Madagascar football captain: 'we're more than a movie'

Madagascar celebrate qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations
Madagascar are aiming to carry on causing upsets at the Africa Cup of Nations finals in 2019

In October, Madagascar celebrated an unlikely sporting success story, as successive 1-0 victories over Equatorial Guinea sealed their place at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

The squad are now hoping their achievement will bring footballing fame to a nation perhaps more usually associated with the movie which carries their country's name.

"Madagascar" was a hugely popular animated film from 2005, and if you search for the country's name online, you get a lot more hits for the adventures of Alex the Lion and his friends than you do for sporting success.

But the turnaround in Madagascar's footballing fortunes is worthy of a film of its own.

In their previous four qualifying campaigns they had won just one of 16 games, finished bottom of their group twice and failed to even advance from the preliminary rounds on the other two occasions.

But after stunning success in their most recent campaign they have qualified for a major tournament for the first time.

And they did it with two games to spare.

Captain Faneva Imà Andriatsima was part of all of those teams and after years in the international doldrums. He is now enjoying the fruits of Madagascar's football revolution.

More than just a movie

"Of course many people knew Madagascar from this kids' film," Andriatsima tells BBC Sport.

"I think all Malagasy people are aware of it, though most of the animals in the movie don't actually exist in Madagascar - we don't have any zebras or lions!

"It was nice that people got to know Madagascar but it is a shame that it is through a fictional movie and not through a real-life achievement.

"Now, we hope that can change. I believe everybody will now know that there is also football in Madagascar."

The Madagascar football team
Madagascar are recruiting players with Malagasy roots to strengthen their team

At 34 Andriatsima, born in Madagascar's capital Antananarivo, is the team's elder statesman and his experience has been vital in recent months.

The forward netted twice in a 3-1 away victory over Sudan, while his winner in Equatorial Guinea was arguably the key to qualification.

"When I was a child I watched Bebeto, Romario, Leonardo on TV - this golden generation of Brazil," he continued.

"Now that we are playing in the most prestigious competition on the continent I hope that future generations in Madagascar can be inspired by us and that this tournament will be remembered as a turning point."

"These goals were the most important of my career and I am proud to have scored them.

"It's difficult to say which one was best because beating Sudan made us believe we could qualify but then beating Equatorial Guinea meant that we really could make our dream a reality.

"That first victory over Equatorial Guinea I think was the most important result in the history of football in Madagascar, it was when we knew we could go all the way."

Madagascar could even still finish top of Group A, though a tricky away trip to leaders Senegal awaits in the final match in March.

Andriatsima and his team-mates will be rank outsiders next June but the striker is confident they will not be pushovers.

"There are some fantastic teams at the tournament," he admitted.

"Having played Senegal we have seen how strong they are and I think they are favourites to win.

"Cameroon and Ivory Coast are also great sides, while Egypt of course have Mohamed Salah.

"What I know is that Madagascar will go into the competition with no pressure or stress. But we are not there just to compete, we want to try to get past the group stage - that is very important for us.

Madagascar captain Faneva Imà Andriatsima (left) introducing his team-mates
Madagascar captain Faneva Imà Andriatsima (left) wants his country to be known for football rather than an animated film

"This should be the minimum aim. We have seven months to prepare and I can promise we will be ready."

The French connection

That preparation will be led by Frenchman Nicolas Dupuis, the coach responsible for transforming the fortunes of Madagascar.

The previous outstanding achievement of his somewhat unremarkable managerial career was a Coupe de France giant-killing in 2014, when he guided fourth-tier AS Yzeure to a stunning upset of Ligue 1 Lorient.

At the Africa Cup of Nations, he will be coming up against a number of more high-profile coaches in the likes of Javier Aguirre, Aliou Cisse and compatriots Herve Renard and Alain Giresse.

Jérémy Morel
Lyon's Jérémy Morel was born in France but wants to play for Madagascar, the country of his father's birth.

Andriatsima however would not swap Dupuis for any of them.

"A team that doesn't have a good coach cannot go far," Andriatsima says.

"Our coach has played a very important role in uniting us together. He gave us confidence and I believe when you have confidence it is much easier to play football. We've shown that.

"He demanded the best of us and we demanded the best of ourselves. Qualification was no coincidence - we were meticulous in preparation.

"I think our club managers may not have liked it because we worked very intensely but we knew we had to do it this way."

"The coach told us that even though we are a small country, we have great will and determination. He told us we could qualify and we did. Now we must show him that we can go even further."

Dupuis has spread his net far and wide in his search for talent, convincing a number of French-born players to represent the country of their parents.

Andriatsima, who plays his club football in France with Clermont Foot, admits this has boosted the quality of Madagascar national team.

"Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960 but there is still a strong connection between the countries," he pointed out.

"There is no professional football league in Madagascar so many players choose to go to France to pursue their dreams. I did so when I was 10 and I am grateful for the opportunity.

"However we are now seeing more and more that players born to Malagasy parents want to serve their country and play a significant role in Madagascar's progress.

"This makes me very happy, that players want to honour their country. Players of dual-nationality have helped us move forward and we are proud to see them play - whether it's in France, Germany, Belgium or any other country in the world."

It remains to be seen whether Nations Cup qualification can be the the genuine start of a brave new football era for Madagascar or whether it will prove a one-off achievement.

Andriatsima is certainly hoping there can be a Hollywood ending.

"We have needed a revolution in football in Madagascar for a long time. For 60 years since we gained independence we haven't achieved anything or won anything," he concluded.

"Now we have shaken things up, but more needs to be done in the country to develop football.

"This qualification should just be the beginning. I hope we can be present in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations too and I truly believe we can do many great things in Madagascar."

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