Although Mali are currently ranked third in Africa ahead of this January’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, the Les Aigles’ players have vowed that they will take nothing for granted in the finals. Nice midfielder Mahamane Traore told FIFA.com that they will not go into their Group B games against Ghana, Niger and DR Congo underestimating their opponents. "We all know Ghana is a very strong team. They defeated us last year, then we beat them for the third place. Both teams now know each other very well. It is up to us to try to beat them during the first leg, in order to end the group phase in first position.
"As for Niger and DR Congo, some people tell me it will be easy for us. It would be a mistake to think so. You should always avoid being too self-confident. If those teams qualified, it means they are good!"
The 24-year-old, who started his career with Cercle Olympique de Bamako in the Mali capital before joining Nice as a 17-year-old in 2005, disappointingly had to withdraw from the Mali squad at the Nations Cup, which were co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea earlier this year. An injury prevented him from being a part of the team that finished third. "It was unfortunate, but the team did very well. Finishing third is a very good result. We could have done even better. During the semi-finals against Côte d'Ivoire, we lost because of a very avoidable goal."
Alain Giresse was in charge of The Eagles as they posted their best result in four decades, but the former French international has since been replaced by compatriot and former Sunderland defender and Dijon FC coach Patrice Carteron. Traore is confident that the change will not have a negative effect on the team. "Only a few things have changed. The AFCON was ten months ago, so most of the players are the same. As far as the coaches are concerned, these are different persons. Each of them has its own method, and the players have to adapt. They follow different systems. With Patrice Carteron, we played our latest game in 4-4-2, although Alain Giresse preferred a 4-2-3-1 with Seydou Keita as a playmaker."
Traore is confident that midfielder Keita, who has missed much of the season through injury since moving to China from Barcelona, will still play an important role in the side. "I am not too worried about Seydou Keita. You know, he did not play a lot with Barcelona last year, which did not prevent him from preparing well and playing a very good tournament. He can do the same this time around."
Goalscoring defensive midfielder
Since Claude Puel took over the coaching reins at Nice, Traore has been converted into a defensive midfielder. "When I came back from my loan with Metz, new coach Claude Puel started to use me as a defensive midfielder. At first I thought it was just to help him out. Then, I understood he wanted to use me in this position. He explained to me he wanted to see me in the heart of the game, to exploit my vision of the game. I did not ask myself any questions. I thought ‘why not, Claude Puel must have thought about it’.
Since then, he has taken to his new role like a fish to water, scoring a late equaliser against Bordeaux in September and the opening goal in a 2-1 win against Nancy at the beginning of November. "Scoring goals proves I am starting to take pleasure, I like the fact that I am getting a lot of the ball, and it does not prevent me from being in front of the goal and scoring.”
But then adaptability has been a strong suit for Traore and he has been used in different positions for Mali. "With the national team, I am used to playing on the left wing. I can also play on the right wing, or as a second striker a bit behind Cheick Diabate, like [in the recent AFCON qualifier] against Botswana. Now I have shown I can also play as a defensive midfielder. So it's obviously an advantage for me."
Traore now hopes that the national team can use their appearance in South Africa to bring some joy to his troubled country, where many people have died in unrest this year. "I spend a lot of time on the web, keeping a constant eye at Malian sites. I am very worried for my country and wondering when this turmoil will end. Mali used to be a quiet and peaceful country. We all hope we will soon find this old Mali back because we are all Malians. During the AFCON, we will do our best to bring peace and unity to our country. We all pray that this tense and worrisome situation comes to an end."