By Brian Homewood
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) – Madagascar’s Jean Romario Baggio Rakotoarisoa boasts one of the most eye-catching names at the Africa Cup of Nations but all the more remarkable has been the rise of one of the continent’s also-rans into a side continuing to upset the odds.
The midfielder has played his part in bringing Madagascar to their first major tournament, perhaps inspired by his famous namesakes Romario and Roberto Baggio who were on opposite sides in the 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy.
“My parents decided,” he told ESPN recently. “I don’t know exactly why, but they were the two best players (at the 1994 World Cup which was won by Brazil in a penalty shootout).”
Until recently one of African soccer’s minnows, Madagascar surpassed expectations by holding Guinea to a 2-2 draw in their opening match and next face fellow debutants Burundi on Thursday knowing a win would put them close to the last 16.
Yet, only five years ago, they had slumped to 187th out of 211 in the FIFA world rankings after being routinely eliminated from Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifying tournaments in two-leg preliminary round ties.
These included a 7-1 aggregate thrashing by Cape Verde in the qualifiers for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and a 4-1 thumping by Equatorial Guinea in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
A country possibly best known for its unique wildlife and ecosystems, Madagascar’s footballing fortunes began to change after Frenchman Nicolas Dupuis was appointed coach in 2017.
Like his players, Dupuis spent most of his playing and coaching career in the lower reaches of the French league.
He spent five years at French fourth tier side Yzeure in his previous job, enjoying a brief moment of fame when they beat Ligue 1 side Lorient in a French Cup match in 2013.
On taking charge, the 51-year-old quickly began looking for recruits among the country’s Diaspora and the 23-man squad in Egypt includes six players born in France and 10 who play for French clubs.
Other players are scattered around the globe, playing club football in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Thailand, Algeria, Bulgaria and the United States.
Madagascar were also helped by a decision from the Confederation of African Football (CAF), whose beleaguered president Ahmad Ahmad is Malagasy, to enlarge the finals from 16 to 24 teams.
All of this has happened despite turmoil behind the scenes.
In November last year, FIFA intervened in the Malagasy football federation, alleging that elections had not been properly conducted, and set up a so-called normalisation committee to supervise its day-to-day running.
In the meantime, Ahmad’s CAF presidency has run into trouble.
In an unprecedented move, FIFA has taken over the running of CAF in the wake of corruption allegations, and an ethics investigation has been launched into Ahmad.
Ahmad, who is also a FIFA vice-president, did not respond to requests by Reuters for comment on the allegations against him.
Despite the trumoil, Dupuis has just got on with his job, although he has complained that the federation starts projects but fails to finish them.
“An academy was launched but failed to get off the ground,” he told the French edition of the goal.com website last year. “Here, they start well and let things fall apart.”
But qualifying was the high point of his career.
“Even if I enjoyed some (success) in the Coupe de France, it does not compare to this,” he said.
“A qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations is something significant, especially in a country that has never done it before. This is a level I had never reached before.”
Watching the team take the field against Guinea gave him goosebumps, he revealed.
“We came to play without any complex,” he said. “We will have to work, let ourselves go and say that it is possible to qualify in the round of 16.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)