By Elliot Ross
Kinnah Phiri is a hero of Malawian football.
As a player, he was a inspiration throughout the glory years of the 1970s, when the national team twice brought home the East and Central Africa Challenge Cup. Before he signed as national team manager, Phiri enjoyed successful managerial spells in South Africa with Free State Stars, and with Malawi’s most successful club side, the Bullets, known variously in recent years as the Big Bullets, the Bata Bullets (as in, the shoes), and the Bakili Bullets (after they were bought by then president Bakili Muluzi in 2003).
With Phiri at the helm, Malawi (the team is known as the Flames) reached the African Nations Cup finals for only the second time, famously beating giants Egypt (who would recover to win their third continental title in a row) during qualification, and notching up the country’s biggest win with an 8-1 victory over Djibouti. At the tournament last year the Flames made their mark, thrashing a much-fancied Algeria 3-0 in the opening match.
Yet the disappointment of not reaching next year’s African Cup in Equatorial Guinea saw the apparently untouchable Phiri come in for strong criticism from ever-prickly local pundits. He has resisted calls to resign, but confirmed that he would not be renewing his contract, which expires in June 2012.
Now Phiri has announced he is to stand down next summer.
His decision comes after Malawi’s hopes of qualifying for the African Cup of Nations for the second time running were dashed by a last minute Chadian equaliser in N’Djamena.
The Flames had endured many years in the doldrums, but Phiri’s appointment in 2008 brought a change in fortunes. A succession of highly-paid European coaches had come and gone, including the itinerant German tactician Burkhard Ziese, but the team kept losing. Whether from exasperation at the repeated failure of European appointments, or simply because the Football Association of Malawi could no longer afford to pay a ‘foreign’ salary, eventually they turned to Phiri.
Subsequent defeats to Mali and hosts Angola saw the Flames eliminated from a tough group, but Phiri rallied his players, inspiring them to an eight-game unbeaten run after the tournament that hauled the country into the top-100 of the FIFA world rankings for the first time.
Perhaps because of his revered status within the Malawian game, Phiri has proved an excellent man-manager as well as an able tactician. His squad is predominantly made up of players based domestically and in the South African league, and top talents nurtured during his tenure include Vasco da Gama (CT) midfielder Joseph Kamwendo, Orlando Pirates striker Chiukepo Msowoya and Platinum Stars midfielder Robert Ng’ambi.
It must have been with his former president Bakili Muluzi’s ill-fated third-term bid in mind that Phiri wryly explained: “I don’t go for third terms.”