Madagascar have been the pleasant surprise package of this Africa Cup of Nations. Having cruised into the round of 16, they are now set to face a team that finished third in the group stage.

Those who know him, will know that Gernot Rohr is a kind man. However, the way the Nigeria coach heaped praise on his opponents on Sunday evening after an upset defeat to tournament debutants Madagascar was generous even by his standards.

“There’s no shame in losing to them. They are strong, they have a great coach and can still go a long way in the tournament,” the German-Frenchman said.

It’shard to overstate what a surprise it was that Madagascar beat Nigeria 2-0 on Sunday to take first place in Group B. After all, Madagascar’s national team have only existed since 1947 and had never previously qualified for the finals of a major tournament. Indeed, they haven’t always been model citizens, having been barred from the 1998 tournament after withdrawing from qualifying for the 1996 edition.

History after the anniversary catastrophe

“We are so proud. It’s a dream come true. It is a gift to the people of our country, all of whom are watching us. And maybe it’s a bit of a consolation for last Wednesday’s disaster,” Marco Ilaimaharitra said.

The 23-year-old, who plays his club football for RC Charleroi in Belgium was alluding to a stampede that broke out during festivities to celebrate Madagascar’s national holiday in the capital, Antananarivo, last week that killed 16 and left many more injured – just hours before the national team’s 1-0 victory over Burundi last Thursday.

No professional league in the country

The former French colony has been independent since 1960, but links with its former colonial power remain close, particularly when it comes to football.

“Anyone from Madagascar who wants to make it in football goes to France,” said Faneva Andriatsima, who earns his living playing for Clermont-Ferrand of France’s second division.

Madagascar, known more for its rare species of animals than anything else, has no national football league. Things have improved somewhat since the former head of the country’s FA, Ahmad Ahmad, became president of the African Football Confederation (CAF) in the spring of 2017, but there is still a lot of catching up to do, particularly in terms of finances.

Footballers are no better off than the rest of the population, most of whom are forced to get by on less than a (US) dollar a day. In the weeks leading up to the Africa Cup of Nations, Andriatsima sold some 600 team jerseys just to buy equipment required for training.

Moonlighting coach

In Egypt, though, head coach Nicolas Dupuis’ men have the chance to do something special. Because the 51-year-old Frenchman, who took charge of the side in March 2017, doesn’t earn enough to pay the bills by coaching Madagascar, he also has a second job, coaching French fourth-division outfit FC Fleury.

“Both teams are close to my heart. You have to organize things carefully to manage to do both. But working  at both locations also inspires me,” said the former sweeper,  who never got beyond the lower leagues, either as a player or coach.

But now he and his national team are in the round of 16 in Africa’s biggest sporting event and can look forward to facing a team that finished third in the group stage.

“We can just go out there and play. The lads are growing closer and closer together. We’re like one big family,” Dupuis said. Like a surprisingly successful family.(