leaving Madagascar with an efficiently run, self-governing football body. The qualification to the AFCON has ignited an enthusiasm typified by team member William Gros, who compared the team’s potential in the tournament to Croatia’s surprising success in the 2018 World Cup, in an interview with Sportshour.

“There are so many small teams who now go far because they have a big improvement. And what we did for Malagasy is a big improvement, so I think we can go as far as we want. The sky is the limit,” he said.

The team’s head coach, Nicolas Dupuis, is similarly as optimistic, and also respectably tactical in his team’s plans for the future. France’s frankly stunning squad depth means that there is a diaspora of Madagascan-born French players who are unable to break into the national team, and are looking to Madagascar as an opportunity to play on the international stage. Lyon Centre-back Jérémy Morel has confirmed that he will play for Madagascar, no doubt bringing an element of professionalism to the team from his years of experience in the French top flight. Although he is 34, he has never made an appearance for the French national team and is therefore eligible to play for the Malagasy. Despite his age, he confirmed in a tweet that he will “proudly participate in the CAN 2019 under the colors of Madagascar. It will make you smile or cringe but whatever, you do not deny family origins when they call you.”

Dupuis also hinted that he is working on convincing Strasbourg forward Ludovic Ajorque to the National Team. Since his Strasbourg debut in August, the 24 year old has scored 1 goal in his 4 appearances. However, Ajorque is eligible to play for France, Reunion and Madagascar, and there is currently no information regarding whom he has chosen to play for.

Former Toulouse goalkeeper Zacharie Boucher’s name has been floated as a potential Malagasy No.1. After a rocky second season at Toulouse, in which he felt he was not getting the playtime he needed, Boucher is now playing for Ligue 1 side Angers, on loan from Ligue 2 club Auxerre. Boucher was first choice keeper for France at U-16, U-17 and U-18 Level, but now at 26 is uncapped for the first team. Similarly to Ludovic Ajorque, Boucher is eligible to play for France, Reunion and Madagascar, and has not confirmed whether or not he will represent the Malagasy at the AFCON.

Irregardless of whether or not renationalising French-Malagasy players is successful, Madagascar have a right to optimism this June. They have a wealth of talent already in the team. Captain Faneva Andriatsima scored twice in the Barea’s (‘Prized Cattle’) win over Sudan, and has shown himself to be a capable leader on the field. They already have players who have played in France; defender Thomas Fontaine plays for Stade du Reims and played for France at youth level, as did CDM Marco Ilaimaharitra.

Madagascar can now head to Cameroon knowing they have a passionate team, a competent and similarly passionate manager who has shown his ability to incentivise the team, and a point to prove. After remaining isolated for so long, the Barea are ready to announce themselves on the Continental stage.

Kieran Ahuja is co-founder, writer and creative director for 5WFootball. Follow him on Twitter here

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