It’s more than a game for Mali
Durban - South African coach Gordon Igesund had said on Sunday that as beautiful as football was, it was important to remember that it is still just a game.
Bafana’s opponents in Saturday’s quarter-final in Durban need no reminding of the relevance of football at a time like this.
Former Barcelona star, and Mali’s giant of a leader, Seydou Keita, shed a quiet tear before composing himself and explaining what it meant to lead Mali into the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations on Monday night.
That tear alone was enough to explain the magnitude of the emotional grindstone that Keita and his men go through when they are not on the football field, as they wait for encouraging news from their war-torn home.
“This victory will bring a little bit of hope and joy to the people back home.
“You have no idea what it means to play for Mali at this time. Giving hope to the people is priceless,” he stated, his eyes glistening in the glare of the gathered media.
Yesterday, it emerged that the 33 year-old has offered to pay the players’ bonuses himself, though he was typically understated about his personal sacrifice.
In the autumn of his career, Keita is growing ever more influential for his compatriots, both on and off the field.
“We have made an effort to help, but money doesn’t matter at a time like this. My priority is to play for my country,” he added.
Playing in an advance role in midfield, Keita’s cultured left-foot tormented the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) all night, and he may well have scored a decisive goal in the dying minutes.
How the likes of Dean Furman handle his physical power and poise on the ball will be crucial to the outcome on Saturday night.
Ahead of him, Mamadou Samassa lurks as a lone striker quite capable of holding the ball up, or turning on the pace and running at central defenders.
Keita smiled away early requests for a prediction, merely stating that his team was more than ready to face what will be a full house at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
“Bafana are a good team,” he offered. “But we are relaxed and we don’t fear them.
“We are under no pressure. We will enjoy playing in front of a packed stadium, and you never know in football. I think it’s 50/50.”
His coach Patrice Carteron was just as happy to accept the considerable challenge that comes with meeting the host nation.
“All of the pressure will be on South Africa. For them, they have to win this tournament to be a success.
“It will be a fantastic atmosphere for sure, but we faced a hostile crowd against DRC and their fans” Carteron explained.
“My players are experienced and they can handle the situation,” he said before lavishing praise on Bafana’s tenacity.
“They showed they are strong physically and mentally to come back twice against Morocco, who is a very good team. You could see that South Africa were determined to stay in the competition, and they will give us a very difficult match.”
Tellingly, Carteron also admitted that motivating his team for whatever comes next is not that difficult, given their personal circumstances, with friends and family living in daily fear back. Football has become a happy distraction, a source of comfort amidst the raging turmoil.
Bafana be warned, Keita and company will be going all out to provide a few more priceless crumbs of comfort come Saturday.