On his day, Malawian forward Frank Hellings Gabadinho Mhango can be as devastating and unplayable like any world class player such as Senegal and Liverpool star Sadio Mane.
However, the Flames forward is notorious for appearing and disappearing from the big football stage where players such as Mane stay permanently.
For a change, Mane disappeared uncharacteristically for Senegal on Friday at Bafoussam Omnisport Stadium in Cameroon on the day that Gabadinho reappeared characteristically for Malawi.
Gabadinho scored a double in the come-from-behind 2-1 win over Zimbabwe in the Group B contest of the Africa Cup of Nations finals.
The Malawian scored in fashion on the very same venue where Mane fired blanks for Senegal against fellow Group B AFCON pacesetters Guinea.
The early kick-off between the West Africans ended goalless, leaving both teams on four points each from two games with a game each to go.
When the Flames took their turn, the Orlando Pirates forward Gabadinho reminded everyone that come bad temperament, COVID-19 or injuries, he remains Malawi football poster boy.
Before offering such a timely reminder, the South Africa-based striker frustrated fans as he kept falling at every slight contact with an opponent as if he was involved in a head-on collision with a train.
At that stage, the Warriors of Zimbabwe, who were desperate for maximum points after losing 1-0 to Senegal in the group’s opener, were in the ascendancy. They bossed the midfield, stretching the Flames and sent balls into dangerous areas.
After sustained pressure, Zimbabwe finally went ahead in the 36th minute through a striker with a very Malawian name.
Striker Ishmael Wadi hang in the air for mili-seconds, waiting for overlapping SuperSport United right-back Onismor Bhasera to whip in a cross.
Wadi then sent a looping header over and above Malawi goalkeeper Ernest Kakhobwe who had made an earnest mistake of abandoning his goal line by metres; hence beaten by the dip of the ball in the 36th minute.
Zimbabwe should have doubled their deserved lead a minute later, but Malawi defender Gomezgani Chirwa retreated to sweep away a goal-bound shot while Kakhobwe was in a traffic jam at the crowded goal-mouth.
At this stage, everything seemed to follow the Murphy Law for Malawi. The Flames skipper Limbikani Mzava went down and clutched his leg after making a sweeping sliding tackle to avert danger.
The AmaZulu FC defender forced himself to carry on for a few minutes but the pain seemingly on the harm-string was unbearable. He soon went down again. This time for good.
Stand-in coach Meck Mwase, probably under the wise and dynamic wisdom on Mario Marinica who must have been texting to the Malawi bench from his isolation room somewhere in Yaounde, replaced Mzava with Lawrence Chaziya from Civo Sporting FC for his second cap.
Once Malawi had weathered the early storm, Gabadinho provided the cure the medicine man must have ordered for the Flames who wasted scoring opportunities in the previous opening game against Guinea.
Georgia-based winger Fransisco Madinga raced on the left avenue and sent a first time cross beyond Zimbabwe goalkeeper Petros Mhari and behind his retreating defence.
Zimbabwe’s America-based defender Teenage Hadebe jumped like an inexperienced teenager. He missed the flight of the ball, which dropped kindly at the back post where Gabadinho, as if in slow motion, sent a low volley in between Mhari’s legs in the 43rd minute.
Soon, the referee blew half-time whistle. Conversations back in Malawi had started on the identity of ‘that blonde-haired boy who dispatched the cross for Gabadinho to score.’
With the modern day Flames squad, it is not uncommon for many fans to fail to identify their own players.
On Friday, Mwase maintained a 3-5-2 formation with Madinga on the left wing, defender Stanley Sanudi was deployed to the right. The duo sandwiched defensive midfielders John Banda and Chimwemwe Idana.
Upfront, Gabadinho replaced Yamikani Chester in a deep attacking role behind Khuda Muyaba and Richard Mbulu whereas the defence of Mzava (Chaziya), Chirwa and Chembezi Dennis was not tampered with.
Soon the second half started and that blonde-haired boy Madinga continued to endear himself to the fans after dispatching an angled curling effort, which beat Mhari but not the frame of the top right corner.
Zimbabwe failed to take heed of the danger warning signs and they soon paid the ultimate price.
Striker Muyaba, who was visibly agitated due to poor service, dropped to the wide area to control a ball then laid it onto the path of Gabadinho who casually slipped the ball past a defender for Zimbabwe.
Hadebe, thought he had shielded the ball perfectly and seemed to wait for Mhari to receive it.
At that stage, Mhango had continued his run then snatched the ball from the defender before, in a typical Mane’s unrelenting fashion, chipped the ball calmly past Mhari in the 58th minute.
Malawians roared themselves hoarse wherever they were. That proved the clincher. Malawi defended their lead while Warriors searched for the winner in vain.
It was a 19th win for Malawi against Zimbabwe’s 20 in 58 meetings across all competitions with the rest of games ending in draws.
Malawi next date Senegal on January 18 while Guinea face Zimbabwe in the final match for the group.
Top two from the group will qualify for the knockout stages with four three third-best sides across the six pools also sailing through the backdoor.
So, if you are a Flames fan save that important date and hope that Gabadinho would appear again to score in the game against Senegal.
Before Friday, the last time that Gabadinho scored in a competitive match for the Flames was some 10 games ago at the Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre in the AFCON qualifiers on November 13 2019.
That time, COVID-19 was still a mere foreign news fodder for speculation.
Hopefully, Malawians do not have to wait for ‘ages’ again before Gabadinho scores again because the Flames need him to step up to the plate on January 18.
This time around, Gabadinho will come eyebrow-to-eyebrow with Mane himself. Over to you Gabadinho.