JOHANNESBURG, January 9 – Mali have a habit of punching above their weight at the Africa Cup of Nations and there is no reason to doubt they could do so again at the 2013 tournament.
The Eagles have been runners-up once, third once and fourth three times in seven appearances — a record many more-established football countries would gladly settle for.
A draw that placed the Malians in Group B with former champions Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger gives the landlocked west African state a good chance of making the quarter-finals.
Mali and Ghana clashed twice at the 2012 Cup of Nations in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea with the Eagles losing a group game 2-0 and winning by the same score in the third-place play-off.
The Malian squad this year appears even stronger with the return of veteran midfielders Mahamadou Diarra from English Premier League outfit Fulham and Mohamed Lamine Sissoko from French Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain.
Sissoko has not worn the national shirt since a first round departure from the 2010 tournament and injury ruled Diarra out of the last edition of the African football showcase.
Mali are particularly strong in the middle of the park with former Barcelona impact player Seydou Keita — now part of a growing band of Africans playing in China — skippering the team.
Keita was another star who became disillusioned with the national set-up, but was persuaded to return and excelled at the last tournament with his skilful footwork.
Samba Diakate from English Premier League basement club QPR is another contender for a midfield place having changed his mind after threatening to remain in London and help his team fight relegation.
Former France star Alain Giresse coached Mali last year, but a contract disageement led to his departure and compatriot Patrice Carteron took over, guiding the team to a couple of easy wins over Botswana in 2013 qualifiers.
The ex-Sunderland defender is wary of his group rivals, saying they all have good coaches and any two of the four Port Elizabeth-based teams could reach the knock-out phase.
“Consistency is the key to success for Mali,” he told reporters in Bamako, with the squad opting to prepare at home, unlike most of the 16 challengers, before flying to South Africa.
“A problem in the past has been that the team play well in one match and badly in the next. I have emphasised to the squad that they must play well in each game if they are going to win trophies.”
Mali have won once and lost once in previous tournaments against Ghana and DR Congo while their January 20 opening-round clash with Niger will be the first between the countries at the competition.