BAMAKO, Mali, February 6 – Cries of disappointment erupted in Bamako on Wednesday as Nigeria thrashed Mali, dashing hopes of a football win to lighten the mood of a nation entangled in a bitter war against religious extremists.
“Ah, poor Mali!” moaned supporters glued to small television screens in a Bamako marketplace, as the embattled west African nation fell out of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations with a 4-1 loss to Nigeria.
“A semi-final victory could have distracted us a little bit from this war,” said an agitated Diakari Dia, 21, railing against “players who don’t play and just fall all over the place and a French coach who doesn’t know what to do.”
Many in the dim alleys of the market switched channels at half-time to watch an American movie, when Nigeria’s Super Eagles led 3-0.
In an animated riverside suburb the owner of a small bistro said many supporters got up and left as it became clear Mali could not come back from its drubbing.
“After the first goal, it was morose. After the second, one felt that Mali could still catch up. With the third goal, half of my clients got up and left. By the fourth, only the most faithful remained,” said Ibrahim Tounkara, 52.
A slogan painted on the front of the cafe reads: “One Mali united, forever.”
Tounkara said it was painted at the end of 2012, as radical Islamists kept firm control over the vast north of the country seized in early April, imposing their brutal form of Islamic law on the population.
Not long after, France came to Mali’s aid, and is leading a 27-day-old war against extremists who divided the country both geographically and ethnically. Reprisal attacks have targeted ethnic Tuareg and Arabs seen as supporters of the occupiers.
“But war has nothing to do with football,” Tounkara said, while recognising the massive disappointment of a country where “football has become a religion.”
At the marketplace, law student Mohamed Diarra had only praise for well-known captain Seydou Keita, a former player for FC Barcelona who currently plays in China, despite his failure to score a goal.
“We adore him, he is a fighter, he always fights for his country.”
Artist Boubacar Guitteye, 53, said he does not like to mix football and politics but “quite simply, people would have been so happy if we won, especially in the parts of the north that were occupied”.
“We are used to disappointing matches. It hurts but it will pass.”
In the small northern town of Douentza, which was the southernmost town held by the Islamists for much of the 10-month occupation until being freed by French troops, all activity ground to a halt during the match.
There is no electricity but small droning generators spluttered to life just before the match, as supporters gathered around televisions.
“We wanted two victories, one for the Nations Cup and one for the reconquest of the north. And for the Nations Cup, really we have lost our morale, frankly we were wiped out,” said Harouna Dolo, 43.