x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

African Cup of Nations: Win for Mali could give lift to troubled country

Air strikes headlining news bulletins and uncertainties about family are just a few of the distractions an upstart Mali football team has dealt with at the African Cup of Nations, writes .

Mali's captain Seydou Keita celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal during their African Nations Cup match against Niger.
Mali's captain Seydou Keita celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal during their African Nations Cup match against Niger.

The message from the captain was short and simple. The hard-fought 1-0 opening victory by his team over Niger on Sunday was "dedicated to the people of Mali", said Seydou Keita. Not simply to them, but to something broader: "It is dedicated to peace."

At the African Cup of Nations, there are sportsmen on duty for several countries with much to preoccupy them.

Algeria makes global news for the hostage crisis. Burkina Faso and Niger brace themselves for a gathering refugee crisis because of instability in the Sahel region, spreading from neighbouring Mali.

And it is Mali's players who perhaps find it hardest to turn their minds from events at home, air strikes headlining international news bulletins, uncertainties and fresh rumours shaping their telephone conversations with their families.

The story moves fast and no Malian can cocoon himself from it or be inattentive to it.

The French government yesterday announced an increase in their military presence in the landlocked country, divided between advanced Islamist rebel positions in the north and a south being defended by a beleaguered national army whom the French intervention is there to support.

Mali's footballers are accustomed to their big moments coinciding with crisis points in the continuing civil - and now international - conflict.

Last February, as Mali's Eagles made their way to the semi-final of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, the sensitive and dignified Keita emotionally used the unexpected success - the team finished third in the competition - to appeal for peace at a time when violence was peaking.

The Mali captain does not make these gestures lightly.

"What is happening in Mali is more important than a game of football," said Keita, in response to the line of questioning that, inevitably, has dominated Mali's campaign since they reached Port Elizabeth, their base in South Africa.

"Yes, we hope that when win a big game, the people in Bamako [the Mali capital] are happy. But they will not be rushing into the streets to celebrate.

"The people in the south are not going to party when they know the north is under fire. When you see a war close to your homes, that makes you frightened. We all have mothers, brothers and sisters there."

Sport can raise consciousness, it can mobilise crowds, and sometimes help unite fractured societies. But it is not a universal balm.

As Keita said: "We are very aware football doesn't change anything in this war. There are people in Mali who don't like football, who don't know what it is. There is no football in Gao [one of the northern towns under rebel control] at the moment, no television there. We have to hope that Mali's allies, be it France or our neighbours, can bring order back as quickly as possible."

Keita would rather his role, as by far the most-garlanded footballer in Mali's squad and their natural leader, need not extend to diplomatic statements.

Keita - once described by Pep Guardiola, his former coach at the Barcelona where he won two European Cups, as "my moral and ethical touchstone" - carries the responsibility impressively.

A good result against Ghana today, would, he said, "bring joy to the people". He added: "But we must do our work without extra pressure. We must feel relaxed on the field and feel any pressure as a positive thing, the pressure to succeed that every competitor needs."