While the MP3 player is the gadget of choice for footballers at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Mali’s players spend much of their spare time searching news channels in hotel rooms for news of the conflict back home.
As the Eagles prepared for their semi-final match against the Super Eagles of Nigeria in Durban yesterday, they are desperate for the latest updates as Malian, African and French troops confront Islamist extremists in the troubled country.
“It appears things will get better now with military support from outside,” said captain Seydou Keita, referring to assistance from France and west African states.
Militants pushed back
Militants, whose recent harsh rule over the north of the country included a ban on watching televised football, have been pushed back after coming within 400 kilometres (250 miles) of capital city Bamako in the south last month.
China-based Keita, a 33-year-old in the twilight of a career highlighted by a five-year spell at Barcelona, is conscious of the vital role the football team is playing in raising national morale.
“We want to bring happiness to our people while not losing focus on what we are doing here. We will give everything to defeat Nigeria and reach the final,” the team captain vowed.
War for territory
“The government is trying to regain all its territory and people are starting to look up. I get goosebumps when speaking of Mali. There is nothing that compares with the joy of giving to a country that is suffering.”
Keita wrapped himself in a Malian flag after the quarter-final victory over hosts South Africa that earned them a last-four showdown with Nigeria, who eliminated title favourites Ivory Coast.
“The victory over South Africa meant a lot to everyone in Mali,” said the footballer with the classy left foot. “I had the Mali flag wrapped around me — it was an emotional moment for me and the team.
“I am wearing the flag that is flying in the north now as proudly as it is flying in the south,” he added, referring to towns recaptured during the French-led air and land offensive.
Team officials said a star of the win over South Africa on Saturday, goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite from Bamako club Stade Malien, will return to the bench for the semi-final as first-choice Mamadou Samassa has served a one-match ban.
Diakite saved two spot kicks and South Africa missed another while Cheick Tidiane Diabate, Adama Tamboura and Mahamane Traore clinically dispatched their kicks into the net for a 3-1 shootout triumph.
The victory to secure the country its best performance in the competition since 1972 was met with jubilation in Mali and topped a day of celebration during which visiting French President Francois Hollande was hailed a hero in Bamako and Timbuktu.