“It’s not very straightforward – it’s not something that you’ll find every day,” Mario Marinica says. But the Romania-born British citizen, who is set to manage Malawi at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon – his team kick off against Naby Keïta’s Guinea on Monday – wants to explain why a turn of events that feels bizarre is actually all perfectly normal.
It was on 6 December that the Football Association of Malawi announced it had reorganised and placed Marinica in interim charge of the team for the 33rd edition of Africa’s showpiece tournament. The organisation had hired the 57-year-old on 10 November as technical director and so the move represented a radical change in his remit.
And yet the twist was that the previous manager, Meck Mwase, would remain as the first assistant coach – an effective demotion – before resuming his old role after the finals. That will be when Marinica goes back to being the technical director.
It begs a host of questions, beginning with how Mwase feels about it. “To be honest, he’s a very nice guy and he kind of embraced it,” Marinica says. “I had a good chat with him and said: ‘Please come and help us.’ It might be like a temporary demotion but he still has a contract and the terms are that he will get back to being the head coach again so it’s just for this tournament that I’m helping out. In a way, he was content with this arrangement.”
The next question is broader but similarly simple. Why? It is because, shortly after Marinica’s appointment, Mwase’s team had lost to Cameroon and Mozambique to round off a failed World Cup qualifying campaign, featuring one win and five defeats. The Malawian FA called the performance “dismal” and, by the time that its executive committee met in early December to finalise Afcon plans, it had listened to sustained calls for Mwase’s dismissal.
Marinica was there to report on his first month in the job, his findings and concerns, having spent a lot of time with Mwase travelling the country, watching the main clubs and analysing the players. To the executives, the most novel of solutions was starring them in the face.
“They were saying it was too short a time [before the tournament] to bring in another coach and it was: ‘Well, Mario is already here and he knows the teams and the players …’” Marinica says.
Marinica’s original brief was to reboot football in Malawi from top to bottom, prioritising the technical side of the game, the development of a clear footballing identity. He has a three-year contract because everybody knows it will not happen overnight.
And yet, as the FA president, Walter Nyamilandu, has said, Malawi are “not just going there [to Afcon] to add numbers”. On their third appearance at the finals, after the group stage exits of 1984 and 2010, he wants to see a better-organised team, with Marinica introducing a new style, quicker and more cohesive, which Mwase can then take on. And he wants results.
Marinica had a 10-day training camp in Saudi Arabia, which was affected by positive Covid tests. Some players could not travel, others joined late and more were infected after it began, forcing them to isolate. A friendly with Mali had to be cancelled, although they did fit one in against Comoros on New Year’s Eve, winning 2-1.
In a word, how would Marinica describe the preparations? “Fantastic,” he insists. “All your life, you work to have something like this and suddenly, when it comes unexpectedly, you have to embrace it with both hands. To have this opportunity, to be with all this razzmatazz, it’s a dream come true. These are the big stages that any coach wants to be on.”
Marinica moved to England in 1992. Aged 27, he had a degree and a good job in Romania as the head of a large transport and distribution company. “I was really well settled,” he says. But his dream was to become a football coach and he saw England as the place to realise it.
Marinica’s break came after he took his first coaching badge. The tutor was John Sitton, best known for his spells as a player and manager at Leyton Orient. “Only two of us passed and John said to me: ‘Well, if you want, you’ve got a job at Orient.’ I worked for them on and off for something like seven years. It was football in the community courses, all sorts of jobs, helping with coaches. It put me on to my coaching path.”
It has been itinerant, to put it mildly. In England, Marinica has coached at the academies of Arsenal and Crystal Palace – primarily at under-15 level – although his work as a coach educator for the London FA took him, by his own estimation, into “every single one” of the clubs in the capital. He had two stints as the manager of non-league Haringey Borough while he accumulated his coaching badges, finishing with the Uefa Pro Licence.
In Romania, there have been technical roles at numerous clubs and he has worked across Africa – in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Seychelles, Tunisia, Tanzania. He has coached in Hungary and Iraq and he provided analysis for Paraguay on their opponents at the 2006 World Cup. Before Malawi, he was the technical director of the Kerala Blasters in India.
“Oh my God, there have been so many different jobs – I’ll probably have to write you a list,” Marinica says, and the feeling is that the aforementioned does not cover it. “Life has taken me from working with Paraguay for the 2006 World Cup to going to Brazil to lecture on coaching courses before the 2014 World Cup. In England, to mention some odd jobs … a little something with Watford, Fulham, Charlton, Wimbledon, Stockport, Notts County.”
Now for the pinnacle. After Guinea, Malawi face Zimbabwe and the bookmakers’ favourites for the tournament, Senegal, and they begin as major underdogs. Marinica intends to have his day.