The team from the world’s fourth largest island has reached the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations
Shortly before the African Cup of Nations began the magazine France Football gathered together a handful of coaches taking a team to this tournament for the first time.
One of them was Madagascar’s Nicolas Dupuis and at the end of this tête-à-tête he had a message for his fellow coaches: “Do not underestimate Madagascar, friends,” he said.
It was a nice touch. But in reality people had not bothered to estimate Malagasy football ever since the national team was formed in 1947.
The world’s fourth-largest island, famously rich in wildlife and poor in financial health, has never been a hotbed for sporting achievement.
Qualifying for this Afcon has in itself been historic. They never even entered the first seven editions when they got up and running.
Then it was a tale of failed qualifications, withdrawing from even trying, and not entering in the first place, such was the shaky infrastructure of football in Madagascar, despite it being one of the most popular sports.
Since arriving in Egypt, however, the Barea (a species of zebu cattle they chose for their nickname) have confounded everybody except Dupuis’s expectations.
Ordinarily, teams such as Nigeria just do not lose to teams such as Madagascar.
Only this time they did. Ordinarily, underdogs such as Madagascar should not be winning their group. Only this time they did.
last-16 tie against DR CongoSunday’s holds no fear for a team who suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, have the capacity to have them dancing on the streets of Antananarivo.
As sporting miracles go this one is extraordinary given Madagascar’s complete lack of sporting heritage. Their story is an African version of Iceland but without the enormous bubble-covered training centres and highly qualified coaches.
Memories from a visit to see Madagascar play Ivory Coast in 2001 outline how unsophisticated football in the country traditionally was.
The domestic league was so disorganised it was a mission to establish how many teams were involved in competition.
The national team were based in dorms in a half-built hotel, stepping over electric cables and trying not to bother the painters on the way to their rooms, with roaming chickens clucking in what was supposed to be the reception.
When the head of the supporters group handed the captain an envelope with two million Malagasy francs to share out (roughly £200, raised by folk who have little to spare) the players were so grateful they cheered.
At the match fans who failed to get into the Mahamasina Stadium perched on trees and window ledges of surrounding buildings for a view.
The crowd squealed with laughter whenever someone tried a fancy skill. The team back then had natural talent but it was all very freestyle.
The impression was of a football-loving nation desperate for help, finance, support and infrastructure.
Slowly, they have benefited from the money and expertise that has come their way as part of Fifa’s projects promoting football in Africa.
They have also improved because of the number of players who now earn a living in more organized football environments abroad, with the majority playing in France.
The only home-based players are the third-choice goalkeeper and the sublimely named young striker Romario Baggio Rakotoarisoa.
Another piece of the jigsaw is Dupuis, the coach endeavouring to instil discipline and team ethic. “I have more of a team than individuals,” says the 51-year-old Frenchman. “I am proud of the players who give me a lot of emotion. There is simply the desire to make the Malagasy people very proud. They need it.”
One key move was to include Jérémy Morel, the veteran Lyon defender. French-born with Malagasy roots, he made his debut at the age of 34. The experience has been wonderful for both player and team. Although he has been struggling with an injury he is still influential, imparting advice every day. “We may not be as well armed as some big teams but it’s the mindset that makes the difference,” he says. “I came for a human adventure and I found it. Feeling this good in a group is rare in a career. We are a real collective.”
It has been an uplifting experience so far, drawing against Guinea and beating Burundi and Nigeria to top Group B. It is particularly poignant as there was a national tragedy at home a few days ago, with 16 deaths and many more wounded during a stampede at a celebration for Independence Day.
The players hope they are sending a positive message back home. “It does not repel poverty but it repels the worries,” says the defender Pascal Razakanantenaina. “With this feat, we provided a little happiness to the Malagasy. We cried with joy.”
It has taken many years for Madagascar to create a football team capable of challenging in a serious way and they are making their mark. The players’ chant “Barea vonona” pierces the air. Barea are ready.