Johannesburg - Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi believes the Mali players are being spurred on by the civil war back in their country and it is driving the players towards success at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The two west African nations meet in the first semi-final of the competition in Durban on Wednesday with the Super Eagles favourites after they ousted Ivory Coast in the previous round.
But Keshi, a former coach of Mali, insists there is no such thing against a team that has had several of its players directly affected by the unrest in their homeland.
“It’s a shame what’s going on in Mali, a great country with wonderful people,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a place I love. There’s no doubt this group of players is thinking about that and that’s where they’re getting their power, motivation force and spirit from.”
The two-time champions have surprised many by reaching the last four in South Africa with their biggest showing yet coming when they stunned the Ivory Coast, the continent’s No 1 ranked side, with a 2-1 win on Sunday.
They were overwhelming underdogs for that game, a status, which has completely turned on its head now that they are in the penultimate round against a team that has struggled most of its way through to the tournament.
But Keshi said: “I don’t know anything about being the favourites to win the game or to win the championship. All we know is that we’re playing a very good side of Mali.
“I know at least 85 percent of them played for me for two years. I know it’s not going to be easy, we’re here to play it game-by-game until the end of the tournament.
“So that’s how we’re going to approach it, the same way as we approached the previous games, the seriousness we’re going to put in. we respect every team that is here. “There is no team we will take for granted or for a joke. Our concentration will once again have to be at its peak.”
The 51-year-old has been to the finals on five occasions as a player and led Nigeria to their last title, which was 19 years ago in 1994.
He believes his current group of players has great potential.
“The progression of team is coming gradually,” Keshi said. “It’s a team in the making, one that is coming along.
“We need to be together for three years or so to have a very good team. But we’re coming along and I like what I’m seeing. We just have to be patient and we will see this team grow.”
Nigeria reached the semi-finals for the sixth time out of their last seven qualifications by finishing second in Group C after 1-1 draws with Burkina Faso and Zambia were followed by a 2-0 victory over Ethiopia. Keshi insisted they will not be taking Mali for granted. “I know better than anyone that Mali is a good team,” he added. “I have a good relationship with them, but when it comes to my job, it’s either I’m a professional or not. In this case of tomorrow, I’m going to be highly professional.”