The island nation’s remarkable run to the quarter-finals is an underdog story even DreamWorks would have struggled to imagine
Ask anybody about Madagascar and chances are the first thing that springs to mind is the animated movie of the same name from 2005.
However, over the past few weeks, the island nation with a population just shy of 25 million is writing its own blockbuster script as they produce a stunning Africa Cup of Nations campaign.
Competing at the tournament for the first time and ranked 108th in world when they arrived in Egypt, Madagascar flew right under the radar at the outset, with even their coach conceding they shouldn’t have stood any chance.
“All teams are better on paper than us,” Nicolas Dupuis told AFP. “We don’t have any stars in our team. The star is the team.
“We have a real team of friends but also with talented players, who are very good but perhaps not stars.”
Dupuis is no high-profile coach himself, currently juggling a role as the technical director of FC Fleury 91, a club which competes in the fourth-tier of French football.
But despite the odds being stacked against them, Madagascar have excelled to set up a quarter-final match against Tunisia on Thursday.
Madagascar, also known as the Barea, are undefeated across their first four matches at the Africa Cup of Nations – a feat not achieved since Libya in 1982 for a nation making their debut at the tournament.
Dupuis’ side has so far picked up one draw and three wins, with their biggest result seeing them upset Nigeria 2-0 in their final group match. Three-time AFCON winners Nigeria were ranked 63 places higher than Madagascar just a month ago but had no answers for their plucky opponents.
The Barea have proven particularly versatile in attack and have scored in all four of their matches to become the first side since Zambia in 1975 to strike in their first four appearances at the tournament.
Desperate to rewrite the country’s previously animated narrative, Madagascar’s players held their nerve in a Round of 16 clash against DR Congo, as they triumphed 4-2 on penalties after the game had finished 2-2.
Tunisia now loom as their next opponent and Dupuis’ men must produce another upset worthy of Hollywood.
Appearing in their 10th AFCON quarter-final and ranked 25th in the world, Tunisia will be strong favourites to progress but Madagascar has quickly proven they aren’t a side to be written off.
Tunisia’s form has, in fact, paled in comparison to the Barea’s, with Alain Giresse’s side drawing three of their four games and only beating Ghana on penalties in the Round of 16.
Ranked as low as 190th in the world five years ago, win or lose on Thursday, Madagascar have certainly come a long way in a short space of time.
Having failed to win a game in 2017 AFCON qualifying, Dupuis is desperate to instigate a radical overview of football development in a country where the beautiful game has previously hidden away.
“I’m raising the alarm because the national team is the tree that hides in the forest,” he said.
“There is nothing being done from a technical standpoint at the national level, there’s no work in terms of youth and it’s serious.
“If we don’t question everything, if we don’t get back to work, in two years, there will be no more team and in four, even less so. It would be a shame because there’s a real breeding ground and it’s quite an old team.
“My role is to sound the alarm and tell officials there are lots of things in need of change in Madagascar.”
Considering how his side have performed in Egypt to date, it’s safe to say Dupuis has well and truly got sirens ringing across Madagascar.
“We’re not too aware of what we’re doing, except when we get sent photos from Madagascar, where it’s madness right now,” Dupuis said.
“We’re trying to live in the moment as best as possible because these moments are rare. It’s in these rare moments when you realise that we have the best job in the world.”
Midfielder Anicet Abel got the ball rolling for Madagascar in Egypt, scoring his nation’s first ever goal at AFCON in their opening game against Guinea which ended 2-2.
The 29-year-old, who plays club football in Bulgaria, is all too aware that his side were perhaps rightly seen as underdogs heading into the tournament.
“When we came here at the beginning of the tournament, nobody took us seriously but we believed in ourselves,” Abel told Reuters.
“Of course, they underestimated us and I understand them – Madagascar is not famous in football; I think Madagascar is only famous for the movie.”
A perception Abel and his team are quickly rewriting as they produce a football fairytale DreamWorks themselves would be proud of.