Alain Giresse/ Photo: Action Images
In every tournament there’s that one annoyingly plucky side that no one likes – apart from the people from said country – that reach the latter stages. They’re insistent on spoiling the party, don’t particularly play a likeable brand of football and they often have little flair to entertain the neutrals. At the Africa Cup of Nations that team has been Mali. In a tournament of open football, Mali have been cautious, reminiscent of the way the favourites, Ghana and Ivory Coast, have played, but perhaps even more cautious.
The Eagles took an early lead in the opening game against Guinea, only to be content to sit back on the lead for the rest of the game and on the balance of play Guinea deserved at least a point by the end of the game. They lost 2-0 to Ghana in their second game and were widely criticised for their negative approach even after they went a goal down. After being 1-0 down to Botswana they completed a turnaround to win the final group game and seal their qualification into the knockout stages.
Subsequently, then, few fancied them against the co-hosts Gabon in the quarter-finals, yet they exceeded expectations rallying when they were a goal behind and then consummately dispatching all their penalties as they danced their way to the semi-finals to meet Côte d’Ivoire.
Where does this composure in the face of adversity stem from? Much of it comes from coach Alain Giresse – a terrific, dynamic midfielder in his playing days, part of the legendary, magical diamond of France in the 1980s – who has assembled a young team (the third youngest squad at the tournament) with no stars, bar Seydou Keita, but which possesses the much-admired grit, that the Frenchman himself showed as a player, when the going gets tough.