The 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations has provided Mali defender Ousmane Berthe with more ups and downs than he cares to think about. Picked in coach Alain Giresse's initial squad of 27, Berthe was devastated when the former French international cut him from the roster when trimming the team down to 23. But injuries to Mohamed Fofana and Kalilou Traore saw Giresse add Berthe and Souleymane Keita back into his plans.
With just a handful of international appearances, Berthe was not expected to be a key figure for The Eagles, and in Mali's opening 1-0 victory against Guinea, the Jomo Cosmos player was an unused substitute. Mali's next Group D opponents were one of the tournament favourites Ghana, and Giresse turned to Berthe to marshal the defence. The Black Stars ran out 2-0 winners, but he obviously did enough to convince Giresse to stick with him for the final group game against Botswana, which the Eagles could not afford to lose if they wanted to remain in the competition.
They achieved their goal of the last eight on Wednesday with a 2-1 victory in the Gabonese capital of Libreville. They had to endure some anxious moments while the match between Guinea and Ghana in Franceville drew to a close, but there was a happy ending for Berthe and his team-mates, as Ghana's 1-1 draw was enough to give Mali second place in the group behind the Black Stars.
It’s been a dramatic change for Berthe, who admits that he was gutted when initially told that he would not be making the trip to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. "I felt bad because it showed me I am a small player, and I told myself it is because I play in Africa, and I do not play for a big team,” he said. “I am one of only a few outfield players who does not play in Europe, and I think that makes it difficult for me."
But as he was getting ready to return to his club, the call came to make his way back to the Les Aigles. Berthe says that he had no hesitation whatsoever in returning to the team. "I am a football player, so when the coach called me, I was glad to be able to show my best for my country,” he said.
A birthday wish
In the round of the last eight, Mali will face the co-hosts Gabon in Libreville on Sunday. It is a challenge that Berthe and his team-mates are looking forward to facing. "It will be a tough game, Gabon are playing at home,” he said. The defender, however, thinks that could also count in his side's favor. "There is a lot of pressure on Gabon because they are at home and they have to win. For us, there is very little pressure. We can play our own game and if we score, then there will be even more pressure on Gabon.”
Berthe will be turning 25 on Sunday and is hoping that his birthday present is a place in the semi-finals of the competition - something Mali last achieved in 2004. The match pits Giresse against the team he managed at the tournament in 2010, when both Gabon and Mali were knocked out in the first round. Berthe is not sure if that will be a major advantage for his side. "National teams change a lot and each coach has a different way of playing, so I am not sure if it will help us that our coach knows the other side."
One thing Berthe can call upon is the experience of players like Seydou Keita, who scored the winner against Botswana and last season made more appearances for Barcelona than any other outfield player. "Seydou is my big brother. When I was small in Mali, I used to watch him play. Now I play alongside him in the national team. It is a great motivation for me, and I am hoping to follow in his footsteps."
Having impressed so far, Berthe is hoping to impress a bigger club with his performances, which ideally will keep him and Mali on the pitch until the final on 12 February. Before that, they will have to get past the ambitious hosts in Sunday's first quarter-final. After that, improving Ghana will test themselves against dark-horses Tunisia in Franceville. Saturday's matches will see Zambia face Sudan in Bata, before the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire try to trample the dreams of co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in Malabo.