The first match of the semi-finals of this year’s African Nations Cup presents a unique setting. It is a battle of the eagles. On one side is the ordinary eagle simply called Les Aigles (The Eagles). It has been honour-starved, even on home soil when Mali staged the African Nations Cup in 2002.
On the other hand is the better known eagle, the Super Eagles of Nigeria, two-time African champions. Since the kickoff the competition from the preliminary stage on February 29 last year, the Super Eagles under Stephen Keshi have maintained an unbeaten run.
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Mali had played fewer matches in the series having joined the qualifying series at the third round, courtesy of featuring in the last edition in which the Super Eagles were among the glaring absentees. At South Africa 2013, Mali had lost a match, 1-0 to Ghana in Group B and struggled into extra time before overcoming Togo. Nigeria, as Ghana, remains unbeaten and looks ready to maintain her new found form which was exhibited in the never-to-be-forgotten clash with Cote d’Ivoire.
The unbeaten run will be further stretched today if Nigeria overcomes Mali at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban. Both teams have a common denominator in Stephen Keshi, the Nigerian coach who two editions ago led Mali to the 2010 competition. The Nigeria-Mali clash of today will be their fifth clash in the African Nations Cup history and the eighth overall. The statistics skewed in Nigeria’s favour who had won all, but one. The only time Mali ever beat Nigeria was the friendly match that the then Green Eagles had in Bamako in preparation for the 2nd All Africa Games.
Nigeria won the reciprocal leg, 3-0 at the opening ceremony of the National Stadium Lagos. Ever since, all encounters, even twice in Bamako, had been in Nigeria’s favour. Can the good run continue? Events at the Moses Mahdiba Stadium will confirm. When they last met at the group round at Ghana 2008 championship, the score line was a barren draw. But Mali featuring in its fifth consecutive Africa Cup of Nations since 2002 when she played host was placed fourth behind Nigeria.
That was Mali’s best outing apart from being runners up in her debut of 1972. Mali’s Eagles also lost to Nigeria in the losers’ final of 2004 in Tunisia. As Nigeria did on Sunday against Cote d’Ivoire, determination will be the main driving force for Mali she meets Nigeria. The Malians have shown they can fight back as they did against host, South Africa, on Saturday when they came from a goal down to oust the host. Coach Patrice Carteron said that his players have consistently shown hunger and character each time they meet big teams. Such are expected to be on display again today.
The Mali’s coach is still savouring the team’s semi-final berth. Now that she has beaten South Africa, Carteron said there were expectations on their shoulders to go further in the Africa Cup of Nations. Last year, Mali finished third in Equatorial Guinea/ Gabon. By reaching the semi-finals, she has already replicated last year’s form. "The task was very difficult and the expectations were very high. We always play to win. What is coming in this competition we don’t know, but what we know is that we are going to the semi-finals. From there, we will dream from there.
"There are some objectives for this team – for now, the players must enjoy this moment and afterwards, we will plan for the final. All the players must be physically ready – we have to prepare not only for the semi-final, but for the finals of this tournament."
The additional impetus for the team is to bring some joy to the already troubled nation of Mali, which has been at war for some time. Goalkeeper Mahamadou Samassa is dreaming of a good result. Since the competition began, every Press conference had been punctuated by questions on the political unrest in the country.
But the players have been non-committal, avoiding personal views. For instance, Samassa, on the unrest, remarked:
"We are footballers not politicians, we don’t want to talk about what is happening back home. Of course, it is not nice to see what is happening, but I don’t want to talk about it. For us, we are hoping that we can make the people back home very happy.
"We know that football can unite people and heal many ills. We believe that we can do the country proud and give our people the reason to rejoice and be happy.
"We have been playing well as a unit and this has worked for us. I don’t think we will change much for the semi-finals here in Durban maybe we can correct one or two things in our game, but I’m happy with what we have been doing.
"We are in the semi-finals, the next step is the final and once you are there, anything can happen.
"It doesn’t really matter who we will play – we can’t focus on other teams. The next step for us is the final, we want to give our best in this tournament. We cannot celebrate the victory against South Africa forever, we must now focus on our next game today," Samassa said.