Who are Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania?

MANDELA’S CALL

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation.” Those are words in Madiba’s own handwriting. Independent South Africa’s first President, Nelson Mandela clearly had an insight and vision that transcended his time, domain or the politics of nations. No wonder he is regarded as one of the greatest persons to have ever lived, whose birthday is celebrated even long after he is gone. Of course, this note is not a Mandela refresher course, though that would also be pretty cool. The Barea of Madagascar, Intamba of Burundi and Al-Murabitun of Mauritania clearly took a leaf out of the late Pan-African’s book by choosing to be that great generation in the footballing history of their dear nations. Let’s explore how far they have come, how they made it, and assess their affinity to write even newer history as they make their debut appearance at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

Some of the stars of the Burundi national team who have made rounds on the international scene and appearing in the English Premier League include 25-year-old midfielder, Gael Bigirimana who featured for a Newcastle side that made the top six in EPL. The controversial but highly talented Saido Berahino is another. The 25-year-old forward who last appeared for Stoke City is keen to represent Intamba in what he has labelled, “the biggest tournament” he will play in come June 2019.
— Dennis Takaendesa, FirstTouch Africa
Gael Bigirimana of Motherwell is seen prior to the Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Motherwell at Hampden Park on May 19, 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (May 18, 2018 - Source: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images Europe)

Gael Bigirimana of Motherwell is seen prior to the Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Motherwell at Hampden Park on May 19, 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland.

(May 18, 2018 - Source: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images Europe)

BURUNDI

Brief history

Nicknamed Intamba m’Urugamba in the local Kirundi language, which means the Swallows in the War, the Burundi men’s national football team fought the good fight by winning the East African nation their first ever AFCON finals appearance. With all due respect, the close to 11 million people nation is hardly recognisable as one of Africa’s 54 nations, let alone the world. They are a rich people with plenty to share with the rest of the world but assumes a status as one of the most introverted nations of the world.

The not so informed weren’t previously convinced that Burundi even had a national football team until they knocked out some hotshots to grab that elusive AFCON spot. Intamba actually first graced the football scene as early as 1964 in an international match against neighbors Uganda, a miserable affair in which they lost 7-0.  Just like any other developing team, they took even more knocks as the years went by, more pronounced being their heaviest defeat to date, an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of Congo in 1977. They had to wait for March of 2017 to get a 7-0 victory of their own against lowly ranked Djibouti. Over the years, they rarely did a lot that warranted recognition, failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup and only came close to qualifying for the 1994 AFCON tournament. Guinea crashed their hopes in the final playoff, winning on penalty shootouts. The Swallows have mostly been known in CECAFA, East & Central Africa’s organized football tourney, but remained adrift of a major tournament appearance let alone triumph, until now.

Egypt 2019 will be their first hunting ground and best believe that the Burundi people will flock in numbers and stop every other business to back their heroes to continue swallowing new victories and soar in unchartered territories.

How they made it?

Quite honestly, there had never been a better opportunity for Intamba to secure a historic AFCON finals appearance than now when the competition will pit 24 finalists for the first time, extended from the usual 16. However, doing the business on the pitch would always pose a far from easy challenge given the level of competition and growth of football across the African continent.

Seeded in pot 3 of 6, Burundi straight away earned a group stage qualifiers spot alongside the highly rated Mali, Gabon and the preliminary round winners, South Sudan. The odds were obviously in favor of Mali and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon to proceed to the Egypt 2019 finals. Intamba did not only steal Gabon’s assumed spot but finished the qualifiers unbeaten. They did what was expected of them by beating South Sudan home and away but caused a few upsets by holding Mali and the 2017 hosts, Gabon in the other 4 matches played over two legs. Even the 2018/19 English Premier League Golden Boot winner with his 22 goals for Arsenal, Aubameyang, could not rescue the Panthers past a stubborn Burundi side determined to write new history.

What makes their story even more compelling and this generation, undeniably Burundi’s best football generation, is that both the most capped and the highest goal scorer of all time are in the current squad. The 29-year-old Karim Nizigiyimana with record 52 caps and 26-year-old forward Fiston Abdul Razak on 17 international goals. The latter was even the second top goal scorer in the 2019 AFCON qualifiers after Nigeria’s Odion Ighalo with 6 goals in 6 matches.

