Mali playing for Timbuktu fans
Mali coach Patrice Carteron (AP)
Durban - Mali's soccer stars want their success at the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa to travel all the way to Timbuktu.
While South Africa will be boosted by a 50 000-strong sellout crowd in Saturday's quarter-final, opponents Mali have been inspired by fans from as far away as the remote northern parts of their troubled country.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron said this week his team had found motivation for the last-eight game from news that parts of northern Mali had been liberated in the ongoing conflict there and fans in Timbuktu were able to watch a game on television for the first time in a year.
Carteron said his players now want to give more "joy and happiness" to their country after hearing those supporters were able to see them qualify for the quarter-finals with a hard-fought draw against Congo.
Mali are looking for a place in the semi-finals for the second straight tournament. An underachieving Bafana Bafana haven't been to the last four in more than a decade. Both teams have pledged to win on Saturday at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium for their supporters.
"That's why we really wanted to qualify because we wanted to give some joy and happiness to the country," Carteron said. "For example, for the first time in one year the people of Timbuktu could see television and could watch the national team play against Congo. For us, that was so humbling... it's fantastic."
Mali's need appears more pressing than South Africa's with the country again in turmoil while its team plays at - and tries to focus on - the Cup of Nations. At last year's tournament, captain Seydou Keita and his team-mates admirably reached the last four in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea while a coup unfolded back home.
This time, the French-led military intervention in northern Mali has provided players with another stark reminder of the instability in their homeland. But in football terms, it could also provide a telling motivation when they come up against South Africa and a partisan home crowd in the quarters.
"I think they (South Africa) will have a 60-40 advantage going into the game, it's logical," Carteron said. "When you play at home with the atmosphere, the crowd and the whole country behind you, it's normal. But I know we have a chance."
South Africa's recent struggles have been entirely football-based.
The team didn't qualify for the last two Nations Cups and were bogged down by depressing negativity over their buildup to this tournament, when they won few games and scored few goals. A 0-0 draw against debutant Cape Verde in the African Cup opener appeared to confirm fans' worst fears that their team would be embarrassed at home.
Then came a 2-0 win over Angola and a fighting 2-2 draw with Morocco - when South Africa twice came from behind - to lift Bafana Bafana into the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002. The two results also lifted the mood of the nation.
"You know, we think there are things that are meant to be and it's meant to be," South Africa coach Gordon Igesund said. "I think this is all meant to be for us. That we are going to go far in this competition."
On Saturday, Mali's challenge is likely to again be led by playmaker Keita, the former Barcelona midfielder that some of the South African players have recognised as the best in his position in Africa.
Having struggled with a bout of injuries, South Africa are boosted by the return to full fitness of striker Lehlohonolo Majoro, who is available for the quarter-final after missing the Morocco game.
Yet South Africa's biggest positive against a Mali team more experienced and much higher ranked is maybe the ability they have shown to fight back against all the doubters over the past two weeks.
"There is pressure all the time. For us the pressure was there even before the start of the tournament, but it is the kind of pressure that we have been able to handle," midfielder Reneilwe Letsholonyane said. "This team has shown character and we hope the same will happen come Saturday."