Already up and running with three points in the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Mali owed much of their opening win against Niger to Seydou Keita. With the scores still level after 84 minutes in Port Elizabeth, it was the 33-year-old midfielder who pounced on a mistake by goalkeeper Daouda Kassali to fire his side in front. His goal lifted the Eagles to the top of Group B and served as another reminder why Keita is a hero in his homeland.
A worthy successor to his gifted uncle Salif, Keita enjoys star billing in Mali. Player of the tournament at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 1999, he can pride himself on having clinched 17 trophies in his professional career, more than any other footballer in Mali's history. The majority of those honours came during his time at Barcelona, when the former Marseille, Lorient, Lens and Sevilla player claimed two UEFA Champions League titles (2009 and 2011), three Liga crowns (2009, 2010 and 2011) and a pair of FIFA Club World Cup wins (2009 and 2011).
Success on the international stage has so far proved elusive, but Keita feels his side have reason to aim high in South Africa. "We're ready for this Cup of Nations," he warned, sharing his optimism with FIFA.com as well as his determination to help Mali record a historic triumph.
FIFA.com: What is the mood in the Mali camp at the start of this Africa Cup of Nations?
Seydou Keita: We're ready. It's an important competition in many ways for Mali and we don't want to mess it up. We need to work our socks off and make sure that Mali can be proud of its children.
Mali finished third in the last edition. Do you have the potential to do even better this year?
The team has grown up. We've got more experience and more confidence too thanks to the last Cup of Nations. Of course, there's been a change of coach as well, with Alain Giresse, who did a lot for us, having left. Patrick [Carteron] is in charge now and he's already taught us a lot. We also have some new players who are making their own contribution. One thing is sure, though: we're not worse than we were in 2012. We believe we can win the title and we want to do better than we did last year. If we have any chance of going all the way, there's no doubt that we'll seize it.
You are Mali's most experienced player and spent four years at one of the biggest clubs in the world, Barcelona, between 2008 and 2012. How do you cope with the expectation that comes with your high profile?
I've felt it for a long time now. When you have a status like that, there's a pressure that comes with the privileges. You just have to accept it, but I cope with it very well and it makes me proud to think that my country can count on me. The expectation creates a positive pressure on me.
Your former coach Pep Guardiola was often known to sing your praises. What did that mean to you?
I thank him a lot for that – and I promise you that I didn't pay him to say any of it (laughs). He must have his reasons. I've always tried to do my job to the best of my ability, to be 100 per cent all the time, give everything I've got and be professional. That's why I am where I am today. I don't take my job lightly – football is my livelihood.
What are your thoughts now on your time in Catalonia?
I had four magnificent years. From memory, I won seven titles, including the Champions League, Club World Cup and the Liga. Those were the most important years to me as a player, and even more so as a man. It was while I was in Spain that I raised my children and became a man, a father. For me, my four years in Barcelona – and I'd add my year with Sevilla to that – were the most important and best years of my life.
Is the pressure you feel in a Mali shirt different to the pressure you felt wearing the shirt of a club like Barcelona?
It's not the same. Life at a club is day to day. If you lose, you can make up for it three days later, whereas you only play from time to time with your national team. The margin of error is much smaller as a result, and the pressure is therefore greater. It's even more intense when you're playing in an international tournament that only takes place every two years.
You are currently playing in China PR for Dalian Aerbin. How is that going?
Very well. We finished fifth in the league despite a bad start. We finished the season in very strong shape: we were the best team in the second half of the campaign. That proves that there's quality in the side. In personal terms, I'm happy here. I've scored goals and made assists. I feel that I've helped the team win matches, so I'm happy.
What is the standard of play in China PR?
When you leave Barcelona to go and play in China, you obviously don't expect to find the same level of play – that goes without saying. As a matter of fact, when you leave a club like that, it's impossible to find a higher quality of play anywhere.
Mali have always had very good individual players but have yet to win a title. What is still missing as you look to become one of Africa's major powers?
Continuity. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of rotation on the playing side, either because of injuries or other problems. In addition, we have had a succession of different coaches, one after the other. You need a minimum of stability for things to work. Changes are always a handicap for a team. Continuity is key.
Are you targeting a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™?
Of course. When you're a footballer, you always want to take part in a competition like that. I was lucky enough to play in one at U-20 level in 1999 and I'd like to experience that again before the end of my career – both for myself and for Mali. I can't even imagine the joy it would bring to our people if we were fortunate enough to qualify. We have a chance of going through and we'll do everything to get there.
We believe we can win the title and we want to do better than we did last year. If we have any chance of going all the way, there's no doubt that we'll seize it.