Currently ranked the third-best team in Africa and number 25 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Mali narrowly qualified for the quarter-finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations courtesy of a 1-1 draw in their final Group B game against Congo DR. For Patrice Carteron, who is one of the youngest coaches at the tournament, advancing to the knock-out phase to face hosts South Africa on Saturday represents a huge success, as the Frenchman tells FIFA.com.
Having been appointed as head coach of Mali in July of last year, Carteron is leading his first national team, and the AFCON finals is the first major tournament during which he has been in charge. Irrespective of whether the Eagles win or lose Saturday's quarter-final against Bafana Bafana, Carteron can already lay claim to a successful tournament and now just one match stands between the team and the semi-final spot they achieved in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea last year. "Because I am still a young coach, the game against Congo was the most important game to date in my career. But then the next one on Saturday will replace that and become my most important one,” he said.
Carteron's side had the worst possible start against the Congolese as Lomana LuaLua hit the post for the Leopards after just 37 seconds, and Dieumerci Mbokani scored from the penalty spot some two minutes later. From then on, Mali knew they had an uphill road if they wanted to secure the point they needed to guarantee a place in the next round. But Mamadou Samassa equalised in the 15th minute, and the Eagles then showed grit and experience in holding on to the vital point. "I was very happy, because the Congo have a very good side and a very experienced coach [Claude Le Roy]," the 41-year-old said.
Carteron, who played as a defender for a number of clubs in France and had a short spell in the Premier League with Sunderland before starting his coaching career at Cannes, said that Mali’s success in the tournament was very important for the troubled country. "We wanted to give some pleasure to the people of Mali, but that meant there was a lot of pressure on us,” he said about the west Africa country that has seen a civil war and recent military intervention by former colonisers France and others.
He admitted that the game against the Congo DR had not been a very attractive one. "But sometimes you have to play like that. It was a very physical game, but the important thing was the result. That was the main priority and to achieve the result we needed, we had to play a certain way, and I think the fact that we went through to the quarter-finals justifies the way we played."
Fighting to bring joy home
The coach said that having been under pressure against the Congo DR, the team would now be able to play against Bafana Bafana without the expectations that hampered their performances in earlier matches. "South Africa will be the team that everybody sees in the semi-finals, and so all the pressure will be on them. The stadium will be filled with people expecting Bafana to win, and we could put more pressure on them if things do not go according to their plans."
Asked whether he was concerned that Mali would not only be playing against the 11 on the pitch and the 57,000 people in the stadium, but also against 50-million desperate South Africans, Carteron said that the side would not be thinking about that. "Instead, we will be thinking about the 15-million Malians who will be watching the game. I know the news from the north of the country has been better, but they are still suffering. The whole team has spoken about what is going on in Mali, and the players are determined to give them more joy and good news. For that, the 90 minutes against South Africa will be very important. We will give it our best to be good opponents for Bafana Bafana."
The coach added that he was not concerned that the side was already playing their fourth important game in less than two weeks. "We will be at our best. We need to regain our strength, but then we will be fine. I just hope that Bafana Bafana fans don't stand outside our hotel the whole night before the game and blow their vuvuzelas," he said with a smile.