Conflict spurs on Mali
Nigeria, catapulted into the spotlight at the Africa Cup of Nations after beating favourites Ivory Coast, will be seeking their first final in 13 years when they meet Mali in this evening's semifinal at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Coach Stephen Keshi's new-look Nigeria arrived in Durban all characteristic bristle and swagger on Monday evening, and the Super Eagles, following their 2-1 quarterfinal win against the Ivorians, certainly have the look of a team that can go all the way in the Afcon.
Nigeria have not won the continental title since beating Zambia in the 1994 final in Tunis. That golden generation of the 1990s was always going to be hard for their successors to live up to.
Still, the West Africans have remained an Afcon powerhouse, finishing third four times this century - in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
Keshi, the 1990s captain and central-defensive great, took criticism for selecting a squad that had many unknown quantities in it, such as Sunday Mba of Warri Wolves, scorer of the superb effort from long range for Nigeria's second against Ivory Coast.
The Super Eagles were unconvincing in the knockout stages, drawing against Burkina Faso and Zambia before a 2-0 win against Ethiopia. But in the West African derby against the star-studded Elephants, the young Nigerians showed their hunger and Keshi turned out to have a winning hand.
Tonight the Super Eagles will aim to go one better than all their semifinal appearances of the previous decade, and reach their first final since they lost on penalties against Cameroon as co-hosts in Lagos in 2000.
They will have to do it against a Mali side led by young French coach Patrice Carteron and hugely experienced captain Seydou Keita, who have impressed with their ability to suppress opponents in the midfield.
Keshi knows plenty about the quality Mali possess, having coached them from 2008 to 2010.
"We need to realise one thing here - that Mali is a footballing nation," the Nigeria coach said yesterday. "Mali have great talent in that country. I have a lot of respect for the Mali players.
"Whatever Mali is doing now, they should be doing it because they have quality players. And that's why we'll have a lot of regard for them, and get ourselves prepared, because the game might be tougher than against Ivory Coast."
Keshi believes the conflict between Islamist separatists and government and French forces in Mali has given the team motivation.
"I think it's a shame what's going on in Mali. But what is going on in the country is not something we should be part of.
"I know their players are thinking about that and I think that's where they're getting their power from - to give something to people back home."
Keshi has central midfielder Fegor Ogunde back from injury but has a tough choice to drop Lazio's Ogenyi Onazi, who came in and performed well against Ivory Coast in defensive midfield, which also freed up Chelsea's Jon Obi Mikel for a more attacking playmaking role.
Nigeria's dangerous front three of Emmanuel Emenike (three goals in the competition), Victor Moses (two goals) and Brown Ideye, will have taken note of how Bafana Bafana's running game unsettled Mali in the quarterfinals.