Since 2004, Mali have struggled to regain the form that had previously seen them one of Africa’s most feared opponents. Former French international Alain Giresse, appointed as coach in May 2010 with the remit of rebuilding a young side, has been busy preparing Les Aigles for the upcoming 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, which will be followed by an even greater challenge, the qualification campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.

With two months to go before Gabon-Equatorial Guinea 2012 opens its doors for business, Mali appear to be heading in the right direction, but Giresse is well aware that there is always room for improvement. “As far as the mental side of things is concerned, there’s been some real progress. We’re now set up in the right way, with a mindset befitting a national team,” confirmed the coach to

“On that point, our last friendly against Burkina Faso encouraged me greatly. The players stood up to be counted. We’ve got a good group here that works well together,” continued Stephen Keshi’s successor, brought in after Mali’s disappointing 2010 Africa Cup of Nations displays. “We had to create a good group dynamic again, as well as boost players’ morale,” stated Giresse, part of the French side that were triumphant at UEFA EURO 1984.

Eliminated at the group stage of the 2008 edition of the continental event for the first time in their history, the Eagles failed to improve on that performance two years later in Angola. Despite boasting several high-profile names, they proved incapable of justifying the lofty status they had acquired in the early 2000s, disappointing their expectant fans in the process.

For Giresse, it is now time to rebuild. "Without meaning any disrespect to the players, I have had to put together a competitive side and we don’t have any stars in the national team any more, apart from Seydou Keita,” he explained.

“Mahamadou Diarra doesn’t have a club at the moment, Fred Kanoute has retired from international football, and Momo Sissoko doesn’t want to be considered for selection at the moment. The time of big-name players is finished – I can’t count on that aspect any more. That’s why I’m focusing on rebuilding and improving the overall set-up,” added the former Gabon coach. 

Keita’s key role
“A lot of the current guys weren’t there in 2010. This is a new, young and exciting generation of players. Time will tell what we’re capable of,” said midfielder Bakaye Traore, happy that he can count on the experience and support of Seydou Keita, back in the national fold again.

“It’s reassuring. He plays at Barcelona, and because of that he’s a natural leader. He gives us lots of good advice that stems from playing with the best club in the world, such as encouraging us to release the ball more quickly and to always try to push forward. If you listen to those kinds of pointers, football instantly becomes simpler,” continued Traore.

The versatile Barça midfield man could prove a crucial factor in Mali’s quest to make a real impact at the Africa Cup of Nations. While Giresse has refused to set any goals other than to “do as well as possible, without harbouring any regrets or failing to live up to our potential,” Traore does not hesitate to make his ambitions clear.

“Our pool won’t be easy, but reaching the semi-finals is a realistic aim. This is my second Cup of Nations, so I know what to expect now. We’re a young team but we’ve got character. We react well in matches when we’re under pressure. We’ve got a group of quality players who play all over Europe, but our main strength is our mental outlook. We just have to realise that. Mali really shouldn’t be getting knocked out in the first round. The semi-finals would be great, but we first need to get past the group stage,” said the Nancy player.

A problematic pool
Mali certainly have their work cut out for them on paper, with Ghana, Botswana and Guinea lying in wait in their section. “We still need to assert ourselves and believe in ourselves a bit more. A great team is one that pulls together as a unit when things are going badly. That’s something that we still have difficulty with, because we haven’t got enough points of reference,” said Giresse, a two-time FIFA World Cup semi-finalist with France (at Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986). 

Heartened by his charges’ commitment to the national cause and to his approach, something he views as essential foundations for building a team, Giresse is hopeful that they will be capable of “responding to the different challenges that each match brings” in January.

After the tournament has drawn to a close, Giresse’s thoughts will turn towards the start of qualifying matches for Brazil 2014. Placed in Group H alongside Algeria, Benin and Rwanda, the Malians will fancy their chances of advancing to the final round.

“The draw didn’t turn out too badly for us; we could have got a stronger top seed in our group. But only one team moves on, so there’s really no margin for error,” pointed out the ex-Bordeaux star, who will likely be hoping that Mali can go into those matches fresh from a successful venture in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.