Keita and co donate Afcon bonuses to Mali's war effort
"The country is in the process of recapturing the north, and people are starting to lift their heads. This qualification will also give a lot of joy to our country," Seydou Keita said after a gritty 1-1 draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Durban.
He confirmed that his teammates and he had chosen to accept smaller bonuses than agreed before the tournament in order to help the war effort.
"Giving hope to the country has been priceless," said Keita. "There is a crisis in Mali, and I did my best to give hope to those who are suffering. We have made an effort to help, but money doesn't matter. You can't imagine what it means to play for Mali at this time. I told my government they could reduce our bonuses. My priority is to play for my country.
Keita predicts that Bafana Bafana's home support will put them on a par with his side in Saturday's Afcon quarterfinal. But he warned that the South African crowd's expectations might also prove a burden.
"Bafana are a good team," said the former Barcelona star, who now earns a vast salary playing in China with Dalian Aerbin. "As the hosts they will have a lot more pressure on them, but they will also have the public behind them. That will give them ambition, and help them to play above themselves. But we're relaxed, and we don't fear them. We have a good chance of beating Bafana if we play as well as we did tonight. It's 50/50."
Keita (33) was a commanding figure at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Monday night. His composure, discipline and anticipation were influential as the Eagles held out against the dynamic but increasingly frustrated Congolese. Dieumerci Mbokani gave Claude Leroy's charges an early lead from the penalty spot but Mahamadou Samassa equalised soon afterward. The draw earned Mali second place in group B behind Ghana, who clobbered Niger 3-0 in Port Elizabeth.
The Eagles are no strangers to the business end of the Africa Cup of Nations: they finished fourth in last year's edition, and have fallen at the semifinals four times in all. Winning a continental title would give Keita a near-complete collection of trophies. "I've won everything in club football. But you can't imagine how proud I am to be here with my country."
Mali's French coach Patrice Carteron said his side were only beginning to find their stride.
"It was not so easy at first," he said. "We were physically unprepared in our first game because many players were not active for their clubs. This game was psychologically very difficult, because we knew at half-time that a draw was enough to put us through," said Carteron.
"I also can't understand why so many yellow cards were given against us. We don't just play a physical game, but today maybe that was necessary. As for South Africa – the pressure will be on them. We will take pleasure in it. The stadium will be full, and we will enjoy it."