By Sam Crocker
Madagascar is a country more famous for being a film than a country. It is one that Pixar has successfully conspired against to convince white people that actual other humans don’t live there.
So, given that no one thinks any humans live there, it would be unexpected for people to think they were any good at football. But amongst its 25 million inhabitants (and large diaspora) are a football team. And it turns out, they’re not that bad.
With a brief glance at the Madagascar men’s national football team Wikipedia page, you can be forgiven for not automatically linking the country with football. Having withdrawn or never even entered more tournament qualifiers than tournaments that they’ve qualified for, 2019 saw them successfully remove themselves from a list of teams to have never qualified for an Africa Cup of Nations, with Mauritania and Burundi also successfully doing so.
Indeed, they haven’t even been much good at the Indian Ocean Island Games tournament – a regional competition solely made up of the countries and French territories that float off the edge of Mozambique. Most recently in 2015, they finished fourth behind Reunion, Mayotte and Mauritius –the first two of which aren’t even fully fledged members of CAF or FIFA.
2019 saw a remarkable turnaround. The first team in Africa to qualify, they ended up finishing second ahead of Equatorial Guinea and Sudan and behind Senegal, beating the former of those teams last October to secure qualification.
Coincidentally coming at the same time as Malagasy CAF president Ahmad Ahmad came to power, the expectations for Les Zebus (named after a type of humped cattle that holds cultural significance on the island) as tournament debutants will be limited.
The first hurdle they’ll come across will be informing white people that Madagascar is an actual place with humans, some of which are good at sport.
Operating a 4-3-3 system, a lot of the attacking capacity comes from their forward line, made up of speedy, tricky wingers and the all-rounder Faneva Andiatsima. Suffering from the classic AFCON issue of limited creativity in the centre of the park, they are highly reliant on this attacking three, with all their goals in qualifying coming from players in this position.
Using two holding midfielders to provide a bit of structure to their game, they are well setup to counter attack, which could be an effective tactic as perceived underdogs of the tournament. Roman Metanire and Jerome Mombris will provide a bit of support going forward from the full-back position.
The Forwards – In a squad with a general lack of international football experience, the selection of forwards will be something they will look to if Madagascar are going to achieve anything in Egypt. The six forwards have 134 caps between them, with a few wiley lemurs over the age of the thirty being looked to lead them forward.
Leading the line with Faneva Andriatsima through the middle, flanked by Lalaïna Nomenjanahary and Paulin Voavy or Njiva Rakotoharimalala, their experience of playing together offers considerable advantage in terms of their fluidity going forward.
The Achilles’ Heel
Defensively – In stark contrast to the forwards, defensively Madagascar are more limited. Made up significantly of diaspora players born in France who made their debuts in the last qualification campaign, they have sacrificed more experienced international players who play their football in Madagascar and other less renowned leagues.
Whilst the likes of Jeremy Morel and Roman Metanire offer a wealth of club appearance, manager Nicholas Dupuis risks squad happiness by bringing in bigger names. Conceding eight goals during the qualifying campaign – the most out of all the qualified teams – it remains unclear whether these new recruits will be able to solve Les Zebus defensive woes.
Faneva Andriatsima – His country’s all-time top scorer, the Clermont Foot striker has long been the leader of this team. A gangly forward, he can be spotted on the shoulder of the last defender and putting himself about in the box, in a very ‘battler’ kind of way. However, at 34 and his club career on the wane, whether Andriatsima still had the physical presence to take his team forward remains to be seen.
The Hipster’s Choice
Arohasina Andrianarimanana – AFCON 2019’s official commentator’s nightmare, Andrianarimanana offers some vital dynamism in Madagascar’s midfield. Something of the Yves Bissoumas about him, his ability to contribute at either end of the pitch takes some of the creative pressure off their front three. If nothing else, look out for him just to hear Stewart Robson absolutely murder the pronunciation of his name.
Nicholas Dupuis – An unknown outside of French lower league circles, it’s difficult to overestimate the quality of the job done by Dupuis in transforming this nation’s footballing fortunes since taking over in 2017. After a string of Malagasy managers, Dupuis has taken advantage of his connections in France to the diaspora to add some genuine quality to this team, having previously been made up of locally-based players. Whether he can maintain team cohesion whilst in Egypt will be the biggest challenge he faces.
A difficult to call group, Madagascar have the advantage of being in with fellow debutants Burundi. If they can finish above them and get a result from Nigeria or Guinea, there’s every chance they could see themselves through, even in the third-place spot.