Some of the stars of the Burundi national team who have made rounds on the international scene and appearing in the English Premier League include 25-year-old midfielder, Gael Bigirimana who featured for a Newcastle side that made the top six in EPL. The controversial but highly talented Saido Berahino is another. The 25-year-old forward who last appeared for Stoke City is keen to represent Intamba in what he has labelled, “the biggest tournament” he will play in come June 2019.

At a time when most African nations are hiring football coaches from abroad, Burundi made it to their first finals under the guidance of Oliver Niyungeko, only their second local coach in their history, which definitely adds a nice ring to the overall story.

Examining the prospects of new history

Well, Intamba has so far written a fairy-tale story which will unlikely continue in the next few weeks. Honestly, it’s enough reward for them and their fans that they will play in the biggest football tournament on the continent. The challenge doesn’t become any easier going forward.

Drawn in group B against tournament favorites Nigeria, dark horses Guinea who dominated 2015 AFCON winners Ivory Coast in the qualifiers as well fellow debutants, Madagascar – it’s a bloody affair.

Here is a list of their fixtures:

Nigeria vs Burundi, 22nd of June

Madagascar vs Burundi, 27th of June

Burundi vs Guinea, 30th of June

Verdict: If they can beat Madagascar and get a result against either Nigeria or Guinea, Intamba will most definitely set themselves up for a round of 16 spot, either as group runners up or one of the four best, third placed teams. They may be debutants with nothing to lose but their track record shows nothing is impossible for them Swallows.

MADAGASCAR

Brief history

In terms of area size or the population, the Island of Madagascar is not as small as Burundi but their football history has been just as unattractive. The vast Indian Ocean island nation first made rounds in the footballing world back in 1947, participating in the Triangulaire tournament organised for fellow islanders Mauritius and Reunion. Back then, Barea were still very much under the shadow of the now lowly ranked Mauritius, suffering the heaviest loss at their neighbor’s hands, a 7-0 humbling in July of 1952. They first played opposition outside the aforementioned nations in 1960, and in subsequent tournaments organised for French Speaking nations. It is through mingling with the likes of Burkina Faso, Chad and Benin, that they recorded their biggest win in history, a 8-0 thrashing of Congo Brazzaville. They began making strides up but never really became a threatening side. Unfamiliar with neither a FIFA World Cup nor an AFCON finals appearance, Barea’s height of glory ended in the COSAFA, Southern African nations football tournament, which they have never won since their debut appearance in 2002. Their highest achievement was a third-place finish in South Africa 2015 and their only silverware has come in the form of 2 triumphs at the Indian Ocean Island Games in 1990 and 1993, which don’t really count for a lot. It was during that period when they achieved their highest ever FIFA ranking of 74.

Madagascar may be ranked 104th in the world as of 4 April 2019 but what they have achieved by securing an AFCON finals ticket to Egypt 2019, surpasses all, its perhaps the realization of their wildest dreams. Adding to that, what better time to do it, than when the serving CAF President, Ahmad Ahmad is Malagasy. The close to 26 million people nation is definitely flying without wings!

How they made it?

Barea had to do the most amongst all the 24 AFCON finalists. Seeded in pot 5 of 6, the last pot of all nations entering the qualifiers, they had to play a preliminary round match against Sao Tome and Principe to earn a group stage spot. After handsomely dismissing them 4-2 on aggregate; Senegal, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan awaited them in group A of the qualifiers, a group in which most gave them no chance. A 2-2 home draw against favorites Senegal on match-day two raised eyebrows and the dream train was on its way.

Barea followed the miracle of Senegal with upsetting Equatorial Guinea, twice in three days with consecutive 1-0 victories. With two games to spare, the unheralded Madagascar together with Senegal became first nations to qualify for Egypt 2019 apart from the hosting nation.

Respectfully, Malagasy nationals’ names may seem like WiFi passwords to many, with little or unrecognizable involvement in some of the biggest tournaments or leagues in the world, but they have been more than impressive. All-time leading goal scorer, captain and veteran forward, Faneva Andriatsima is expected to continue leading the Barea further into dreamland. He may just well be the greatest footballer indeed the nation has ever seen.

Adding to that, what better time to do it, than when the serving CAF President, Ahmad Ahmad is Malagasy. The close to 26 million people nation is definitely flying without wings!
— Dennis Takaendesa, FirstTouch Africa

Examining the prospects of new history

Just like all the debutants, with no experience at this level, Madagascar are more than content to have reached the finals. Anything above that is welcome luxury. Their greatest hope of getting a result will be against fellow debutants Burundi whereas matches against Guinea and Nigeria are but much needed experiences to play against the top sides on the continent.

