Youthful hopes for Mali at Nations Cup

By Martin VoglBBC Sport, Bamako
Mali fans present Seydou Keita (fourth from right) with a Malian flag to take to the African Cup of Nations finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon

Mali intend to banish the demons of their last two Africa Cup of Nations displays by investing in a youthful team at this month's finals.

The Eagles failed to exit the group in both 2008 and 2010, a major failure after having reached the semi-finals in their four previous Nations Cups.

"We have to chase away the fear of the past," Moussa Konate, vice-president of Mali's Football Federation (FMF), says.

"It's true that things like this can weigh on people's minds."

Mali will take on Guinea, debutants Botswana and Ghana, one of the tournament favourites, in Group D.

Under the leadership of French coach Alain Giresse, many of Mali's selection will be taking part in their first ever Nations Cup.

At the same time, some of Mali's older stars, such as Frédéric Kanouté (Sevilla) and Momo Sissoko (Paris Saint-Germain), have said they no longer wish to play for the national team.

"We're missing some big players but in their place we have some youngsters - and youth equals enthusiasm," Konate told BBC Sport.

Fans have recognised that this year's team is not the strongest on paper and the mood surrounding the Eagles' chances in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon is subdued.

Cheickna Demba, vice-president of the Eagles Supporters Club, is hoping the team can turn this to their benefit.

"Here in Mali, we often say the team we all believe in never wins and it's our average teams which manage the best results," he says with an air of optimism.

Mali's youngsters will be led by the very experienced Seydou Keita of Barcelona, who has won three league titles and two Uefa Champions Leagues at the Spanish club.

Alain Giresse
Legendary France international Alain Giresse took charge of Mali in 2010

Nonetheless, the midfielder failed to play for the national team for nearly two years before returning to the team in October.

"Seydou's had so much experience and as far as I'm concerned, he's the one who made sure we qualified for these finals," Demba says.

The Malian Football Federation announced its Nations Cup squad on Wednesday, just before the team left for the Togolese capital Lome where they are holding their training camp.

Denmark-based Kalilou Mohamed Traore made the squad after being declared fit at the last minute but Auxerre's Amadou Sidibe was dropped from the provisional 27-man squad due to injury.

Coach Alain Giresse, a Frenchman who won the European Championship in 1984, is hoping that the team's stay in Lome will provide the right environment to prepare for this year's finals.

"We choose Togo mostly to be somewhere where the climate is similar to Gabon," Giresse said prior to leaving.

"And then we wanted to be outside Mali so we could have a bit of peace and quiet to get down to work."

Mali is planning on playing some friendlies against local teams in Togo before leaving for Gabon on 20 January.

Their first match is against Guinea in Franceville on 24 January, prior to meeting Ghana in the same city before moving to Libreville for their final clash against Botswana on 01 February.