One of the break-out players in France’s Ligue 1 this season, Modibo Maiga is hoping his sparkling form with Sochaux will carry over and help lift Mali to a place at next edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations after a slow start to qualifying. Long a side brimming with talent, the Malians have disappointed on the continental stage since reaching the last four in two successive Cup of Nations at the start of the last decade. Those heady days still bring memories and inspiration for the 23-year-old striker, who is determined to create new highlights for the Eagles.

“I still profoundly remember the period,” Maiga, who grew up in one of Bamako’s roughest areas, told “CAN 2002 was a fantastic moment for the whole country, despite the fact we did not win. It was a crazy thing for a country like us to live it from the inside, to reach the top four in Africa. And now it is our turn to make people proud.”

Fleet of foot and able to create or score out of nothing, Maiga has tallied 11 goals in the yellow of Sochaux while missing just a single match this season due to suspension. However, he has yet to fully replicate his league scoring record on the international stage, and Mali suffered a loss of unkind proportions to kick off qualifying when they fell to the quickly improving Cape Verde Islands. But Maiga insists that the side are moving in the right direction and building to become a force to be reckoned with.

“The defeat against Cape Verde affected us a bit, but we never deserved to lose that one,” he said about the 1-0 defeat in Praia. “We have been building a new team over the past months, much younger. Once we are ready, I am convinced we will be able to succeed. Inside ourselves, we have this envy, this motivation, to qualify for the CAN 2012.”

CAN 2002 was a fantastic moment for the whole country. It was a crazy thing for a country like us to live it from the inside, to reach the top four in Africa. And now it is our turn to make people proud.

Modibo Maiga of Mali

Certainly there is still plenty of time for the side now coached by French great Alain Giresse, and featuring the likes of Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra and the currently injured Mohamed Sissoko, to prove themselves. A home match against Zimbabwe on 26 March will mark the halfway point of qualifying, followed by an away trip to Harare. The Blue Sharks, as the Cape Verdeans are known, sit atop the table with four points, with Mali a point behind.

“First we want to qualify. Then we can possibly achieve something in the competition,” said Maiga. “We have a key game versus Zimbabwe coming up, and we can’t lose any more points. We need to win, nothing less. Everyone knows it.”

Going from home to home
After impressing as a teenager with Stade Malien, Maiga’s first big stop on the road to success in football was at one of north Africa’s most heralded clubs: three-time continental champions Raja Casablanca. While admitting that settling in was a struggle, he says he was “ready psychologically, ready to sacrifice,” and that it was in Morocco that his “eyes were opened” to what it means to be a professional.

It was his move to Le Mans in 2007 that really got things going. Maiga had never been to Europe before, and MUC are known for finding and nurturing some of the finest in African talent. “Life [in France] is so different that I really had to adapt myself. But I had to do it,” he said. “I spent three years at Le Mans, and the club and the environment brought me a lot of things, as a person and as a player. They gave me the chance of my life.”

He grew into the club, becoming a key figure in the 2007/08 season and forming a powerful partnership with Côte D’Ivoire international Gervinho. When the side were relegated to Ligue 2, Maiga had become hot enough property in France for Sochaux to swoop and sign him to a four-year deal. He has again found a perfect foil in a fellow young African, in this case Nigeria’s Ideye Brown, who also has ten goals to his name this campaign. Like most of the French clubs, there is no shortage of players from the continent on the books, and that has created a strong chemistry.

“Well, there are not as many Africans here as at Le Mans,” he said with a laugh. “But we are a few like Jacques Faty from Senegal, [Ryad] Boudebouz from Algeria and Ideye from Nigeria. We always joke about our teams and our countries. It is a strong factor in uniting us and making the team alive. It is always enjoyable to find fellow Africans around; we know where we come from.”

Although Maiga played a notable part in Mali’s unsuccessful qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ - they won their opening group but finished four points off Ghana’s pace in the final phase - there are signs he continues to grow into himself as a player. After a single season at Sochaux, he is determined to keep going from strength to strength.

“I have been so happy since I joined the club last summer,” he explained when asked about his good form. “They really were confident in my potential and my skills, and they showed me a lot of respect. It started from there, and I was lucky to meet people with this strong human feeling.”