Madagascar's first Africa Cup of Nations has been magical, but they're not done yet

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- Nicolas Dupuis' cheeks blush a little, not much but enough to notice, when he is asked how he feels about Madagascar's rise from obscurity in reaching the last 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations.

"I'm very proud for myself, certainly," he says. "Very proud. For me, it's something very new. But most of all I'm very proud of all the players and how well they've done. It's wonderful that football in Madagascar is now being recognised."

Madagascar, nicknamed the "Barea" after a species of horned cattle that is depicted on the country's coat of arms, are the early success story of this Africa Cup of Nations. Their qualification, which came out of the blue having never come close before, was remarkable enough. But the side Dupuis coaches have outdone that in reaching the last 16 and actually winning Group B when they were not given a chance. They outplayed Nigeria last weekend and won 2-0, a stunning result in a tournament where such shocks are particularly rare, to set up a knockout clash with the Democratic Republic of Congo this Sunday.

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It is a summer underdog tale to rival that of Haiti's semifinal run at the CONCACAF Gold Cup and, with little to lose now, Madagascar have their eyes on going further.

"In my opinion, we can reach the final," says midfielder Arohasina Andrianarimanana (commonly known as "Dax") who plays his club football for Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa. "The coach has created such a good mentality and Madagascar are up. Look at the Nigeria game: everyone predicted we would lose 4-0. Now watch the game and see what happened. Everyone is confident that we can go all the way through. It would be historic."

In fairness, it already is historic. Nothing was expected of Madagascar when Dupuis took over in March 2017, and nothing was expected of the coach himself, either. The 51-year-old had spent almost two decades in charge of Moulins-Yzeure, a little-known French lower league club, while working as a teacher. International football never seemed likely as a career option for Dupuis but, almost a year after first visiting Madagascar to discuss the role, he took the position and hasn't looked back.

"We started to become known last year," Dupuis says. "We drew 2-2 with Senegal and were first to qualify for [the Africa Cup of Nations], which raised our profile. The football of Madagascar is a football of possession; you have to look after the ball, play with technique. But you also need tactical rigour and defensive discipline to go with the individual skill. We have been trying to install that in training since I came here: that tactical application, while keeping our technique in possession. We did did it enormously against Nigeria, and that's us."

Fitness has also been a contributing factor in the exhausting heat of host nation Egypt. Dax points out that Madagascar trained twice a day in the fortnight before the tournament and felt the benefit in their opening match against Guinea. They went in at half-time a goal down, having barely made an impact on the game, but quick-fire goals from Anicet Abel and Carolus Andriamatsinoro turned things around and despite settling for a 2-2 draw in the end, Madagascar still looked fresh at the end.

"We looked so strong physically, more than our opponents," Dax notes, although Dupuis suspects their improvement may have owed something to initial first-night nerves. "The players were a bit stressed," he says. "It was Madagascar's first minutes at a Cup of Nations. Whenever we got on the ball, we'd lose it. I said to the players at half-time that we must put ambition into our game and have no regrets."

Now there are none. Madagascar beat fellow first-timers Burundi in their second game and at that point, Dupuis could allow himself to think about reaching the second round. One of the more remarkable facets of his tenure is that, during the regular season, he finds himself looking in two directions at once. In January, he took over as head coach of another obscure French side, fourth-tier FC Fleury, and has carried out the roles simultaneously since. It is written in his contract at Fleury that Madagascar come first, to the extent that he has been known to arrive under an hour before matches.

"My heart is with Madagascar, but I need to keep working in France because the money is not enough, or paid regularly enough," he explains.

Beneath the surface, Madagascar's football setup has been a mess. From last November until May, FIFA put a "normalisation committee" in charge of the country's football federation because of problems with its electoral process. "The team works well, but the rest does not," is how Dupuis sums it up, citing youth development as a major issue. His contract expires after this tournament and he says he has received offers from other national teams, as well as some foreign clubs.

His profile has risen in line with, and perhaps more significantly than, those of his players, but they will surely be in demand too. Charleroi's Marco Ilaimaharitra, one of several French-born players Dupuis persuaded to join up with the squad early in his tenure, significantly strengthening it, has been outstanding in midfield, playing in tandem with the equally impressive Anicet Abel. Their wingers, Andriamatsinoro and the veteran Lalaina Nomenjanahary, both scored against Nigeria and have been a consistent threat. They've meshed so convincingly that against a DR Congo side that lost its first two group games, they might even find themselves considered favourites Sunday.

"No!" Dupuis says, pointing out that when the teams last met in an AFCON qualifier three years ago, the Congolese won 6-1 in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo.

"We remain the outsider. There is a big difference between the two teams, so we must be aware that they are far superior. The inconvenience is that we are no longer a surprise. Everyone has seen us and knows how we play. That will make it more difficult for us. There is a risk we could suffer, but we have already had a very beautiful tournament."

Dupuis is trying to play down expectations, of course, and it is a different tone to the one struck by Dax, who was dropped to the bench against Nigeria but says he still received 250 messages afterward from friends in Madagascar, offering congratulations but urging the team to do more. A plane, chartered by the country's president Andry Rajoelina, will carry 480 fans to Alexandria for the game Sunday although most people, in a country whose average monthly income of around $33 is the smallest in the world by some measure, will content themselves with basking in unexpected joy back home.

"I am very attached to this country on a human level: all the good people there, and the friends I have made," Dupuis says. "There is suffering and poverty, but people are so delighted when we win. They are a priority for us, absolutely."

A shock against DR Congo would spark new levels of delirium, but for Dupuis the most important thing now is that Madagascar simply have fun.

"The only thing I will say to the players is to take pleasure in it," he says. "We are living a beautiful story and have achieved so much that is exceptional. They need to take this match, in the last 16, with no regrets. Now they play with pleasure, simplicity and togetherness. We have already won our Cup of Nations."