Goal.com takes a look at Mali as it hopes to shed its tag of perennial underachievers during the Angola 2010 Nations Cup.
AFCON Appearances: Five (1972, 1994, 2002, 2004, 2008)
AFCON Titles: None
Mali played its worst AFCON in Ghana 2008 when it was knocked out in the group stages while it was paired alongside Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Benin. One win, one draw and a loss was enough to condemn Freddie Kanoute’s compatriots to an early exit.
But in Angola, Mali will parade a team coached by Nigerian Stephen Keshi who as captain of the Nigerian national team lifted the title in 1994. He brings a lot of experience to the Malian bench having seen little Togo through qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.
Mali missed out on qualifying for South Africa 2010, ceding the sole group ticket to Ghana who beat them in 2-0 Bamako last year. But it was a different game when the Malians played Ghana in Kumasi in November where a young team devoid of big name stars almost ran away with a win over the Black Stars until the latter minutes of the game when Anthony Annan earned a hard fought equalizer for the Ghanaians.
In this team, Mali will again be able to call upon the services of Sevilla’s Fredi Kanoute as well as Barcelona’s 2009 African footballer of the year nominee Seydou Keita and Real Madrid’s injury returnee Mahamadou Diarra.
In Group A where the Eagles will play against hosts Angola, World Cup-bound Algeria and little-known Malawi, Keshi’s boys will be expected to scale through into the quarter finals all things being equal. But they will face tricky ties against the Palancas Negras who will be playing in front of home fans in the 50, 000 capacity Luanda stadium as well as Algeria who are making an inspired return to the tournament since 2004 after edging out rivals Egypt to their group’s World Cup ticket.
Also in Malawi, Keita and co will meet a team largely unknown in Africa but which surprisingly held Icory Coast to a 1-1 draw in Blantyre during qualification.
If Mali can overcome their inertia of the last tournament they should be able to make a success of this one and considering that they are not one of the more familiar favourites, it should be a pleasant surprise to see how Keshi instills AFCON-winning confidence into his lads to perform well in January and outshine the silver-winning feat of Salif Keita and Fantamady Keita of 1972.
Road To Qualification
Mali qualified for Angola after coming third in their WC/AFCON qualifying group behind Ghana and Benin. The Eagles had nine points in six games where they won two, drew three and lost one.
Forty-seven-year-old Stephen Keshi came into this job highly recommended after leading Togo to an unprecedented World Cup place in 2006. But the former Nigeria captain could not reenact that magic with this Malian team, suffering from lack of belief over many years.
In Angola he will have the opportunity to take them to unprecedented heights if he can get his tactics right as well as keep his best players fit. It would be a nice birthday gift for Keshi if his team can play in the final on January 31 in Luanda.
Definitely the most recognisable name in the Eagles’ star-studded midfield at the moment after winning every trophy available during the season with Barcelona, the 29 year-old African footballer of the year nominee has finally fulfilled his long-held promise of stardom that began at Nigeria ‘99 U20 World Cup where he was named player of the tournament as he led Mali to a third place finish.
Other players to watch out for in the team include Madrid’s Diarra and Mohammed Sissoko of Juventus who was out injured for much of the qualification process. Old horse Kanoute would also not want to leave the stage without a major international title after winning the 2007 African player of the year award.
As one of the underdogs of the tournament with a strong contingent of European based stars, Mali will be looking to book a semi-final spot in Angola.
This aging Mali side will face tremendous challenges at every step of the way in Angola and will fight hard to get to the quarter-finals. With current form, the Eagles will be lucky to hit the quarters and will then face another tough opponent from the group which includes Ivory Coast and Ghana. Their work is cut out for them.
Did you know?
Mali’s biggest defeat was to Algeria 7-0 in 1988.
Mali’s biggest win was against Mauritania 6-0 in 1975.