In a year’s time, very few people will remember who finished third in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, but that shouldn’t overshadow the importance of the bronze medal Mali picked up on Saturday night. ANT SIMS was at Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, and couldn’t help but be heart-warmed.
Third place playoffs are usually the ignored stepchild of tournaments. They serve as a curtain-raiser to the final of whatever tournament is taking place, yet few people care for them or even know of their existence. Even the match-tickets are brutal in their assessment: “Loser of match X vs. loser of match Z”, they usually read. Not “potential bronze medalist” or “feisty fighters who just weren’t good enough on the day” – just “losers”.
It’s perhaps little wonder, then, that Ghana looked so utterly disinterested in their third-place play-off against Mali in Port Elizabeth on Saturday night. The Black Stars looked like they had a million other places to be rather than on the pitch, with heavy downpour and lightning illuminating the night sky all around.
You can’t really blame them. The third-place playoff is insignificant in the greater scheme of the tournament, and perhaps Ghana had expected to cruise into the final of the continental showpiece instead of being ousted by rookies Burkina Faso.
The stadium wasn’t packed to the rafters, either, and while there were small groups of both local and Ghanian supporters, they were hardly making enough noise to drown out Mother Nature’s roar. The tiny groups of fans which had gathered, though, made sure that their presence was felt; and despite the heavy rain, they were chanting, dancing and cheering on their teams.
It’s a quaint aspect of African football, this fan spirit, and it’s one which is used to sell the game in Africa to foreigners. The colours, the sound, the dancing, the chanting and the organised chaos; the glory of rags-to-riches stories and the feel-good factors of Africa.
At the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium on Saturday night, I spotted a man over six feet tall and draped in Mali colours from head to toe, draped in a Mali flag to boot. Cautiously curious and uncomfortably aware of my five-foot frame, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would mind if I spoke to him for a few minutes before the second half kicked off.
His name was Imbrahim Ba.
“Like Demba Ba?” I asked.
“Yes, but he’s from Senegal,” came the reply.
He’d travelled to watch the Mali team since the start of the tournament; he’s sacrificed his time and a sizable chunk of money to do it, but for him, to see his side in action was enough to make him sacrifice a seat at the national stadium to watch the final. He’d rather watch his team play.
“With everything that’s going on in the country, the people need this,” he said softly.
He’s just one of many fans, but his view is a glimpse into what makes football in Africa special. The rest of the travelling contingent had already left for home by the time Mali got knocked out of the semi-final, but Ba had stuck around to see it out until the end.
By the time Mali had put their third goal past Ghana, a couple more Malian fans had gathered on the arch in front of the mid-field seats, chanting “Allez Mali”.
Seydou Keita and his charges were exemplary throughout the tournament. After qualifying for the quarter-finals, Keita and his team donated a portion of their bonuses to the government’s military campaign against the rebels in the country.
“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,” Keita said after a gritty 1-1 draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Durban.
“Giving hope to the country has been priceless,” added 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.”
For Mali, a country ravaged by war and viewed as dark horses since the tournament started, a bronze medal is more than just a pat on the shoulder. It’s more than just a bit of feel-good African cliché and more than just a marketing fairy-tale for future use. It’s a very real reminder of the human ability to overcome adversity.
And while one shouldn’t constantly trumpet the feel-good factor, and while the financial reward for finishing as the best loser might be a pittance, the little things sometimes go a long way. DM
Photo: A Mali soccer fan watches her team play against Nigeria during their African Cup of Nations (AFCON 2013) Semi-Final soccer match at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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