The list of their fixtures is as follows:

Guinea vs Madagascar, 22nd of June

Madagascar vs Burundi, 27th of June

Madagascar vs Nigeria, 30th of June

Verdict: In my opinion, they will finish fourth in group A. Just like Panama who made a historic FIFA World Cup appearance in 2018 with the oldest average aged team and got outrun by younger opponents, Barea could have the same fate. They may not be the oldest team but could face numerous problems against the relatively younger Burundi, not mentioning favorites Nigeria and highly dangerous Guinea, captained by Liverpool midfielder in Naby Keita.

Saido Berahino of Stoke City during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Stoke City at Stamford Bridge on December 30, 2017 in London, England.  (Dec. 29, 2017 - Source: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images Europe)

Saido Berahino of Stoke City during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Stoke City at Stamford Bridge on December 30, 2017 in London, England.

(Dec. 29, 2017 - Source: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images Europe)

MAURITANIA

Brief history

You probably are familiar with the trend amongst all the three debutants. They will not only be making their first AFCON finals appearances in Egypt 2019, but also their first ever major tournament participation given the absence of any pleasant history with neither the FIFA World Cup nor Summer Olympics. The West African nation probably had the least interesting history among fellow debutants, Burundi and Madagascar.

The Lions of Chinguetti first played football in April 1963 after their independence from France, a 6-0 loss to Congo in Senegal as part of L’Amite tournament. What followed were a series of humiliating results without scoring amongst which included an 11-0 defeat to Mali and 14-0 annihilation by Guinea. Al-Murabitun first achieved competitive avoidance of defeat in 1976, 13 years after formation, when they drew 1-1 against Burkina Faso who were then called Upper Volta in the 1978 FIFA World Cup qualification matches. Their first ever win came 4 years later, a 2-1 home win against Mali in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

A 2019 Egypt AFCON finals appearance is by far their highest ever accolade and boy, did they achieve it in style? It was definitely worth the wait.

How they made it?

The Lions of Chinguetti never looked like a minnow from day one of the 2019 AFCON qualifiers. Two wins in their first two matches against Botswana and Burkina Faso earned them a reputation as the tournament’s most dangerous surprise package. The 2-0 win against Burkina Faso was most impressive. They made light-work of the 2013 AFCON runners-up, scoring two goals in 4 minutes of the first half.

They however capitulated in the ensuing match, losing 4-1 to Angola, perhaps the pressure and hype was catching up with them. Al-Murabitun did not take long and were at it again, getting one over Angola on home soil four days later, and secured a historic AFCON berth in the next match against the Zebras of Botswana. Burkina Faso restored pride with 1-0 win over their fellow West Africans on final match-day but it was all too little too late, the job was already done. They could have finished top of their group but an inferior goal difference to Angola stood in the way of that. That’s just how good they were.

Under French gaffer, Corentin Martins, Mauritania have earned a likeable reputation as one of the youngest, most thorough and hardworking teams. Amongst those to look out for is the 21-year-old midfielder, Hacen El Ide who plies his trade for Spanish side, Real Valladolid B. At that tender-age, El Ide is already the 5th most capped player and the 3rd highest scorer in Mauritania’s history. The most capped and highest scorer is obviously captain Moulaye Ahmed Khalil who will lead the line as the Lions of Chinguetti target further scalps of the big boys in Egypt.

Examining the prospects of new history

As a result of being drawn in Group E, alongside Tunisia, Mali and Angola; they once again kick off things in Egypt with the odds against them. Even though the 5 million people nation of Mauritania is over the moon because of their nation’s historic qualification, there could be a set of their fans who are intentionally targeting more. The potential of their young side is there for all too see and might be around the top circles for quite some time.

Here is the list of their group E fixtures:

Mali vs Mauritania, 24th of June

Mauritania vs Angola, 29th of June

Mauritania vs Tunisia, 2nd of July

Verdict: Al-Murabitun obviously know Angola very well from the qualifiers and could have some unfinished business with them. Being one of the most youthful and exciting sides to watch, I suspect they will reach the round of 16. It’s not very far from them to get a result against either Mali or Tunisia given they already dispatched the highly rated Burkina Faso out of the competition.