Mali footballers show strength in adversity
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AP) -With a simple act and a clear statement, captain Seydou Keita tied the Mali football team's campaign at the African Cup of Nations to the ongoing conflict back home.
Keita wrapped a Mali flag around himself after his team came from behind to beat host South Africa and reach the semifinals at the African Cup.
"It (the flag) flies not only in the northern part of Mali, and not only in the south of Mali, but also outside Mali,'' Keita said at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium on South Africa's east coast. "That is important. Only football can do that.''
In January, France unilaterally launched a military intervention to stem the advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters in Mali.
"Today we can keep our heads up as Malians, we are proud of being Malians. I think all the people of Mali are proud,'' Keita said as Mali went through to the last four and retained its hopes of lifting an inspiring first ever African title.
Mali's players and French coach Patrice Carteron had initially played down the effect of the conflict at home on the squad in South Africa and talked of the need to focus firstly on football.
But Keita left no doubt that the battle to liberate northern Mali was now central to the team's campaign after it lifted itself from 1-0 down to beat South Africa in a penalty shootout, overcoming an early deficit and an intimidating crowd of 50,000.
Former Barcelona midfielder Keita scored the equalizer to revive the Malians and put them back in the game, and goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite made two decisive saves in the shootout to keep Mali's campaign alive.
Twice now in the last two African Cups, Mali has fallen behind to the host country in front of a home crowd in the quarterfinals. Twice it has picked itself up and won in the drama of penalty shootouts.
Mali's player huddle at the end in Durban underlined the close bond of a group of players thinking about more than just a football game or a tournament as they try to better their semifinal appearance and eventual third place of 12 months ago.
"Our biggest motivation is to make Malian people and all the supporters happy,'' striker Modibo Maiga said. "Even if it was difficult for us to qualify, we do not want to repeat what happened last year. We want to do better than last year.''
Last year in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Keita also made statements about the need for peace in his homeland, and this weekend the team's 33-year-old leader continued to drive his team forward on the field and plead for his country's search for stability off it.
"I won everything in football,'' said Keita, who has lifted trophies in France and Spain and won the Champions League and Club World Cup twice. "I won all the titles. Today the only thing I want is to bring joy to my country.''
Coach Carteron said of skipper Keita: "He practically is some of the players' spiritual father. He is an extraordinary man.''