Madagascar football enthusiasts have received their fair share of good news lately, with their Beach Soccer representatives not only securing a maiden continental title, but also becoming the first team from the island state to qualify for a global competition. Although the country's traditional national side has not quite yet managed to soar to such heights, they did give their fans something to cheer about last month when they reached the COSAFA Cup semi-finals, where they were beaten by Namibia. Madagascar then went on to beat Botswana in the third-place play-off, securing their highest-ever placing in the competition for Southern African nations.
Consequently, they leapt from 150th to 113th on the FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking, making them the biggest movers across the globe in June. Their current position is 28 positions higher than their average since the FIFA Ranking was introduced.
Unsurprisingly, it has left supporters and players delighted. Veteran midfielder and captain Johann Paul has nevertheless warned that they can not afford to rest on their laurels.
“We made a big move in FIFA Rankings and it was very good news for the team," he said. "But if we want to continue to improve, we must learn to know each other and know the way every player plays. We need to work and play together again and again to create a homogeneous team without any differences between expatriates and local players.”
Togetherness the key
Like with the beach soccer team, the officials in charge of the *Barea *have realised in order for the them to improve, they need to play games. It is a point assistant coach Franck Rajaonarisamba is aware of, and one that he believes will see the team improving further.
“To continue to improve, we need to play more games, like friendly matches, so they will improve the way they play together," he said. "We made a move in the FIFA Rankings and we were happy about that. It inspires us to put in even more effort. There is no secret to success at all. We just need to play other games before official matches, so that all the players - expatriates and domestic players - will be able to play together and realise better performances together."
Realising that they needed to play matches, Madagascar entered this year's COSAFA Cup having failed to enter the two previous instalments. Victories against Lesotho and Tanzania, as well as a draw against Swaziland, saw the team qualify for the quarter-finals, where Ghana awaited them. A shock 2-1 win – albeit against a domestic-based Ghana side without their star players – ranks as one of the top results in Malagasy football history. Thereafter, only a late goal gave Namibia a 3-2 victory, before Sarivahy Vombola's fourth and fifth goals of the tournament secured a 2-1 defeat of Botswana.
"During the Cosafa Cup, the local players learned to play together step-by-step and we improved in each match," said Rajaonarisamba, who coached the side during the competition in South Africa. "They grew in confidence, and we played better and better until the last game."
The team lost 2-1 to Congo DR in their opening qualifier for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2017, and Rajaonarisamba believes it will take some time for the side to gel as the coaches want them to: “We integrated many expatriates with the local players. So I think that they are not used to playing together, even if every one has good capacities individually.“
Johan Paul, who returned for the AFCON game after Madagascar fielded an entirely home-based team in the COSAFA Cup, believes the defeat by Congo DR gave the side some pointers: “Look at their team, they have played together for a long time and they know each other. So we have to do that and create a stable frame for our national team too."