When people talk about sporting nations, Madagascar is rarely part of the conversation. And for good reason.
For example, the island, located in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s south-east coast, has never won a medal over 14 appearances at the Olympic Games. Some of its better-known athletes, such as Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa, finalist in the 100 metres in Mexico City in 1968, or Joseph-Berlioz Randriamihaja, who participated in three consecutive Olympiads (2000, 2004 and 2008) in the 110-metre hurdles, represented the country with distinction without ever enjoying global success.
In Madagascar, the three most popular sports are moraingy, a traditional martial art with similarities to Thai boxing, petanque, in which the Malagasy have twice been world champions (1999 and 2016), and rugby union, in which they have twice reached the final of the Africa Cup. But for some time now, the oval ball has been making way for the round one and, while Les Barea have never qualified for a FIFA World Cup™, they did make their CAF Africa Cup of Nations debut last year.
A federation in transformation
Created in 1961, the Malagasy Football Federation (FMF) gained FIFA affiliation the following year. One of its past presidents is Ahmad Ahmad, who served from 2003 to 2017 before stepping down to become CAF President. Raoul Romain Arizaka Rabekoto has been in charge since.
Despite its 25 million inhabitants, the island has only a small number of clubs and registered players. However, in recent years, the FMF has been working hard to change that. In 2019, a new championship was launched with a revised format. For many years, the process had involved one club per region facing representatives from neighbouring regions using a round-robin system until the overall winner topped a four-team final group to be crowned champions.
Now, 12 clubs play home and away over a standard season, with the top side deemed national champion and the country’s representative in the CAF Champions League. Fosa Juniors Football Club won the inaugural edition of the revamped championship last year, but CNaPS Sport, a seven-time league champion, intend to make amends this season and strengthen their position as the most successful side in Malagasy league history.
Sand, the essence of Malagasy football
Despite the relatively low number of registered players on the island, it turns out that 27 per cent of Malagasy play football at least once a week, according to a recent survey conducted by market researchers Stileex. At local level, it is clear you do not need to be member of the federation to have passion for the round ball.
In Madagascar, football is often played on sand or clay pitches and, for the most part, barefoot. Regardless of age or gender, and whether it is in the schoolyard, on the beach or even on a dried-up river bed, you will see groups of Malagasy playing. The lack of a ball is no impediment either, with improvising youngsters often using plastic bags tightened by string to get the most spherical shape possible. This desire to play, regardless of the setting, shows a deep commitment to football.
The fact that the majority play on the sand would also explain why the country’s beach soccer team became the first Madagascar side to claim international honours. In 2015, Les Barea secured the African Beach Soccer Championship by defeating two-time defending champions Senegal to qualify for their first FIFA tournament – unquestionably a fabulous achievement for the nation.
The World Cup adventure itself would turn out to be a lot more complicated. On Portuguese sand, Madagascar found themselves in a formidable group containing subsequent finalists Tahiti, double defending world champions Russia and Paraguay. Despite finishing last in the group, scoring seven goals and conceding 12, the team enjoyed a wonderful adventure and an unforgettable experience. Moreover, the beach soccer side had blazed a trail for their compatriots in 11-a-side football, who dearly wish to emulate their exploits.
A landmark for Les Barea
For decades Madagascar’s national football team endured one disappointment after another, coming up short in their bids to qualify for the World Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Olympic Football Tournaments. Add to that a string of mediocre performances at the COSAFA Cup, despite a bronze medal in 2015. Indeed, for many years, they faced only two teams with any regularity: Mauritius and Reunion in a triangular tournament between the three francophone nations in the Indian Ocean.
Over the last five years, however, Les Barea have had more success than ever. First with their third-place finish in the COSAFA Cup and then with their historic qualification for the 2019 AFCON, by which time the squad had been much strengthened.
To provide support for experienced veterans like Paulin Voavy, Faneva Andriatsima and Lalaina Nomenjanahary, coach Nicolas Dupuis called up several players born in France. Among them were Romain Metanire, who has had Ligue 1 experience with Metz and Reims, Thomas Fontaine, a former centre-back partner of Kalidou Koulibaly in the French U-20 side, and most notably Jeremy Morel, who has played 24 UEFA Champions League matches in the colours of Marseille and Lyon. These select reinforcements proved pivotal in helping the team reach a new level.
At the AFCON in Egypt, Madagascar topped their group, recording a 2-0 win over a vastly experience Nigeria side en route. Then in the last 16, they prevailed on penalties over a Congo DR side featuring Cedric Bakambu. The adventure ended abruptly in the quarter-finals with a 3-0 reverse to Tunisia, but by then the repercussions were already being felt.
On their AFCON debut, Madagascar had surpassed all expectations and moved an entire nation. On the team’s return to Antananarivo, the scenes of jubilation were such that you could be forgiven for thinking they had won the tournament. A newfound passion swept the island and its impact could extend far beyond the Indian Ocean in the years to come.